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William Shakespeare is accredited with having written 154 sonnets that explore themes both universally and timelessly understood. Such themes like the passage of time, love, beauty, mortality, and old age are incorporated into Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets. Perhaps most pervasive of these themes is Shakespeare’s concentrated focus of temporality and how within life, time can represent a transient and destructive power. Throughout his verse, there is a gross fear of time, particularly of being forgotten after death and of old age through which beauty and youth are lost.
These fears are often magnified through a personification of Time. Shakespeare, however, transcends these fears by presenting various acts that can be seen as a defense against time, including marriage and procreation, writing poetry, and even love as the conqueror, a force which can transcend time’s malicious and destructive intent. Therefore, Shakespeare’s sonnets may be seen as a war against time, a battle that opposes the power of time with the force of love and permanence of poetry.
If time is capable of taking away youth and beauty and bringing about death and oblivion, then Shakespeare has declared war against such a force, literally. In Sonnet 15, Shakespeare writes about such a conflict: “And all in war with Time for love of you, / As he takes from you, I ingraft you new” (13-14). The poet is actively expressing his role as a combatant against Time, for while Time wears away the beauty of a pretty face, Shakespeare has the ability to instill beauty back into his lover through his words.
It is clear that in this war with time, Shakespeare does not plan to take a passive role. Instead, he acts almost as a defender of the concepts Time attempts to drive away. In a critical essay titled “The Scandal of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” Margreta de Grazia notes that “[t]he poet sets himself up as Time’s adversary” (de Grazia, 104). He proves to be a worthy adversary, for in the closing couplet of Sonnet 19, Shakespeare fearlessly challenges Time: “Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young” (13-14). While time is personified as a villain of epic proportions throughout the sonnets, it is important to question why time is seen in this light. The world is in a sense bound by chaos and transience; while bees will buzz without consideration as to when their last moment will be, humans are burdened with self-awareness, and with that comes awareness of death. Shakespeare’s vilification of time seems to stem from underlying fears common to humankind: loss and impermanence. Exploring further, these fears really encompass the fear of being forgotten after death and the fear of growing old, which is accompanied by succumbing to the loss of physical beauty and youth.
The fear of being forgotten, which is a by-product of the fear of mortality, possesses an almost haunting presence in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In a critical essay titled “A Datelessly Live Heat,” Joyce Sutphen questions Shakespeare’s aversion to mortality, writing “[w]e do not know why the poet chose to construct such an intimation of immortality, or whether the construction is based on mere convention or sincere evocation” (Sutphen, 200). Thus, if mortality is the fear, immortality is the method of escape, and Sutphen suggests that Shakespeare has formed a close relationship with the metaphorical idea of living forever. While Sutphen does not offer a clear response as to whether such a construction is based on “convention” or “sincere evocation,” she does note with certainty that Shakespeare is “obsessed with memory as a defense against loss” (Sutphen, 200). Such an obsession could not simply be a product of “mere convention,” therefore it is reasonable to assume that Shakespeare’s fascination with immortality stems from “sincere evocation.” Such emotional evocation is evident in Sonnet 55, an intimate representation of the fear of oblivion:
From the opening two lines, the power of time is evident as a force that wipes away everything through the years, as not even “gilded monuments / Of princes” can withstand time’s destruction (1-2). Furthermore, the “unswept stone” of which Shakespeare writes as being “besmeared with sluttish time” represents a tomb that has been tended to slovenly, showing how with time comes a fading of the memory, a descent into oblivion (4). Shakespeare again refers to an image of war that represents the struggle with time and mortality, and here, implying defeat, Shakespeare writes that nothing can protect “the living record of your memory” against death, which can be seen as an accomplice to time, for both are interdependent (8). He equates time and death with enmity, a deep and fiery hatred of being forgotten, which is truly a product of fear. Still, at the end of the poem, Shakespeare’s optimism emerges victorious, for even if one’s life or the world ends in doom, there is still salvation to be found in “lover’s eyes,” a certain immortality that is attached to love to be explored later in this essay (14).
In addition to the fear of oblivion that drives Shakespeare’s war with time, the fear of growing old is expressed in a multitude of sonnets. With old age comes the loss of youth that many people fear because beauty is associated with youth, and losing beauty is destructive to the ego and the sense of self. In her essay, de Grazia writes “[i]ndeed the poet’s main task in the first group is to protect those distinctions, a task that takes the specific form of preserving the youth’s lineaments from Time’s disfigurations” (de Grazia, 103). The distinctions about which de Grazia writes refer to specific social details concerning a young man who is encouraged to marry and procreate, but the real importance of this essay lies in de Grazia’s uses of the words “preserving” and “Time’s disfigurations.” These words imply a force to be combated, and therefore, an honest sense of fear, too. Indeed, this fear of growing old and resisting time’s changes to the physical body is consistent throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets. In Sonnet 62, Shakespeare writes about standing in front of a mirror and observing his reflection change as the years go by. “But when my glass show me myself indeed, / Beated and chapped with tanned antiquity, / Mine own self-love quite contrary I read” (9-11). The loss of youth is apparent in his use of the adjectives “beated” and “chapped,” both which possess negative connotations. In Sonnet 60, Shakespeare’s personification of Time reveals its power and alludes to death:
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow. (9-14)
The scythe is a characteristic image of the stereotypical “black-hooded figure” portrayal of death. Not only does Time bring about death, but it also takes beauty and youth, as represented in lines 9-13. The “parallels in beauty’s brow” represent wrinkles, a tell-tale sign that old age has come. Loss of youth, old age, and death are all inter-connected themes that represent the numerous fears associated with temporality. However, Shakespeare does not write about these fears without offering a solution.
