Summary of Sweet are the Uses of Adversity by Shakespeare


About the poet:

William Shakespeare is best known as the greatest dramatist of all time. However, he is also considered the first national poet of England, who brought his country much prestige at a time when nations such as France and Italy had led the rise of the European Renaissance. He is remembered as the ‘Bard of Avon’, for his place of residence was Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare was baptized on 26th April 1564. From roughly 1594 onward he was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – an eminent company of theatrical players. After the crowning of King James I, in 1603, this company changed its name to the King’s Men. The King’s Men company was very popular, and records show that Shakespeare’s works were published and sold as popular literature. Over the course of 20 years, Shakespeare wrote plays that capture the complete range of human emotion and conflict.

In the 16th century, many of the nobility were good patrons of the performing arts and friends of the actors. Early in his career, Shakespeare was able to attract the attention of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom he also dedicated his first – and second – published poems: “Venus and Adonis” (in 1593) and “The Rape of Lucrece” (in 1594).

Tradition has it that Shakespeare died on his birthday, 23rd April 1616, though many scholars believe that this is a myth. However, church records show he was interred at Trinity Church on 25th April 1616.

About Sweet are the Uses of Adversity:

The lines that make up the poem “Sweet are the Uses of Adversity” are taken from William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It. These lines occur in the first scene of the second act (that is, Act 2, Scene i) of the above-mentioned play. The speaker of these lines is Duke Senior.

In order to understand the lines in this poem, you need to know a little about the plot of As You Like It. As You Like It is a play with two main plots: there is the conflict between Orlando and his older brother Oliver, and there is the usurpation of the ducal throne by Duke Frederick from his brother Duke Senior. It is the second event that concerns us.

Duke Senior has been banished from the duchy and now lives in the Forest of Arden with several other nobles, living off the land and killing the local animals for food.

At the end of the play, it is said that Duke Frederick met a holy man and converted to a religious life. In the process, Duke Frederick returned the duchy to his brother Duke Senior and abdicated his position.

The lines in this poem are said by Duke Senior immediately after his arrival at the Forest of Arden.

The Setting of Sweet are the Uses of Adversity:

This poem is set in the Forest of Arden. The exact location of the Forest of Arden is disputed. If it had any true physical existence, it may have referred to either the Ardennes, a forested region covering an area located in southeast Belgium, western Luxembourg and north eastern France, or to Arden, Warwickshire, near Shakespeare’s home town, which was the ancestral origin of his mother’s family–who incidentally were called the Ardens.

It can also be argued that the pastoral mode of the play depicts the Forest of Arden as a fantastical world in which geographical details are irrelevant. The Arden edition of Shakespeare makes the suggestion that the name ‘Arden’ comes from a combination of the classical region of Arcadia and the Biblical garden of Eden since there is a strong interplay of classical and Christian belief systems and philosophies within the play.

Within the play, the Forest of Arden serves as a representation of country life, as opposed to court life. It is also a site of conversions in the character of men.

Summary of Sweet are the Uses of Adversity:

The poem consists of 6 lines in total. Since these lines are not divided into stanzas, here they are divided into meaningful segments for the purposes of this summary. This division will help in making the poem easier to follow and understand. This poem is written in the first person, and the speaker of the poem is Duke Senior.

Lines 1 – 3:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

In these lines, Duke Senior says something unusual. Generally, we view the word ‘adversity’ in a negative sense. However, Duke Senior brings out the positive side of adversity. He says that when we face adversities in life, then they can be put to good use. In fact, he compares adversity with a toad that bears a jewel on its head. Toads are usually slimy and disgusting creatures, and they can even release poison from their skin. However, certain feng shui statues of toads are seen to depict a shiny gem on the top of their heads. That is, even such a disgusting creature can be pleasant to look at, and as with those feng shui statues, can bring good luck. In the same way, adversity is said to be an unpleasant eventuality for a man to face in life, but it can also turn out to be pleasant. Like the gem on the head of the toad can be worth a lot of wealth, adversity can also teach us a valuable lesson in life.

Lines 4 – 6:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

In these lines, Duke Senior stops speaking in a general sense and starts speaking about his particular situation. He says that he has been released from the place that people frequent, that is, the court. Where previously he had heard the conversation of human beings in court, he now hears the rustling of the leaves of trees. Where he had previously consulted books for knowledge, he now calms his mind by listening to the flow of the water in the brooks of the forest. In the stones of the forest, he finds as much advice as an as he would in a sermon. Every aspect of the forest, in fact, provides him with something good to look forward to.

 

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