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Analysis of Love vis-à-vis Life in Shakespeare’s sonnets

From Petrarch to Shakespeare the Elizabethan sonnet form has been a mirror reflecting deep-seated emotions — passion, desire even melancholy associated with Love’s various moods and mannerisms. In the hands of the master craftsman Shakespeare, this poetic form acquired another facet adding to its charm: the dimension of mystery, the attraction of who the beloved addressee of the sonnets may be. The arrangement of the sonnets, the mysterious summons of W. H, the beneficiary of a segment of sonnets known as the dark lady all incorporate a sense of mystery about Shakespeare’s affections and emotional relationships.

The sonnets appear to extend from 1593 or 1594 until within a few years of their actual publication in 1609. His cycle is quite unlike the other sonnet sequences of his day, notably in its idealization of a young man (rather than a sonnet lady) as the object of praise, love, and devotion and in its portrait of a dark, sensuous, and sexually promiscuous mistress (rather than the usual chaste and aloof blond beauty). Nor are the moods confined to what the Renaissance thought were those of the despairing Petrarchan lover: they include delight, pride, melancholy, shame, disgust, and fear.

Shakespeare’s sequence suggests a story, although the details are vague, and there is even doubt whether the sonnets as published are in the correct order. One hundred and one sonnets were dedicated to a young man. These have diversity of themes, such as the beauty of the loved one; destruction of beauty; competition with a Rival Poet; despair about the absence of a loved one; and reaction toward the young man’s coldness(Introduction to Shakespeare Sonnets).

In this essay, an attempt to analyze the theme of Love vis-a-vis the changeability and transience of Life would be undertaken, especially in relation to three particular sonnets: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ”, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” and “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”. Shakespeare’s predominance of the permanence of Love overcoming all odds of Time and Nature’s course of mutation and decay is a unique thread of sonnet weaving in the Elizabethan times though popular among the Metaphysical Poets.

Sonnet number 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ” is perhaps one of the most well-known of Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets. When singled out, it has a conventional strategy of eulogizing the beloved with choice phrases and the eloquence of the poetry resounds with many of the other sonnets, but the theme of endowing immortality through creative powers of the poet, the lengthening of the short course of human life through the glowing words of the poet’s imagination makes this sonnet significant among others.

As in the other two poems: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” and “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”, the poem advances through the curious technique of dispraise of things around the object of Love rather than a direct and abundant glorification of the beloved. The summer’s day is found to be wanting in many ways (fleeting, uncomfortably warm, excessively violent at times and at other times, besmirched with dimmed sunshine), but intriguingly one continues to have an unshakable notion that ‘the lovely boy’ is akin to a summer’s day in its superlative form, beautiful, balmy, pleasant, one of the “darling buds of May”.

The trend of dispraise is emphasized in the next sonnet “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” (Sonnet 130)where the poet is struck by the non-beauteous features of his adored darling yet the very ordinary aspects of the features he illumines seems to stress the power of his unchanging Love for the beloved. This sonnet is somewhat contrary to the descriptive verse employed in the earlier sonnet: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? ” where, even the dispraise is expressed in such a way as to suggest the grace and beauty of the person at the fulcrum of the poet’s desire.

In Sonnet 130 however the poet lets go of his reservations about downplaying the weakness of the beloved’s features. From her lips, which are not crimson as envisioned typically by poets in love to the eyes which fail to dazzle like the rays of the Sun, and embrowned breasts (as opposed to the snow-white complexion characteristically penned by sonneteers) and black wiry hair, it appears as if the poet is criticizing rather than extolling the virtues and physical attraction of the lady in question.

The poet puts his Love rather than his beloved on the pedestal of tribute, atypical of Shakespeare’s contemporary sonnet-writers. The dark lady is endowed with human fallacies and failings but the poet’s Love is unchangeable, perfect and celestial compared to the non-goddess image of the lady. In the earlier sonnet the transience of the summer season and the fickle nature of the warm day elapsed suddenly by dimness is glanced at, in this sonnet the physical imperfections of the lady is highlighted but in both, the theme of the poet’s Love as a permanent and perfect fixture in the cosmos of Timelessness is emphasized.

Shakespeare is consumed by the push-pull relationship with the dark lady: he goes through alternate bouts of attraction and repulsion resulting in detailed exposure of the physical ordinariness yet extolling the “rare” love the poet feels for her which surmounts the barriers of Time and mutation. More than the earlier sonnet, in these verses Shakespeare completely subverts the Elizabethan conventions with an elan which only a master poet like him could possibly do.

