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HEREDITARY THEMES IN SHAKESPEARE'S POETRY ERNESTB. HOOK* Historical references to views on human heredity during the Renaissance are sparse. Indeed, this area is difficult to investigate systematically . A few comments appear in Vogel and Motulsky [1, p. 10] and Stubbe [2], but the only extensive review touching on genetic knowledge in the Renaissance deals primarily with animal breeding [3]. (There is, however, a summary specifically of beliefs concerning the origin of human malformations [4].) On the other hand, the literary works of the Renaissance provide a readily accessible, if rather sporadic, source of contemporary views ofhuman heredity. And one ofthe most interesting of such sources is the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare, of course, wrote not to enlighten those who read his poetry or saw his plays but to entertain. Yet, he incidentally expressed penetrating views on all aspects of contemporary life and knowledge, and he is widely recognized as one of the most perceptive observers of the human condition. A good deal of his work expresses, often in a moving and effective way, views on the transmission of the human phenotype across generations. Indeed explicit mention of the "naturenurture " distinction first appeared, to my knowledge, in The Tempest, probably Shakespeare's last play. Prospero refers to the malicious Caliban , whom he has unsuccessfully tried to civilize, "on whose nature nurture can never stick" (The Tempest, act 4, sc. 1, lines 188-189; all Shakespeare citations are from the Riverside Shakespeare). Elsewhere, I have presented numerous examples of Shakespeare's views on heredity that may be inferred from the Henry VI-Richard III play sequence [5]. Here I review such themes as expressed in his poems. Anyone who knows Shakespeare's work only through his poetry would, despite this limited perspective, recognize a strong awareness of hereditary themes. A clear recognition of the genetic transmission of the *The author is affiliated with the School of Public Health, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720.© 1988 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 003 1-5982/88/3 103-0590$0 1 .00 Perspectives in Biology and Mediane, 31, 3 ¦ Spring 1988 | 429 human phenotype is found not only in his early sonnets but in two longer poems, Venus and AdonL· and The Rape ofLucrèce. What is particularly striking is the consistency of hereditary imagery in these poems, which is expressed most forcefully in the first 17 of the sonnets. Almost certainly these were addressed to a fair young man on whom Shakespeare doted, although some critics have suggested instead that they were commissioned by the youth's parents or prompted by the urging of others [6—8]. In various ways the poet implores the unknown youth to have children so that his beautiful image may be perpetuated. Indeed, the first line of the first sonnet expresses this view: From fairest creatures we desire increase. . . . [Sonnet 1] And so: Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest, Now is the time that face should form another. . . . [Sonnet 3] Rather, it is the ugly and misshapen who should not breed: Let those whom nature hath not made for store [stock], Harsh, featureless, and rude, barrenly perish: She carv'd thee for her seal, and meant thereby, Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die. [Sonnet 11] The youth has almost a moral obligation to have progeny, for if not, The world will by thy widow and still weep, That thou no form of thee hast left behind, [Sonnet 9] And, moreover, he should do it quickly: Then let not winter's ragged hand deface In thee thy summer ere thou be distill'd. . . . [Sonnet 6] One wonders whether Shakespeare is suggesting here an effect of age on transmission of phenotype, that is, that the children will be less fair if born to an older father whose features are wrinkled by time. This is at best speculative. To my knowledge, nothing elsewhere suggests such a view, although certainly in later poems Shakespeare expands on the ravages of time on beauty, as in Sonnets 60 and 6 1 . 430 I Ernest B. Hook ¦ Shakespeare's Poetry Shakespeare certainly has no doubts that the youth's offspring must all...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 429-436
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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