Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Doubt thou the stars are fire - in honor of Sense & Sensibility

Tomorrow marks the start of daily(ish) posts about Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. During the course of the novel, Austen makes a number of unattributed allusions to the works of Shakespeare, including what some see as references or parallels to King Lear and Measure for Measure. She also makes one explicit reference to Shakespeare in Volume I, chapter 16, in the form of a comment made by Mrs. Dashwood, the mother of the two main characters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood:

. . . but one evening, Mrs. Dashwood, accidentally taking up a volume of Shakespeare, exclaimed,-

"We have never finished Hamlet, Marianne; our dear Willoughby went away before we could get through it. We will put it by, that when he comes again-; but it may be months, perhaps, before that happens."
First off, how much do I love the humor in Mrs. Dashwood "accidentally" picking up Shakespeare, the way one might accidentally pick up a cold, or thoughtlessly pick up a bit of detritus? Dear Jane, you are too funny.

If you already know the story of Sense and Sensibility, then you might wish to draw parallels between the relationship Ophelia has with Hamlet and that which Marianne has with Willoughby. In which case, I like thinking they perhaps left off somewhere in the vicinity of this poem, which so suits Willoughby in being open to multiple interpretations.

In the play, the following poem is read aloud by Polonius, but attributed to Hamlet, who sent it to Ophelia as a token of his love - before she rejected him at her father's urging and then acted as a puppet on behalf of Claudius and Polonius in order to explore whether he was truly mad or not.

Doubt thou the stars are fire
by William Shakespeare

Doubt thou, the stars are fire,
Doubt, that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.

Form: A single stanza in iambic trimeter (three iambs per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM - although the first two lines could arguably begin with trochees: DUMta taDUM taDUM), which is cross-rhymed, meaning that the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and forth. Or at least, in Shakespeare's time, "move" and "love" rhymed (with both of them sounding more like the word "clove" at that time).

Discussion: Shakespeare has crafted a lovely little poem here - it is short, but packs a wallop, conveying a sincerity and depth of feeling quickly, so as to move the scene along.

Hamlet tells Ophelia what she may question: she may question scientific things that involved a component of belief (at least at that time): whether the stars are fire, whether the sun moves. (The question as to whether the sun moved around the earth or vice-versa was not a clearly resolved issue in Shakespeare's time; although there was evidence that the solar system was, in fact, heliocentric, that reasoning had not yet been determined incontrovertible. Then again, perhaps he meant whether the sun moved at all, even if he did believe in a heliocentric system.) She may "doubt truth to be a liar" - that is, she may question the existence of truth itself, or suspect that what is told to her as truth is false. But the last line says that she should not doubt that he loves - or does it? Because, of course, the word "doubt" could also be used in Shakespeare's time to mean something like "suspect" - and that is a horse of an entirely different color, if the final line is to be read to mean "but never suspect me of loving [you]."

If Shakespeare was indeed using "doubt" to mean "suspect", he could be telling Ophelia to be willing to consider that the stars ARE fire, that the sun DOES move, that truth can be used to lie . . . and that Hamlet can never love.

Oh the wonderful ambiguity of these lines, which leave us guessing. I would argue, based on Hamlet's sincere grief and remorse over Ophelia's later death and his assertions that he loved her (including a competition with Laertes in which Hamlet asserts that he loved Ophelia far more than her brother ever did) that this poem was intended by Hamlet to be sincere, but that Polonius's reading was done in a way to insinuate that it was not - allowing for the audience to wonder, when Hamlet wigs out on Ophelia just after his "To be or not to be" soliloquy, whether he'd been toying with her all along.

Dear Mr. Shakespeare: You are one brilliant dude. Dear Miss Austen: You are indeed a clever, intelligent lady to have invoked this sort of association.

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