Shakespeare's Sonnets

Explain how Shakespeare interweaves the issues of time, death and writing in his sonnets.

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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.

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.