Are you a Petrarchan lover? Do you drip, swoon and melt at the sight of your lady who kills you with a look?

A Petrarchan lover is melodramatic, self-consciously suffering and has given himself up to the power of his mistress. At the start of Romeo and Juliet, this is the character type that Shakespeare is making fun of when Romeo is drooping all over the stage for the great love of his life… Rosaline.

Rosaline who?

So who is Petrarch?  Francisco Petrarch (1304-1374) was a hero to English poets in the period when Shakespeare lived. 366 of Petrarch’s poems were collected into a book named Il Canzoniere (Song Book) which was translated into English later by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard.

Bad translations and imitations of Petrarch were everywhere – like the billion and one Gangnam Style copies that erupted all over Youtube. Shakespeare makes fun of Petrarchan ideals where he has Romeo drip over the stage for a woman we never even meet. At the start of the play, Romeo is a parody of the typical suffering Petrarchan lover – and bad imitators of his poetry. At this point, Romeo’s poetry is awful – over the top, insincere, even ludicrous.

Typical Petrarchan Attitudes:
  • the woman is a ‘lady’, ‘mistress’, ‘goddess’. In the fantasy world of the poem, she is powerful and in control. This is an interesting reversal of the actual conditions in this time period where men were in charge and women were property of either their fathers or husbands.
  • to love is to suffer – to the extreme. This passion consumes. Words like ‘woe’ and ‘despair’ abound.
  • courting is dramatised as a chase: the man pursues, the woman flees.

Petrarch’s Sonnets

The sonnets below are translations by Thomas Wyatt, and are not always faithful to the original. I have included Wyatt’s translations and not a modern, more accurate one, as it is likely that Wyatt’s versions were the ones that Shakespeare knew.

Check out the antithesis in this:

Warfare I Cannot Wage

WARFARE I cannot wage, yet know not peace;
I fear, I hope, I burn, I freeze again;
Mount to the skies, then bow to earth my face;
Grasp the whole world, yet nothing can obtain.
Pris’ner of one who deigns not to detain,
I am not made his own, nor giv’n release.
Love slays me not, nor yet will he unchain;
Nor life allot, nor stop my harm’s increase.

Sightless I see my fair; though mute, I mourn;
I scorn existence, yet I court its stay;
Detest myself, and for another burn;
By grief I’m nurtured; and, though tearful, gay;
Death I despise, and life alike I hate:
Such, lady, do you make my wretched state!

compare this to Romeo’s speech in Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet:

Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!(175)
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.(180)
Dost thou not laugh?

“Whoso list to hunt,” is Wyatt’s version (much altered) of Petrarch’s Rime 190, “Una can dida cerva.” 

Whoso list* to hunt: I know where is an hind.   *if you want
But as for me, alas, I may no more:
The vain travail* hath wearied me so sore,       *pointless toil
I am of them that farthest cometh* behind.        *comes last
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth* afore        *runs away
Fainting I follow. I leave off* therefore,         *decided to stop
Sithens* in a net I seek to hold the wind.        *since
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I may spend his time in vain,
And graven* with diamonds in letters plain      *engraved
There is written her fair neck round about:
‘Noli me tangere*, for Caesar’s I am,         *do not take hold of me
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”

Here’s some interesting gossip. Wyatt had been a friend (or lover) of Anne Boleyn, who later married Henry VIII. Wyatt was forced into exile because of this. Henry VIII later put Wyatt on trial for treason for having slept with the queen, who was also tried, and later killed – for multiple adulteries with others. It seemed miraculous that Wyatt escaped with his life.
So the ‘hind’ (female deer) that belongs to Caesar could symbolise Anne Boleyn, now belonging to the king, whom Wyatt pursues in vain for she is out of bounds.

Compare Wyatt’s poem above to the hunting imagery in Shakespare’s Sonnet 129, The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame…

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;