home contact

Petrarch's Influence on Shakespeare

From Petrarch and his influence on English literature by Pietro Borghesi. Bologna: N. Zanichelli.

Shakespeare, even the great Shakespeare, could not escape the influence of the Petrarchists and therefore of Petrarch himself, but, as we do not want to be misunderstood, we say at once just what we said about Spenser: Shakespeare is not a Petrarchist and perhaps his poetical vein is more akin to Dante's than to Petrarch's.

In order to show that he is not a Petrarchist it is enough to compare his sonnets with those of Watson, Barnes, Fletcher, Daniel, Drayton and other contemporaries: their superiority is seen at once with the certainty that they do not come from the same source of inspiration. Besides, Shakespeare did not follow all the rules which Petrarch constantly applied, although perhaps he may have read, if not all, at least some of Petrarch's sonnets. We say so because we are of the opinion of those who think that Shakespeare knew Italian, if not to perfection, doubtless in such a degree as to be able to discern the drift of an Italian poem or novel. Were it otherwise it would be very difficult to explain how he could found not less than fourteen of his dramas on Italian fiction.

But of course it is not of his dramas we are going to speak, although the lyrical element peculiar to his time is to be seen in all his plays: it is of his sonnets that we wish to say something.

Certainly there is some relation between his sonnets and Petrarch's. The dominant idea of his 21st sonnet is taken from the 3rd sonnet in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella, and we have seen that Sidney was Petrarchist. The thought developed in his 23rd sonnet, namely the inability of love to express itself in words occurs over and over again in Provencal poets, and is found in Petrarch's 41st sonnet, which, as we have seen, was translated also by Wyatt. There is also some connection between his 26th sonnet and that of Petrarch beginning "Amor, che nel pensier mio vive e regna."

We could say that the sonnet urging a friend to marry and the other which expresses a complaint about the robbery of a mistress are probably fictions in the Italian style.

In fact at first Shakespeare was very fond of the Italian sonnet although afterwards he ridiculed it. He adhered to the simple form introduced by Surrey and we have seen that he studied Watson's sonnets which came chiefly from Petrarch. Again, as Petrarch wrote about his own feelings for the lady he loved, so perhaps Shakespeare derived the subject-matter of his sonnets from his personal relations with the men and women at court. Therefore, as the inward life of Petrarch is mostly given by his sonnets to Laura, so Shakespeare's sonnets bear to his biography a relation wholly different from that borne by the rest of his literary works.

It appears to us that it is impossible to deny the influence of Petrarch and the Petrarchists on Shakespeare. The Elizabethan love-poets made use of the Platonic idealism of the Petrarchan school, and Shakespeare adopted its phraseology in his sonnets where we find much which is common to the other sonneteers of the day: his expressions are conventional, his thoughts are usually more condensed than anywhere else and obscure conceits are more numerous than in all his other works. In a word his language is so figurative that it becomes difficult to understand and it is even quite unintelligible here and there.

But is there any real emotion in Shakespeare's sonnets? Before answering this question we think it useful to mention that only just at that time did the sonnet begin to emancipate itself from the tendency to sing the praises of woman as a perfect being according to the poet's ideal, and from the tendency to joining to his earthly love some vague ideas of spiritual love. It is therefore easy to see that the sonnet was limited to a particular subject, and if to that we add that the spirit of the chivalry of the Middle Ages was decaying, we can easily guess that the language to use in this kind of composition could only be cold, mechanical and conventional. Consider the great difference which exists between the enthusiasm of Petrarch for Laura and that of Fletcher for Licia and also perhaps that of Surrey for the Fair Geraldine and the truthfulness of our statement will be at once admitted.

As every artist is, to a certain extent, the product of his own time, so Shakespeare could not escape this universal law, therefore his critics are divided into two parties. Thomas Tyler, Courthope and many others say that his sonnets are sincere; several others, among whom we find Lee, do not agree with this opinion. Karl Elze and E. Stengel say that perhaps Shakespeare wrote his sonnets to exercise his fancy and to amuse his friends, which leads us to the opinion that his sentiment was fictitious. But, to express our modest opinion, we think that as Dante and Petrarch could not have written so well if their feelings had not been genuine, so Shakespeare could not have presented mankind with his beautiful sonnets had he not really felt what he wrote, and we really think that his passion was born of the heart and not of the head.

But by whom were these sonnets inspired? To whom were they addressed? They were first published in 1609 and dedicated to a person whose name began with the initials W. H., which, for about seventy years afterwards, were believed to stand for a woman's name. Critics have now changed their opinion and they are inclined to think they were addressed to a male friend, and this is not improbable when we consider the Platonism of the time. But then, why did not Shakespeare write the name in full? The fact of using initials only might cause even the least carping mind to think of a woman rather than of a man. However that may be, the fact remains that the woman of Shakespeare's sonnets is not like Laura, nor is she like any lady of the Petrarchists. She is not a perfect beauty, or a beauty womanly perfect, but she has the power of fascinating the poet almost in spite of himself. It may be that Shakespeare never sympathized with any Laura, and, as he wrote his sonnets at different periods of his life, perhaps they were, as we have already suggested, inspired by several persons, both male and female, although they were dedicated only to one.

If Shakespeare had no Laura, or, at least, if he did not know how to love his lady and sing of her after the manner of the Petrarchists, he also did not know the somewhat complex system of rhyme adopted by Petrarch in his sonnets and by nearly all the best English sonneteers. Only rarely does a single sonnet form an independent poem, and, as in the sonnets of of Sidney, Spenser and Drayton, the same thought is pursued continuously through two or more.

It is needless to say that Shakespeare's lyrics do not form his principal glory, but they outshine all those of other authors. It has been said that the sonnet writers of the Shakespearean age have left little really memorable work, nevertheless that little, in our opinion, cannot be neglected by a conscientious student of English literature.

How to cite this article:
Borghesi, Pietro. Petrarch and his influence on English literature. Bologna: N. Zanichelli, 1906. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2010. < >.

Shakespeare's Treatment of Love

"The Shakesperean norm of love, thus understood, may be described somewhat as follows. Love is a passion, kindling heart, brain, and senses alike in natural and happy proportions; ardent but not sensual, tender but not sentimental, pure but not ascetic, moral but not puritanic, joyous but not frivolous, mirthful and witty but not cynical. His lovers look forward to marriage as a matter of course, and they neither anticipate its rights nor turn their affections elsewhere. They commonly love at first sight and once for all. Love-relations which do not contemplate marriage occur rarely and in subordination to other dramatic purposes." C.H. Herford. Read on...


More to Explore

 Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets
 Shakespearean Sonnet Style
 How to Analyze a Shakespearean Sonnet
 The Rules of Shakespearean Sonnets
 The Contents of the Sonnets in Brief

 Shakespeare's Sonnets: Q & A
 Theories Regarding the Sonnets
 Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Autobiographical?
 Theme Organization in the Sonnets

 Shakespeare's Greatest Love Poem
 Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton
 The Order of the Sonnets
 The Date of the Sonnets

 Who was Mr. W. H.?
 Are all the Sonnets addressed to two Persons?
 Who was The Rival Poet?