The “war with time” is not one-sided. While time may be “continually destroying and defacing” as Sutphen puts it, Shakespeare has his own way of fighting against time’s forces (Sutphen, 200). The solution manifests as love, particularly in a form that is able to conquer time, thus called in this essay “love as the conqueror.” In his book titled Themes and Variations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, J.B. Leishman has an entire chapter dedicated to this very theme, calling love the “Defier of Time.” He interprets Sonnet 115 as an example of how Time is always changing, dimming, and blunting, but love, on the other hand, is always growing (Leishman, 102-103). This immediately opposes the two forces. If love is the conqueror of time, then there are two distinct battle strategies love uses in order to conquer. The first battle strategy is that love often flourishes and leads to marriage and procreation. The second battle strategy is that love is a subject of art, in particular, a subject of poetry, and within Shakespeare’s verse, the love and people depicted become immortal. Shakespeare was fond of the idea that permanence can be found in poetry, and through his verse, everything can be preserved to withstand time. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare’s belief in the power of love is well-represented when he writes “Love’s not Time’s fool” (9). An element of beauty is added to Shakespeare’s sonnets because while there is war waged with time, the solution is not violence, battle, nor more fighting, but rather love.
The first way that love as the conqueror manifests to defeat time is through marriage and procreation. This is best represented in the first seventeen sonnets, which are often blocked together as “the procreation sonnets” (Greenblatt, 1170). In Sonnet 3, Shakespeare directs his poem to a young man and encourages him to marry. He ends with a rather blunt closing couplet: “But if thou live rememb’red not to be, / Die single, and thine image dies with thee” (13-14). Shakespeare’s first defense against time rests with marriage and procreation because through having children, one’s legacy is passed on, one’s name is preserved, and one’s memory lives on within the lives the children. To “[djie single” would mean to die without legacy, effectively leaving nothing behind and being completely ravished by time. In Sonnet 12, Shakespeare delves even more deeply into this theme of procreation:
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
And die as fast as they see others grow,
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defense
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence. (9-14).
Shakespeare speculates the beauty of the aging young man when his beard will grow gray, and warns that if he does not procreate before reaching an old age, he will go “among the wastes of time” and not achieve the sense of immortality that comes with having children (10). The closing couplet of this sonnet is perhaps most direct in supporting procreation, for only having children can defy Time and his accomplice, death (13-14). Procreation is an effective means of cheating and defeating both time and death because the young man’s children will bear his image, and thus they can do the same. Reproduction is therefore one of the ways humankind can transcend the temporal and destructive nature of time.
Just as procreation has the power to conquer time, Shakespeare’s second battle strategy, poetry, defeats time in a different manner. Sonnet 18, perhaps the most celebrated and renowned of Shakespeare’s collections, illustrates how poetry can transcend time: 18 Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. (1-14)
Shakespeare starts by comparing his lover to a summer’s day and declaring that she is both “more lovely” and “more temperate” (1-2). It is important to note that a summer day, although temporal, is long-lasting and generally enjoyable. He then states that summer is sometimes too hot or too cold, but that is just the way summer is because its nature is ephemeral and ever changing, like every season. Shakespeare then changes gears in the third quatrain when he writes that his lover’s “eternal summer shall never fade,” which is in direct contrast with the real idea of summer, a temporary season. This opposition is an example of love as the conqueror, a force that can defeat time. In the closing couplet of this sonnet, Shakespeare essentially claims that as long as humankind is alive and can read, his love for his lover will be immortal because it has been preserved through this sonnet. Love conquers time. Even some 400 years later, the love expressed in Shakespeare’s sonnets is still being studied and criticized, thus proving the point that immortalizing one’s life and love in poetry is an effective means of preservation. Shakespeare makes reference to this in many other sonnets, too. For example, in Sonnet 65 he writes, “O none, unless this miracle have might, / That in black ink my love may still shine bright” (13-14). In Sonnet 19, he writes, “My love shall in my verse ever live young” (14). Love as a conquering force is a powerful way to defeat time and immortalize the passion one feels for another human being.
While love may be a conquering force of time, Leishman points out that there is an inconsistency between the argument presented in the sonnet and Shakespeare’s “war with time.”If love is continually growing, time cannot always be the enemy “since growth, becoming, can take place only in time” (Leishman, 104). Leishman then states that “love requires time in order to realise its potentiality, to become, as Aristotle would express it, that which it was intended to be” (Leishman, 104). Leishman’s argument poses an interesting question: was Shakespeare aware of this inconsistency? While it is impossible to be sure, it is clear a “war with time” can never truly be won, for time is not a real force one can battle. Rather, life occurs within time, by time, and is measured through a human sense of time. For example, the procreation defense can only exist because of time; it takes time for a zygote to mature into a baby. Additionally, a love poem can only be preserved through time because time exists. So if time is the enemy, it is also the medium through which the war can be fought. The strange nature of time leads to a conclusion that perhaps Shakespeare was not really at war with time, but rather at war with his own fears: impermanence, loss, old age, death, and oblivion, all of which are not a product of time but of biology.
By analyzing Shakespeare’s relationship with time, it is clear that there is a sense of fear involved that manifests into a war as the poet himself proclaimed. This fear is a human fear, one that transcends gender, culture, religion, and race. The metaphorical war that Shakespeare wages against time is fought with love as a conquering force through procreation and poetry. These are two examples of how humankind has dealt with the impermanent nature of life. The transience of life is something that everyone must deal with at one point in their lifetime, and Shakespeare’s sonnets afford a few solutions as to how humankind can live and prosper in a world that is destined to end.
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