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Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by: William Shakespeare

Motifs

Art vs. Time

Shakespeare, like many sonneteers, portrays time as an enemy of love. Time destroys love because time causes beauty to fade, people to age, and life to end. One common convention of sonnets in general is to flatter either a beloved or a patron by promising immortality through verse. As long as readers read the poem, the object of the poem’s love will remain alive. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15, the speaker talks of being “in war with time” (13): time causes the young man’s beauty to fade, but the speaker’s verse shall entomb the young man and keep him beautiful. The speaker begins by pleading with time in another sonnet, yet he ends by taunting time, confidently asserting that his verse will counteract time’s ravages. From our contemporary vantage point, the speaker was correct, and art has beaten time: the young man remains young since we continue to read of his youth in Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Through art, nature and beauty overcome time. Several sonnets use the seasons to symbolize the passage of time and to show that everything in nature—from plants to people—is mortal. But nature creates beauty, which poets capture and render immortal in their verse. Sonnet 106 portrays the speaker reading poems from the past and recognizing his beloved’s beauty portrayed therein. The speaker then suggests that these earlier poets were prophesizing the future beauty of the young man by describing the beauty of their contemporaries. In other words, past poets described the beautiful people of their day and, like Shakespeare’s speaker, perhaps urged these beautiful people to procreate and so on, through the poetic ages, until the birth of the young man portrayed in Shakespeare’s sonnets. In this way—that is, as beautiful people of one generation produce more beautiful people in the subsequent generation and as all this beauty is written about by poets—nature, art, and beauty triumph over time.

Stopping the March Toward Death

Growing older and dying are inescapable aspects of the human condition, but Shakespeare’s sonnets give suggestions for halting the progress toward death. Shakespeare’s speaker spends a lot of time trying to convince the young man to cheat death by having children. In Sonnets 117, the speaker argues that the young man is too beautiful to die without leaving behind his replica, and the idea that the young man has a duty to procreate becomes the dominant motif of the first several sonnets. In Sonnet 3, the speaker continues his urgent prodding and concludes, “Die single and thine image dies with thee” (14). The speaker’s words aren’t just the flirtatious ramblings of a smitten man: Elizabethan England was rife with disease, and early death was common. Producing children guaranteed the continuation of the species. Therefore, falling in love has a social benefit, a benefit indirectly stressed by Shakespeare’s sonnets. We might die, but our children—and the human race—shall live on.

The Significance of Sight

Shakespeare used images of eyes throughout the sonnets to emphasize other themes and motifs, including children as an antidote to death, art’s struggle to overcome time, and the painfulness of love. For instance, in several poems, the speaker urges the young man to admire himself in the mirror. Noticing and admiring his own beauty, the speaker argues, will encourage the young man to father a child. Other sonnets link writing and painting with sight: in Sonnet 24, the speaker’s eye becomes a pen or paintbrush that captures the young man’s beauty and imprints it on the blank page of the speaker’s heart. But our loving eyes can also distort our sight, causing us to misperceive reality. In the sonnets addressed to the dark lady, the speaker criticizes his eyes for causing him to fall in love with a beautiful but duplicitous woman. Ultimately, Shakespeare uses eyes to act as a warning: while our eyes allow us to perceive beauty, they sometimes get so captivated by beauty that they cause us to misjudge character and other attributes not visible to the naked eye.

Readers’ eyes are as significant in the sonnets as the speaker’s eyes. Shakespeare encourages his readers to see by providing vivid visual descriptions. One sonnet compares the young man’s beauty to the glory of the rising sun, while another uses the image of clouds obscuring the sun as a metaphor for the young man’s faithlessness and still another contrasts the beauty of a rose with one rotten spot to warn the young man to cease his sinning ways. Other poems describe bare trees to symbolize aging. The sonnets devoted to the dark lady emphasize her coloring, noting in particular her black eyes and hair, and Sonnet 130 describes her by noting all the colors she does not possess. Stressing the visual helps Shakespeare to heighten our experience of the poems by giving us the precise tools with which to imagine the metaphors, similes, and descriptions contained therein.