As in the introduction, the sonnet tantalizes the senses of the readers even more because of the mysterious nature of the praise/dispraise of the beloved as also the unknown nature of the dark lady in question. The poet is not disparaging the attributes of the lady, rather he is disinclined to incorporate any false comparisons for a person he loves with rare diligence and sincerity. In fact, this sonnet reveals “almost a fanaticism for truth, truth basically different from Petrarch” (Rollins130).

Turmann notes that by witty juggling of words and meanings, one can make a certain color opposite and Shakespeare interprets black as beautiful and lifts the woman of his love into realms of poetic elegance and transfiguration ( Rollins 130). The third sonnet in this series is Sonnet 2: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow” which addresses Shakespeare young patron acknowledged simply as W. H. and entreats the handsome man to marry and procreate to survive eternally, his beauty still warm and fresh in the features of his next generation. The quest for immortality in some form or the

other, the sense of Time not being able to distort the fine essence of being is an essential elemental link among the three sonnets in this series. As in the other two sonnets highlighted in this paper, Shakespeare seems engrossed in the transience of Life, Beauty and Youth. In the old age of the youth (forty being almost the threshold to old age as in Shakespeare’s times, the life period was usually short) the youth would lose his handsome physical attributes which make him so attractive in the present. The poet envisages the he would still keep his beauty immortalized in the form of his child.

The trend of praise and dispraise continues in this sonnet as the poet says: How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use, If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’ Proving his beauty by succession thine! ( Shakespeare 10) The commonplaces about old age is set aside with a deluge of military metaphors as in the deep trenches mentioned in the poem, as well as beauty’s field as if a battlefield is referred to where the ravages of Time have taken a toll on the mortal body of the beloved Youth.

“The imagery of ageing used is that of siege warfare, forty winters being the besieging army, which digs trenches in the fields before the threatened city. The trenches correspond to the furrows and lines which will mark the young man’s forehead as he ages. ” (Shakespeare Sonnets ) Once again, the concept of thriftless praise is explicated in this sonnet. A misplaced sense of self- praise is much worse than outright criticism as in the Sonnet 130. The animal vigor in the term “lusty days” and the word “treasure” has sexual denotations. Compare the other sonnet instances: …………………

treasure thou some place With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d. as in Sonnet 6 Will fulfil the treasure of thy love, in Sonnet136 (Shakespeare Sonnets ) The conventional images of Death being a cold realm and old age as seen to be approaching Death is equally grim yet the blood coursing through the veins of the child is warm signifying the continuity of Life though the physical body might wear off in the ravages in Time. The concept of mutability of the physical self of human beings is contrasted time and again with the permanence and immortality of Love – sometimes,

eternalized through the lines of verse, at other times through a rare appreciation of human frailties and yet again, through procreation and continuity of Being. Shakespeare’s sonnets often communicate great incongruities between physical attraction and grim reality, between kindling of hope and despondency. The arrangement of verse-form was a unique blend of rigorous regulation and poetic ingenuity. Shakespeare however had the depth of self- exploration and delved into the labyrinth of his soul and reveal himself through the lines of his verse.

Biographically scholars have tried to classify and categorize the man through snippets of historical evidence but it has been almost impossible to map the master’s mind and interpret his writings without multiple variations, diversions and possibilities. Analyzing the sonnet series, many scholars opine that the sonnets form a unified arrangement yet it is difficult to understand the poet’s original intention. In the course of his plays and other commercial pursuits, the sonnets seem likely to have been a poet’s diversion and he may have composed them at random as inspiration motivated him.

This effort to bring a sense of order in the turmoil of existence is simply the reader’s speculation and imagination. The openness and depth of emotions suggest that the sonnets portray personal upheavals and sentiments mirroring events or relationships in his own life, exposing his own inmost soul, providing tempting glimpses of the Elizabethan craftsman in his most personal and vulnerable moments. Shakespeare’s sonnets cannot be classified as the best of his creative production but they provide access to the real man which his other productions do not .

Getting an appreciation of these tender verses can help the modern scholar grow and develop a expansive understanding of Shakespeare the artist and craftsman providing a conduit to his prime plays, where he investigates the other, often darker, aspects of human existence. Works Cited A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets. Ed. Rollins Hyder Edward. Wisconsin: George Banta Publishing, 1944. Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Cecilia Liu. 2001. < http://www. eng. fju. edu. tw/English_Literature/medieval/>

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