Throughout the years, William Shakespeare's Sonnets have become iconic when it comes to not only expressing one's love but also defining love as a concept. Even though the idea of love has played host to a plethora of different definitions over the years, the rebirth of creativity, when coupled alongside the Shakespearean Sonnet, was able to bring about a new understanding of romantic love that the world had yet to experience in writing. William Shakespeare's Sonnets remain to be some of the most significant poetic expressions of love because they offer a unique look into as well as affirm the nature of human sexuality, the Renaissance, and its reawaking as an art form and finally love as it relates to the spiritual realm.
On the surface, a Shakespearean Sonnet is a poem consisted of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme which follows an abab cdcd efef gg pattern, with the final couplet primary purpose being to summarize the 12 lines. Even though Shakespeare's Sonnets are structured in their form, the subject matter of the poems themselves reflects a world that, in many ways, has recently become liberated from the confines of the structure once found presented within Medieval society. In Medieval society, writers, coupled alongside the expectations of their community, defined the medieval concept of courtly love, which set up the idea of the beloved as a pure ideal; While Poets of the Renaissance described love as an overpowering force that is both physical and spiritual. Shakespeare elevated this concept to another level with his poetry as the Sonnets reflect a shift from the emotion of love is merely a proclamation of a transaction between two households made up of promises and principles. To a concept that is more deeply rooted in spiritual practices and beliefs that are far beyond human control.
Similar to many other renaissance men giving birth to new creative thought all around the world, Shakespeare aimed to do the same. One way William Shakespeare chose to do so was to examine the concept of human sexuality within his various writings. However, it is within the Sonnets most prominently, that Shakespeare presents the human body and human sexuality as something that should not be shoved into the back corner of a closet to be hidden away from the eyes of the masses. Instead, the Poet forces the subject to the forefront of the work, thereby forcing his audience to see it as a vital part of what love is and to celebrate it as such not to shy away from it. This idea is a concept that repeatedly runs throughout the Sonnets "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day" (18) and "My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun" (130). In both poems, there are some references Shakespeare makes that not only draws attention to the human body and its importance but also affirms its role in love itself. For example, take the opening lines of Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun/Coral is far redder than her lips' red/If snow is white, why then her breasts are dun/If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks" Here the Poet makes six separate references to his lover's physical appearance in just the first two lines alone. The Poet makes explicit reference to the mystery woman's eyes, lips, her breasts, her hair, and finally her cheeks, and he does so in precise detail. "In Sonnet 130, true love requires the speaker to reject false compare" (Cohen 1794). The Poet asserts he knows the figure of the woman well and thus loves everything about her physical makeup, including the sound of her voice which, is referred to in subsequent lines of the Sonnet. However, the observation the Poet makes regarding her voice can also serve as a way that he praises her intellectual ability. He may enjoy hearing his lover express her views on various subjects the couple can discuss.
A similar image of love is constructed in Sonnet 18, even though there may not be as explicit references being made to various areas of the human body. However, the Poet in Sonnet 18 does hold his said lover to be almost holy in comparison to nature itself. The Poet proclaims that he loves his mistress in such a profound and moving that no aspect of the environment, such as the sun or the passing of the seasons, will ever hold a candle to the exquisite beauty of his lover despite the aging of her body. Because unlike the beauty found during the different seasons, the lover's will never fade.
"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."
For he writes down for all eternity that his love will ring true and will celebrate "the eternal lines" that make a home on her face as well as on the page. Although the Poet does not also forget to praise her internal beauty as well as the Poet writes "thou art lovelier and more Temperate" in comparison to the flighty attitude one may find themselves subjected to during May. Therefore, in doing so, the Poet affirms that love the notion of love is a concept that can and should be rooted in the real world while still possessing elements of mystery. In Sonnets 29, "When, in Disgrace with Fortune and Men's Eyes" along with Sonnet 33, "Full Many a Glorious Morning Have I Seen," William Shakespeare makes a conscious shift from the happy affair; into a pit of despair. he composes a poem that describes a lover who finds himself disgraced in the eyes of men. the depths of his despair are rooted in heartbreak as the lover of the poem is separated from his appointed love due to the truth in the statement that "the course of true love never did run smooth." In the end, in Sonnet 33, the lover who is thought to be the same speaker from Sonnet 29 perhaps is said to have been reunited with his love and is once again in their good graces. While this pair of Sonnets at first glance be a possible representation of a happy ending in the affairs of love, could this also serve as an anecdote for the Renaissance and its reawaking as an art form? In Sonnet 29, "When, in Disgrace with Fortune and Men's Eyes," Shakespeare introduces his audience to an individual who is extremely down on his luck in life. Therefore, perhaps Shakespeare is attempting to comment on the life before the Renaissance, which was in a lot of respects limited in any self-exploration of any kind, and there was not much room for creative explorations due to the rules constructed around creativity. Therefore, it's possible that "When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men's Eyes" is an artistic expression of what society looks like before the events of the Reformation. With this in Mind, Sonnet 33, would merely be one of many of Shakespeare's responses to this new expressive way of living life. Like the other creative minds of the Renaissance, William Shakespeare was influenced by humanistic thought, which was concerned with the induvial shaping themselves and how God has a place in that journey. This new way of thinking opened the door for a whole new avenue for exploring and expressing creative thought as well as emotion. William Shakespeare, therefore, armed with this groundbreaking modern philosophy, refined the literary world in such a way that it would never be the same again. The world and the other writers of the Renaissance were forced to acknowledge Shakespeare's poetic genius demonstrated in the Sonnets because it demanded to be known.
