Love is a Disease: An Explication of Sonnet 147
Love is a disease. Desire is deadly. When one thinks about Shakespeare’s sonnets, the instinctual response is the thought of romance. For instance the adoring lines, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day/ Thou are more lovely and more temperate” (Sonnet 18, 1-2), are thought to be the most famous words from a Shakespearean sonnet. However, instead of describing love in a starry-eyed fashion, Shakespeare discusses the punitive characteristics of love in Sonnet 147. The persona describes love as an infectious illness caused by sexual appetites.
The persona’s mind knows better than to indulge his appetite, but he does not listen to his logic. He begins the sonnet by stating the primary issue: love is a disease. He transitions into explaining that the cure for this disease is reason, however he does not have hope that he can starve his sexual desire. He finally shifts to a more frantic state and in the end addresses the cause of his illness, the dark lady. Shakespeare articulates his hostile definition of love through fashioning love as a disease to display the tribulations of love, lust, and desire.
In the first quatrain, there is the statement of the sonnet’s primary topic, which is that love is a disease. The content suggests the battle between love versus sexual appetite. His love is diseased because he has an intense appetite for lust, which when indulged in makes the disease worse. Shakespeare utilizes the metaphor “My love is as a fever” (Sonnet 147, 1) at the very beginning of the poem to make a strong statement that his love is a disease, and also to introduce the main idea throughout the sonnet. The placement of the metaphor displays that his unenthusiastic viewpoint of love is prominent. Secondly, he utilizes punctuation to create a clear argument. After the metaphor, “My love is as a fever,” (1) there is a comma dividing the first line in half.
This comma is not a hard punctuation mark, however it isolates the initial metaphor. In doing so, the metaphor stands out immediately and makes these words even more important. Shakespeare uses feminine rhyme to form unity within the quatrain. The rhyming words are “still”, “disease”, “ill” and “please”. Each word is important to the meaning of the first quatrain; love is a disease that still yearns to be pleased. Additionally, he ends the each quatrain with a period. The punctuation at the end of each quatrain keeps the ideas separate and the transition between the sonnet’s consistent content more obvious. For example, the first quatrain discusses love as a disease and the following quatrain discusses the dangers of desire versus the intelligence of reason.
In the second quatrain, the persona discusses the battle between desire and reason. He conveys that reason is the doctor who can cure this disease, however he does not oblige. He declares that desire is dangerous and lethal. Shakespeare uses personification of the word reason, “My reason, and the physician to my love” (5). Reason is personified as a doctor to show that the mind is what cures a dangerous sexual appetite. The personification of reason brings the word to life and makes it more powerful and of greater importance. This displays the strength reason has over desire. Shakespeare carries the metaphor of love as a disease from the first quatrain into the second quatrain through the use of diction. He uses many words that refer to medical terms to align with the disease metaphor. For example, he uses the words “physician”(5) and “prescription”(6) to keep with the motif of the first quatrain to unify meaning.
Lust has already been defined as devious in the first quatrain when it is referred to as a “sickly appetite”(4), however Shakespeare takes it a step further when he uses the metaphor “Desire is death” (8). Like the personification of reason, this metaphor gives the word desire greater importance. This aids in the quatrain’s main dispute of reason versus desire. “Desire is death”, is a harsh and straightforward metaphor. The persona expresses that desire is what causes the toxic disease. The use of punctuation also isolates the words desire and reason to show their importance to the quatrain. “My reason,” (5) is followed by a comma. When the reader says this out loud, it forces the reader to pause where the coma is. In doing so, the word reason is separate from the rest of the sentence and emphasized. The comma also creates a visual separation that creates emphasis. In the same way, “Desire is death,” (8), is also followed by a comma. The same emphasis applies here, which strengthens the quatrains conflict of reason versus desire.
In the third quatrain, the persona expresses that he is hopeless. His sexual appetite cannot be cured. He is now angry, and like a madman tells lies due to his detrimental sexual desires. This quatrain portrays the conflict between desire and the cure. Desire has overcome the cure and the persona is now hopeless of overcoming this disease. In the first line, Shakespeare introduces the meaning of the quatrain, “Past cure I am, now reason is past care” (9). Shakespeare uses repetition in the first line to emphasize the persona’s hopelessness of being cured. Along with repetition, an anaphora is used to greater tie the phrases together and create greater emphasis.
The words “care” and “cure” are similar in sound and create a relationship, which underlines the persona’s loss of reason. Punctuation is used to separate two ideas within the quatrain; this is done through the use of a semi colon. The first segment is “Past cure I am, now reason is past care/ And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;” (9-10). It expresses his frantic hopelessness and is stopped by the semicolon. After which, the second segment states “ My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,/ At random from the truth vainly express’d;” (11-12).
The second part expresses that he feels like a madman, and like a madman has begun to tell frivolous lies. The semicolon creates a break between the two ideas and reveals a regression from the persona’s frantic and hopeless state to the state of a madman. In addition, the second semicolon creates a separation between the quatrain and the couplet, which also are two ideas that are separate in meaning and tone because the end of the third quatrain transitions from the persona talking about his faults to the persona discussing someone else.
The couplet at the end strays away from the metaphor in the first three quatrains, that love is a disease and surprises the reader by addressing the dark lady directly. The sonnet shifts dramatically because the persona is no longer talking about himself and his disease; he identifies another character, the dark lady. The persona declares her evil nature and finally explains the source of his sexual appetite, his disease. He claims that he use to think that the dark lady was gentle and beautiful, however he learned that she is evil. Shakespeare uses a simile to emphasize the dark lady’s evil qualities, he says “Who art black as hell, as dark as night” (14).
The similes clearly reveal the malevolent nature of this woman and the detestation the persona carries towards her. The two similes are similar because they both use dark, evil words: “black”, “hell”, “dark” and “night”.
The abundance of gloomy words stresses the persona’s feelings that the dark lady is evil and the source of his complaint.
Shakespeare clearly sums up in fourteen lines that a sexual appetite is a dangerous entity. The persona reveals his transition of arguments filling his head, sexual appetites verses love, desire versus reason, and desire versus cure. At the end, he finally breaks down and identifies the source of his problems, the loathed dark lady. This sonnet reveals Shakespeare’s notion that women are dangerous beings. Women cause diseases because men’s sexual appetites need to be fed, however this leads to the disease growing.
He expresses that the mind, reason, can overcome and cure this desire but men are hopeless to follow. Ultimately he reveals how not only are women the source of disease, but they also are deceivers who fake beauty and are truly wicked. The use of diction, metaphors, similes, repetition and more emphasizes Shakespeare’s detest. Through Sonnet 147, he reveals that lust is infectious and all consuming and that it leads to lack of reason, lies and dangerous women.