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Music, Mystique, and Shakespeare's Sonnets

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journal contribution
posted on 2019-10-09, 04:11 authored by John BigelowJohn Bigelow
This is an English version of a paper that has been published in the Russian journal, Ideas and Ideals (2019, pp. 11-30).

Shakespeares Sonnets (1609) contains several rhyming patterns that were regarded at the time as ‘anomalies’. In a list of ‘Rules’ for poetry published in 1585, the very first prohibition laid down by King James VI of Scotland was that a syllable should never be rhymed with itself. In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England. And yet, in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the very first of King James’s prohibitions is broken ̶ rarely, but repeatedly.

If Shakespeare’s successive sonnets are aligned with the successive notes in musical scales for the canonical series of the Renaissance ‘modes’, then the locations of Shakespeare’s rhyme-anomalies coincide reliably with the locations of the notes that are significantly discordant with the tonic according to a musical theory that was published in 1619 by the astronomer Johannes Kepler.

Kepler’s master-work The Harmony of the World (1619) was dedicated to King James I of England. This work opens with a Dedication to King James, in which King James’s celebrated political successes were credited to his understanding of the ‘celestial harmonies’. It is argued here that Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence constitutes a ‘microcosm’ that formally echoes Kepler’s theory of the ‘macrocosm’ and ‘the harmony of the spheres’. If Shakespeare could somehow have brought the formal patterning in this ‘microcosm’ to the attention of potential patrons in the Jacobean Court, then he could reasonably have hoped that this might curry favour with those among them who shared ‘Platonic’ interests like those of Kepler.


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