‘On Shakespeare. 1630’ by John Milton is a sixteen line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. Due to the rhyming nature of the lines and the composition of the text itself, the piece may be considered a sonnet. Additionally, a reader should consider the subject matter when trying to categorize this piece. The speaker focuses on eulogizing the life and work of William Shakespeare, thereby making this piece an epitaph. This type of poem is often short and witty, they generally focus on the death of a specific person. Milton was seeking to honor Shakespeare the man, but more importantly his literary contributions.
As mentioned above, this piece is a sixteen line poem contained within one stanza. The lines are divided into heroic couplets. This means that they rhyme in pairs from the beginning to the end of the poem. Milton chose to further structure this piece in iambic pentameter, a very popular metrical pattern that also happened to be the favorite of Shakespeare.
‘On Shakespeare. 1630’ was penned in 1630 for the preface of the second folio of Shakespeare’s complete works. This makes it an “occasional lyric” as it was written to commemorate a specific event. Generally, this type of poetry is connected to performance and patronage. Circumstance found poets writing for their patrons whenever the need arose. The content of this piece is relatively straight forward, especially when considered alongside some of Milton’s more complex verse. This was certainly intentional as it was meant to be read by a wider, more commercial audience.
Summary of On Shakespeare. 1630
The poem begins with the speaker asking why Shakespeare would ever have a need for his bones to be entombed in a pyramid-like structure. His legacy extends far beyond the physical. Milton is hoping to draw attention to the fact that physical structures and physical emblems of appreciation are not enough to remember Shakespeare by.
As the poem continues he eventually reaches the conclusion that the only true tomb worthy of Shakespeare exists within his readers. Those who have read and viewed his work make within themselves a thumb that will last for the rest of time.
Analysis of On Shakespeare. 1630
What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-y pointing pyramid?
In the first stanza of ‘On Shakespeare. 1630’, the speaker begins by asking the reader a question. It takes up the first four lines, or quatrain, of text. He asks whoever may be listening to what Shakespeare, now that he is dead, needs with his “honoured bones.” It is important to note in the first line that Milton refers to Shakespeare as “my Shakespeare.” He feels a connection to the writer that he believes will be shared by those who eventually read the text, perhaps in tandem with the Second Folio.
From the start it is clearMilton has a high opinion of Shakespeare. He is dead, but even his bones are honorable. Milton knows though that Shakespeare was above such things. His presence and his nature, which borders on the divine, do not call for vast memorials and shrines to his memory.
In the following lines, Milton expands on the meaning of the first line. He wants to make sure the reader understands that erecting monuments to Shakespeare’s name should be a questionable enterprise. He believes that there was, and is, no reason to hide his “hallowed relics” under a structure— such as a “stary- pointing pyramid.” Milton does not believe Shakespeare would want his earthly remains treated in such a way. His true monument is the work he left behind, in comparison to that his bones, (although hallowed to the speaker) are meaningless.
Dear son of Memory, great heir of fame,
What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?
Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a live-long monument.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on to refer to Shakespeare as the “Dear son of Memory.” The leftovers from his vastly important existence are nothing but the offspring of true memory. They are the “heir” to his “fame,” not the fame and genius itself.
Milton poses another question to his readers and to Shakespeare himself. He asks what “need’st thou” with “such weak witness of thy name?” As stated previously he does not see the purpose in creating something physical for, or preserving the physical remnants of, someone as important as Shakespeare. Any “witness” of this kind would be “weak” in comparison to his overall legacy.
For whilst to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring art,
Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart
Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book
Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,
In the next quatrain, the speaker refers to the other poets who strive to create work as powerful as Shakespeare’s. They are the creators of “slow-endeavouring art.” This speaks to the nature of their poetry, (it is slow, uninspiring) and to the fact that it doesn’t quite reach the level of art (or at least when compared to Shakespeare). In contrast to these poor writers who are nowhere near Shakespeare’s level, Milton brags on Shakespeare’s ability to make his words or “numbers flow” easily. They come to him without struggle, or at least so it seems to Milton.
Next Milton turns to the audience who has engaged so profoundly with Shakespeare’s poetry and drama. They take from the “leaves of thy unvalued book,” someone akin to the poetry of the gods. He references Shakespeare’s “Delphic lines,” an allusion to the Greek God of poetry, Apollo.
Then thou, our fancy of itself bereaving,
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;
And so sepúlchred in such pomp dost lie,
That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.
In the final four lines, the speaker reveals what kind of tomb Shakespeare does have. It is the only one that is truly befitting for someone of his importance. His works, and his memory, have come to live within his readers and all those who saw his plays performed. As “we” grieve for his loss, “our” bodies turn into the marble sepulcher in which Shakespeare now rests.
Anyone, including a king, would envy this kind of resting place. It will never decay or die as it is passed on from reader to reader for the rest of conceivable human history.