GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: Shakespeare's Sonnets Study Guide

Shakespeare's Sonnets Themes

by William Shakespeare

Major Themes

The Ravages of Time

Shakespeare's sonnets open with an earnest plea from the narrator to the fair lord, begging him to find a woman to bear his child so that his beauty might be preserved for posterity. In sonnet 2, the poet writes, "When forty winters shall beseige thy brow / And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field ... 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!" The poet is lamenting the ravages of time and its detrimental effects on the fair lord's beauty, seeking to combat the inevitable by pushing the fair lord to bequeath his exquisiteness unto a child. By sonnet 18 the poet appears to have abandoned this solution in favor of another: his verse. "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this and this gives life to thee." But the ravages of time return to haunt the narrator: in sonnet 90, the poet characterizes time as a dimension of suffering, urging the fair lord to break with him "if ever, now"; "Give not a windy night a rainy morrow," he writes, pleading with him to end the desperation of hopeful unrequited love. The theme resurfaces throughout the sonnets in the narrator's various descriptions of himself as an aging man: "But when my glass shows me myself indeed / Beated and chopp'd with tann'd antiquity" (sonnet 62); "And wherefore say not I that I am old?" (sonnet 138). It has also been suggested that the poet implies that he is balding in sonnet 73, where he writes, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs ..."; such an interpretation fits well with the idea that Shakespeare is in fact the narrator of the sonnets, as extant portraits of Shakespeare show the poet to have been balding in his later years.

Platonic Love vs. Carnal Lust

The divide between the fair lord sonnets and the dark lady sonnets is also a divide between two forms of interpersonal attraction. While the narrator of the sonnets is clearly infatuated with both the fair lord and the dark lady, the language he uses to describe these infatuations shows them to be of disparate natures. The lack of explicit sexual imagery in the fair lord sonnets has led most scholars to characterize this infatuation as an example of Platonic love, i.e., a form of amorous affection bereft of any sexual element. Meanwhile, the dark lady sonnets are replete with sexual imagery, implying an attraction based largely on carnal lust. The poet seems to glorify the former while condemning the latter; his heart is at odds with his libido. If we take the angel of sonnet 144 to be the narrator's fair lord, we see this contrast clearly: "To win me soon to hell, my female evil / Tempteth my better angel from my side / And would corrupt my saint to be a devil / Wooing his purity with her foul pride." It might be argued that this very incompatibility between the two distresses the narrator most as he learns of their affair.

Selfishness and Greed

The themes of selfishness and greed are prevalent throughout the sonnets as a whole, emerging most perceptibly in the narrator's hypocritical expectation of faithfulness from the fair lord and the dark lady. The poet seems at times to advance a double standard on the issue of faithfulness: he is unfaithful himself, yet he condemns, is even surprised by, the unfaithfulness of others. The rival poet sonnets (79-86), for example, capture the poet's jealousy of his fair lord's having another admirer; dark lady sonnets 133-134 and 144 do the same, and they may even include a reference to an affair between her and the fair lord that perhaps was alluded to previously in sonnets 40-42. (For this reason and others, it is sometimes suggested that the ordering of the sonnets does not wholly parallel the actual chronology of the events they describe.) Although the narrator does indeed chastise himself for his own unfaithfulness, perhaps in reference to his wife, his distress at the unfaithfulness of those with whom he himself has been unfaithful makes him out as wanting to have his cake and eat it too.

Self-Deprecation and Inadequacy

Self-deprecatory language frequently appears regarding the poet's various inadequacies, in particular his ability to keep his fair lord's interest. In sonnet 76 the poet basically calls himself a bore. He begins, "Why is my verse so barren of new pride / So far from variation or quick change?" His expressions of inadequacy reach a pinnacle in the rival poet sonnets, where they transform into pathetic outbursts of jealousy. In sonnet 80 we read, "But since your worth, wide as the ocean is / The humble as the proudest sail doth bear / My saucy bark inferior far to his / On your broad main doth wilfully appear"; in sonnet 84, "Who is it that says most? which can say more / Than this rich praise, that you alone are you?" The poet's self-deprecation continues as he blames himself for much of that which he disapproves of both in the fair lord and in the dark lady. He himself is the cause of their abandoning him; his will is inadequate for resisting the temptations of Love.

Homoerotic Desire

Although a fair number of scholars argue that the sonnets do not reflect any intimation of homosexual desire whatsoever on the part of the narrator, others find sonnets 1-126 rife with homoerotic undertones--at times appearing as explicit expressions of the narrator's love for the fair lord. In sonnet 20, for example, the poet expressly laments the fact that Nature fashioned the fair lord with male genitalia ("she prick'd thee out"). In sonnet 29, the narrator bemoans his "outcast state," perhaps a direct reference to a homoerotic desire he fears cannot be accepted by society. Still, just as it is intellectually necessary to confront the idea that homoerotic desire is prevalent to some extent in the sonnets, it is incumbent on readers not to let the imagination go astray.

Scholars who accept that homoerotic undertones are present in the sonnets are, nevertheless, divided regarding what this desire really means. Unlike the sonnets featuring the dark lady (127-154), the fair lord sonnets contain no explicit reference to sexual desire; even if the narrator lusts for the fair lord, it is debatable whether this lust has as its goal any act of sexual consummation.

Financial Bondage

Throughout the sonnets there is considerable imagery of financial debt and obligation, bondage and transaction. Many scholars are convinced that the fair lord is not only the object of the poet's affection but also his financial benefactor. Such speculation has led to the identification of the fair lord with the begetter of the sonnets, Mr. W. H. Although this argument is difficult to prove, it certainly has its merits.

In sonnet 4, financial imagery is ubiquitous: "unthrifty," "spend," "bequest," "lend," "frank," "niggard," "profitless," "usurer," "sum," and "audit," and more. Sonnet 79 likewise includes "aid," "numbers," "robs," "pays," "lends," "stole," "afford," and "owes." Support for the hypothesis that the dark lady of the sonnets was in fact a prostitute comes in part from sonnet 134, where the language includes "mortgaged," "forfeit," "bond," "statute," "usurer," "sue," "debtor," and "pays," although it could also be argued that the narrator is merely describing the dark lady as a whore out of jealousy of her affair with the fair lord.

Color Symbolism

This theme emerges most palpably in the dark lady sonnets, where the poet's repeated use of the color black to describe the dark lady's features, both physical and intangible, ascribes her with the evilness or "otherness" that the color has often symbolized in the Western mentality. However, color imagery is present in the fair lord sonnets as well, especially in conjunction with the theme of passing time. In sonnet 12, for example, the poet draws a parallel between the "aging" of nature with the aging of human life, opposing "the violet" and "summer's green" with the silver and white of age. Note, though, that the opposition here is not between black and white, as might be expected, but rather between color and absence of color, the latter of which is a product of passing time. The poet dreads both the passing of time as well as the sinfulness of his dark lady, and it is conceivable that the goal of his symbolism is to represent that which he fears by that which is without color. This argument is complicated, however, by sonnet 99, where "purple," "red," and "white" appear to take on more convoluted roles. Still, it is possible to find consistencies in the poet's use of color symbolism: all three instances of "yellow" (in sonnets 17, 73, and 104) are used in the context of passing time, while green is largely symbolic of youth (such as in sonnet 63).

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