Neil L. Rudenstine, Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Neil L. Rudenstine is a retired English literature professor specializing in Renaissance literature, a former President of Harvard University, and a Rhodes Scholar. Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is exactly what the title says it is—a close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Rudenstine is neither the first nor the last to engage in a detailed examination and reading of the Sonnets; he is preceded most notably by Stephen Booth, in An Essay On Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969), Booth’s facing page edition with a modern spelling and a Quarto version side by side, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Edited with an Analytic Commentary (Yale UP, second edition 1977) and Rudenstine’s Harvard colleague Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 1997), as well as numerous scholarly editions like Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden, 1997).

What differentiates Rudentstine on the Sonnets from other editors and scholars is, first, his emphasis on reading Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series, a cycle, in a particular order. Secondly, that he takes his initial thesis from an essay published in 1961 by Richard Blackmur (“A Poetics of Infatuation” collected in in Outsider in the Heart of Things. University of Illinois Press, 1989) on the innate order of the Sonnets as printed, or as Blakmur puts it: “the sequence we have seems sensible with respect to [the poems’] sentiments, and almost a “desirable” sequence with respect to the notion of development (6). Rudenstine in Ideas of Order embarks on an effort to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a sequence, in context.

He is successful, I think, in providing a sensitive and coherent reading of the Sonnets “in order.” That order, for Rudentstine, is the numbered sequence of the sonnets as presented in their first complete printing, the probably-unapproved-by-Shakespeare “pirate” printing in 1609. Unfortunately, Rudenstine, who states he is writing for the ordinary reader rather than the academic, never specifically states that the order is derived from the numbered sequence in the 1609 edition, the order most editions follow, a point that must be confusing to some readers, but must have seemed patently obvious to a scholar and academic.

In Ideas of Order Rudenstine begins with an introduction that offers an overview of the Sonnets in terms of a thematic, even a narrative, progression. Successive chapters discuss individual sonnets and as parts of smaller sequences. Rudenstine presents his reading of the Sonnets in the first 157 pages, then follows that with a lightly edited edition of the sonnets using conventional Modern English spelling and punctuation, absent any further glosses or annotations. He includes a short bibliography as a guide to those interested in reading more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Rudenstine’s reading focuses on the argument of the Sonnets, the constant waning and waxing and fluctuations of relationships between the poetic speaker and his young male friend in the first 126 sonnets, and later, with the poet’s mistress. The first 126 sonnets from the poet to his friend are followed by 25 more in which the poet addresses his mistress (sonnets 127–54), also discussed and closely commented on by Rudenstine.


Rudenstine observes that the relationship between the poet narrator and his friend, is a matter of love, and that “This love is utterly transformative for the poet, and he remains firmly devoted to it, regardless of the friend’s (as well as his own) unfaithulness” (8). Rundenstine perceptively also draws attention to a different relationship between the poet narrator and the friend; that of the friend’s “chosen or favored writer,” a phrase Rudenstine prefers to the more conventional “patron” because while “Important elements of patronage exist, but the poet’s frequent critiques of his friend, and the intimate nature of the love, take us well beyond anything conventional” (10).

Rudenstine’s reading and thematic tracing of the relationship’s recursive and digressive patterns through the Sonnets is followed by a short conclusion, in which Rudenstine discusses the changing rhetorical selves, or “roles” that the poet presents in the Sonnets. Rudenstine also uses his conclusion to examine larger thematic concerns of the Sonnets, in terms of thematic patterns, of opposition and balance, and finally, of transformation.

This is neither the best nor the worst introduction to the Sonnets, but it is very much worth the time to read it, then progress to reading the unadorned Sonnets themselves; I expect that you will find yourself, as I did, returning to the earlier sections to re-read Rudenstine’s commentary.

In November 2015, next month, Farrar Strauss and Giroux will be bringing out a paperback edition of Neil L. Rudentstine’s Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for those interested in perusing the book for themselves.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

About the author

She plays o’ the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.