"What is important is that Shakespeare has here caught up the sum of love and uttered it as no Poet has before or since, and that in so doing he carried poetry- that is to say, the passionate expression in verse of the sensual and intellectual facts of life- to a pitch which it had never previously reached in English, and which it has never out- stepped since. The coast-line of humanity must be wholly altered; the sea must change its nature; the moon must draw it in different ways before that tide-mark is passed" (Williams 491).
In this way, Sonnet, 29, when coupled with Sonnet 33, becomes a love letter to the renaissance period itself from the Poet that changed the world.
Sonnet 116, "Let me Not to the Marriage of True Minds," is where Shakespeare takes the two Ideas of Love that have been previously discussed and makes his departure and to redefine the idea of romantic love. In Sonnet 116, love is not only described as romantic but goes one step further, assigning a divine or heavenly quality to love as it relates to the nature of humanity. The Sonnet in its entirety is presented below:
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove: O no; it is an ever-fixed mark, That looks on tempests, and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand'ring bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle's compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved."
When the Sonnet is read as a whole, there are some metaphors and images reminiscent of God's Love for humanity. In the first four lines, love is described as something that "does not alter when alterations are found" and as something that looks on storms and is not shaken. In other words, the concept of love found here is described as being constant and unchanged despite the discovery of any blemishes or hardship that may be faced. In the second stanza, love is again described as being constant even though who may be receiving it does not grasp their worth to the speaker of the poem. And yet, there is an echo of love being unaltered by "hours or weeks." The final stanza also proves to be interesting. This is because it seems to echo the biblical words of 1st Corinthians 13:4-7. The passage reads,
"Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
One cannot just ignore the fact that Shakespeare's Sonnet states that love "bears it out even to the edge of doom." Another aspect of making a note of regarding Sonnet 116 is that the concept of love itself is ascribed to the male pronoun his. This profoundly compelling because, typically, when a pronoun is attributed to other Sonnets such as the ones referenced above, they are assumed to be attached to an unnamed particular human being. Whereas in Sonnet 116, the pronoun is being used to speak about something deeper and more profound as if to suggest the divine nature of love. In the biblical text, God is said to be the purest repetition of love in all forms. Perhaps on a deeper level, this is what William Shakespeare is attempting to grasp the lines of Sonnet 116. After all, God's love for his people has never altered or been shaken despite all of humanity's missteps and misfortunes. The love of God doesn't change with time, and it doesn't fade away; in fact, it acts at times "as an ever-fixed mark" that doesn't shy from the storm." However, if this isn't proof enough take into account the couplet which reads, "If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved." While the couplet would seem to at first disprove, the divinity of love is affirmed through the mention of the word "man." The mention of the word brings to light in its unique way the humanity of God, himself. This being said, if God himself, who was both God and man, were to cease to love, what then would be the point of putting down in verse. Therefore, the Poet (Shakespeare) makes the closing argument that if what has been written within Sonnet 116 concerning the very concept of love be determined false, that he would consider himself an unworthy composer of literature. Shakespeare's Sonnets as a literary work refined the concept of love in a way that was groundbreaking for the people of the Elizabethan Era and history.
"Not only did Shakespeare seek to write lucidly, but he sought to say something of significance…In Shakespeare, we find studies of man in his environment that inspire, stimulate, instructor delight us. Horace insisted that the function of poetry was to teach and to delight, and Shakespeare fulfills both functions" (Wright 398).
The Poetic work affirmed the nature of human sexuality as an integral of love the Renaissance and its reawaking as an art form and finally loved as it relates to the divine love God reserves for his people and all of creation. Therefore, stressing the overall importance of love as it applies to all of existence, as emotions demand to be felt and resounding above all, the rest are the deepest outcries of love itself.
"1st Corinthians 13." New American Standard Bible, T. Nelson, 1979.
Cohen, Walter. "The Sonnets." The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed., Norton & Company, 2013.
Williams, Rhian. "‘Pyramids of Egypt': Shakespeare's Sonnets and a Victorian Turn to Obscurity." Victorian Poetry, vol. 48, no. 4, 2010, pp. 489–508. JSTOR.
Wright, Louis B. "Shakespeare for Everyman." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 106, no. 5, 1962, pp. 393–400. JSTOR.