Shakespeare’s Sonnets: the theme of love
Shakespeare’s poems are the monument of a remarkable genius but they are also the monuments of a remarkable age. The greatness of Shakespeare’s achievement was largely made possible by the work of his immediate predecessors, Sidney and Spenser.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are intensely personal and are records of his hopes and fears, love and friendships, infatuations and disillusions that in turn acquire a universal quality through their intensity.
The vogue of the sonnet in the Elizabethan age was brief but was very intense. Sir Thomas Wyatt and The Earl of Surrey brought the Petrarchan sonnet to England and with that an admiration for lyrical
poetry. This had major consequences on English verse; it was not only due to the beauty of the form of the sonnet but also because the Sonnet had become the vehicle of expression of one’s personal feelings. It was with the sonnet that Lyricism entered English Poetry. The Elizabethan sonnets show the mingling of the conventional with the original. There was a greater influence of Italy and France on the English sonnet form but in the hands of the three great masters Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare it took a unique form. The sonnets had marks of sincerity that were in direct relation to life and their authors.
In the Elizabethan Age there were dramatic authors who wrote verse as secondary to their plays and the songs or the lyric were the best in these collections. The songs of this period had the blending of the genius of the people and the artistic sense awakened by humanism. England became the impassioned lover of songs. Most were love-songs, some very free and profane but there were religious songs as well and many were purely fantastic.
But Shakespeare’s songs were the most original and spontaneous and they were rich in their impression of Nature. They contained a sort of fresh and rustic realism. Like in ‘Winter’s Tale’ the image of “when daffodils begin to peer” and the white sheet is “bleaching on the hedge.” And also the purely fantastic songs, which borrow from Nature as in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, banishing the “spotted snakes with double tongue.” Shakespeare’s sonnets cannot be classified. They are embedded in a scene and lose their special beauty and subtlety when taken out of context.
The majority of Shakespeare’s poems were written in the early stage of his career. The narrative poems ‘Venus and Adonis’ (1593) and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ (1594) are conventional in form and have many classical - mainly Ovidian - influences but Shakespeare has given them a “distinctively English bent.”
The Sonnets were published for the first time as a sequence late in his career in 1609 and these have been variously dated and were often tried to fit in with highly subjective interpretations unknown facts in his life.
The mysterious dedication of Shakespeare’s sonnets has confused critics and readers. Some of them are addressed to a patron of letter who is also addressed as a friend and the latter ones to an imaginary and conventional mistress. But some of them are also philosophical in Nature and not addressed to any particular person. In some the theme of Carpe Diem has been emphasized, like in sonnet 123 “NO, Time thou shalt not boast that I do change.”
Shakespeare has stated explicitly that the essence of the love he was celebrating in his sonnets was independent of reality and therefore was independent of change. Like in sonnet 124, when he says, “That it grows with heat, nor drowns with showers.” But the Romantics believed that the sonnets were autobiographical, and also the even now the critics feel the same way. But some of the critics view the sonnets as ‘purely literary exercises.’
The first 126 sonnets are dedicated to a young man W. H. who embodies the Renaissance cult of beauty and youth. Like in sonnet 14 the idea is presented that the Young man is the sole example of the perfect union of truth and beauty.
“In him those holy antique hours are seen, Without all ornament.”
In the sonnets the poet-patron relationship is reflected. These sonnets bring about an expanding awareness of the nature of Love, the realization of what is true Love. Shakespeare was conscious of and disturbed by the dual nature of Human Love, which was both physical and spiritual. He shared the belief that Love between two men would be of a purer form and more lasting.
The Dark Lady to whom the latter sonnets were dedicated has remained a source of controversy. She has been considered as the symbol of despair. Even allegorically she is the spirit of Evil and Death. Shakespeare’s intimacy with her brought about the acute and intense phase in Shakespeare’s life. The sonnets give the whole terrible, sinful, magical story of Shakespeare’s passions. Irony and scorn mark the tone of most of the sonnets addressed to her. The intense soul searching reveals the agony of his soul, like in sonnet 142, where is remorseful for entering into a relationship that brought him only a feeling of degradation.
“Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving.”
According to L. C.Knights the visual and decorative qualities of the sonnets are due to the influence of Spenser on Shakespeare. But Shakespeare outgrew that influence and his images became more concrete and they reflected the experience of the world. He shows despair and sorrow through winter images. Beauty and youth and hope are expressed through the imagery of morning and summer. Like in “darling buds of May.”
Commenting on the Platonism in Shakespeare’s sonnets-critics have said that his love for the Young man should be interpreted as Love, that begins with the worship of a beautiful form, culminates in the love of absolute beauty. The other interpretation is that the ‘Fair Youth’ represents Life and Goodness and the Dark Lady, Death and Evil-the subconscious. The abstractions of Beauty and Truth find embodiment in several of the sonnets. As in sonnet 54,
“O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem By that sweet ornament which truth doth give…”
The impression of the passage of time is conveyed with a vividness that intensifies the emotional content of the poem. This is best displayed when he says,
“Against my love shall be as I am now, With Time’s injurious hand crush’d and o’erworn…” (LXIII)
Shakespeare’s sonnets are concerned with the relationship of individual experience (personal ties of love and friendship) with Time. The poems express a conviction of the permanence and validity of emotion in all its different forms, as sonnet 116 does
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come…”
Shakespeare felt that under the pressure of mutability ‘love’ becomes ‘lust’; it changes form being an intense human experience to an expenditure of ‘spirit’.
As love and friendship are born in time they are subjected to impermanence and so he believed that “what is rooted in time, time itself destroys.” And so in sonnet XCIV he says “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
The Sonnets of Shakespeare hold a dominant place among the development of the Sonnet sequence in the Elizabethan period. His poems show how the sonnet form in it’s strict formal limits imposes upon the language a distinctive economy and intensity. The sonnets might be based on historical events but they have a Universal significance.
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