Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Neil L. Rudenstine. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 256 pages. $26.00.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Christian Gauss Award

By David Partenheimer

Are Shakespeare’s sonnets individual poems, thematic clustered groups, or an ordered sequence of ideas? Neil Rudenstine takes the less popular view among Shakespearean scholars that the sonnets are “ideas of order,” specifically a coherent narrative of Shakespeare’s personal life and intellectual development. Whether or not one accepts his premise of an inner order to the sonnets, his orderly analysis of the sonnets is worth the price of the book. 

Rudenstine’s main argument is that the sonnets “gain in meaning” when they are read in context. His close reading of the well-known Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) serves as his point of departure for a holistic reading of all the sonnets. On its own, Sonnet 18 makes for a fine greeting card on Valentine’s Day, an anniversary, or any other occasion for expressing love because the language is sufficiently general to include most any application. However, Sonnet 18 allows the poet to show off his poetic skills in order to impress a male friend for his patronage. From this perspective, the poem is less about love than about flattery for self-advantage. A sentimental reader may not like this cynical possibility, but one may have it both ways and lose nothing in the bargain. 

Rudenstine divides Shakespeare’s progression of ideas into chapters focusing upon clusters with a shared dominant theme, for example “tender churl,” “master-mistress,” “ruined love,” and “past cure.” Even a single chapter serves the reader to better understand a small cluster of the sonnets. In other words, one does not have to read the entire book in order to profit from it. Moreover, Rudenstine makes the sonnets accessible for a first time reader yet interesting for a scholar. In his close readings, Rudenstine lets the sonnets speak for themselves rather than stifling them with faddish theory and jargon. He uses straightforward language, literary terms, and conventional syntax. His explications read like chapters in a novel about the complications of a friendship over time. Rudenstine serves as a third-person (partially-omniscient) narrator while the sonnets become the dramatic monologues of Shakespeare speaking his part. Ideas of Order is a brilliant mixture of prose and poetry.

Rudenstine maintains a serious and respectful tone in his narrative of the poet and young man and the vicissitudes of their relationship. After only a few pages, I came to accept the narrative and characterizations as true of the characters in the sonnets if not of Shakespeare as a person. Though the sonnets begin with adolescent love and friendship and develop into jealousy and betrayal like a melodramatic love story, over time the poet becomes thoughtful and introspective. He becomes a mature man who realizes the effects of time upon the body, friendship, and love. Not even poetry can entirely protect the friend against time. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence suggests a tragic view that after all the trials and tribulations of love, it is hardly worth it. After reading Ideas of Order, I understand much better how Shakespeare was capable of representing such realistic and complex characters in his plays – he mainly had to look inside himself.

David Partenheimer (ΦBK, University of Utah, 1971) is a professor of English at Truman State University and a resident member of the Delta of Missouri chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.