Undoubtedly, sonnets of William Shakespeare are the true masterpieces of the world’s classic poetry. First published nearly four centuries ago, Shakespeare’s sonnets remain the most popular, but, perhaps, little-understood literary work. What makes Shakespeare’s poetry special and popular among a wide range of readers? He wrote at a time when lyric poetry was full of trite metaphors as well as pompous, pretentious, and still empty conundrums. Shakespeare broke these literary conventionalities and gave a new meaning to old forms, creating his own unique and vivid images. Apparently, the wide variety of themes that he chose for his writings also contribute to their popularity: the complexity of human soul, its ability to rise and fall, wisdom and vanity, purity and vice, the brevity of human life, transience of time, fear of death, hope of salvation, and, of course, the eternal need for love and beauty.
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No author of the Renaissance era could express a complex set of human experiences associated with the realization of time transience brighter and stronger than Shakespeare did in his sonnets. He interprets time as the subjective fact of human existence that requires no explanation but resignation. Like a force that is beyond control, time threatens humanity with physical destruction, strictly regulates its status and possibilities. A flash of youth, the prime of life, gradual withering, and death constitute the eternal cycle of human existence. In Shakespeare’s philosophy, fear of time and death, as opposed to the theme of immortality can be obtained through art. Art lives through centuries and retains the memory of people that were glorified by a poet and image of the poet as well. A person acquires immortality in the works of art. The poet lives eternally in his lyrics. The themes of time, death, youth, and immortality are brilliantly intertwined in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 18, 60, 63, and 73.
The Renaissance era took its origin in the 14th-century Italy. Over 100 years, the cultural movement spread across Europe and came to England only by the end of 15th century. The flourishing of the Renaissance in England fell in the Elizabethan era. At that time, all prerequisites for the development of legendary Shakespearean theater and literature had been formed. One cannot say, however, that these cultural spheres were in great decline before William Shakespeare: his elder contemporaries made a significant contribution to the development of literature and drama. Marlowe invented a truly elevated literary style and a new type of hero – a common person that did not have the royal blood. Robert Greene created a “mild tragedy”, the type of drama that featured captivating cordiality and psychological authenticity.
Thomas Kyd started to develop the basics of dramatic art (Cousins, 2014). Shakespeare simply had to deepen everything that was invented before him, and he did it with astonishing success. He enlarged English vocabulary with approximately 1,700 words, not to mention numerous idioms (Schiffer, 2013). Thanks to Shakespeare, the English language obtained plasticity and freedom of expression that made it more eloquent and vivid for drama. Shakespearean plays became the symbol of the English Renaissance: partly because of the introduction of ancient motives (classic Latin and Greek plots), and partly because of Shakespeare’s philosophy that allowed him to create authentic, deep, and true-to-life characters. It was at the time of Shakespeare when the main scenic principles were formed: the central focus was shifted now to the message and acting. Owing to William Shakespeare, the Renaissance theater became a versatile, ahistorical model of the universe that concentrated on the perpetual conflict between person and society.
We know 154 Shakespeare’s sonnets that can be divided roughly into two big groups: Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to an unknown young man, who eventually became referred to as a Friend among critics, and Sonnets 127-154 are devoted to an unknown woman that eventually acquired a name of the Dark Lady (Leishman, 2013). In the first 18 sonnets, Shakespeare admonishes and persuades his Friend, a young man of astonishing beauty, to marry a woman and procreate. The main theme of first sonnets is the great value of beauty that is threatened by Time. The theme of time is the building line of the whole cycle of sonnets. The reader observes that in the course of time, the Bard changes his attitude to this subject. Initially, in Sonnet 18, he is self-confident and believes that time and death have no power over humans: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee” (Shakespeare, 2002, 18.13-14).
Such confidence vanishes over time, and in Sonnet 146 Shakespeare is full of humble resignation “So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men / And death once dead, there’s no more dying then” (Shakespeare, 2002, 146.13-14). The theme of time in Shakespeare’s poetry is not incidental; it is determined by the epoch in which he lived. During the Renaissance era, all art was conditioned by predominating at that time dichotomy of perfection and imperfection. Perfection was expressed in terms of permanence of beauty, while the change was a synonym of imperfection. This view was formed by such external factors as high rates of mortality and shift from the West to the East (as a result of numerous geographical discoveries). As a response to such instability, the Renaissance artists were trying to find any kind of immortality; a guarantee that humans can live forever. Thus, Shakespeare’s interest in the themes of time and death may be explained by the omnipresent instability of the Renaissance epoch.
As it was already mentioned, Sonnet 18 features the themes of destructive and uncontrollable time and permanence of beauty. It starts with a rhetorical question that directs the whole piece of poetry. In this question, Shakespeare connects the subjective perception of time with nature. Although time and nature are eternal, their representations in the human mind are different. We used to imagine nature as a dynamic cyclic process in which one season gives way to the other. Time is also a dynamic and constantly changing phenomenon, however, we imagine time as a serial line of events that has the beginning but does not have the end. But in Sonnet 18 Shakespeare suggests that time has common features with nature, he likens youth of a young man to summer, implying that both summer and youth are rather short: “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date” (Shakespeare, 2002, 18.4).
The word choice is not accidental: the legal term “lease” used as a metaphor “summer’s lease” creates the necessary impression of illusory freedom and eternity of youth. In this context, Shakespeare expresses the idea that human life completely depends on time; it is limited since it has its “lease term”. Further, in the second quatrain Shakespeare likens life to the sun, to which he refers as “the eye of heaven” (Shakespeare, 2002, 18.5). He suggests that life passes by too quickly; a person experiences so many emotions and feelings that they feel the “hotness” of life. The sun gives energy to everything, as life gives a wide range of opportunities to humans. However, “Every fair from fair sometimes declines” (Shakespeare, 2002, 18.7), and all opportunities and possibilities that life gives eventually kill us. In this line, Shakespeare suggests that despite the playfulness that humans feel at the time of their youth, despite the power that they feel at the time of maturity, by the end of their lives they are exhausted and tired of everything that they experienced.
Therefore, time has its price, and by the end of life, humans pay their ticks. In the third sextet, Shakespeare resolves the problem of “lease term” and finds the way to escape from the inevitability of death. Maintaining the metaphor that likens youth of a young man to life, Shakespeare now refers to it as the “eternal summer” and uses a set of anaphoric negations “nor lose”, “nor shall death brag you” to express his flat denial of life limitedness (Shakespeare, 2002, 18.8-10). He decides that “eternal lines” will help the young man to live through centuries, and in these lines, he will always be young and beautiful. Such idea introduces the theme of art that is closely connected with the theme of time and death. Although Time controls everything including the life of humans, it cannot control art. By means of poetry, Shakespeare aims to fight against the power of Time. Thus, in the last lines of the sextet, the Bard concludes that the young man will live until this piece of poetry exists. One should pay attention to the expressive means, such as alliteration of a sound [s] that creates emotionality and passion of Shakespeare’s faith in Art. The intensiveness of sounds is aimed to contrast the silence that will follow the recitation of the sonnet.
Perhaps, Shakespeare’s interest in the theme of time is conditioned not only by the instability of the Renaissance era but also by his age. Loosely speaking, most of the sonnets he wrote when he was 40 years old. At this age, people tend to evaluate their life and think about the coming death. Probably, Shakespeare was worried by how quickly time passes and reluctant to admit the fact of the forthcoming end. Striving for the eternal life, he weaves time and art together, believing that it will ensure immortality.
Sonnet 60 opens a sequence of lyrics in which themes of time, death, and art entwined together. In the first quatrain, Shakespeare refers to the image of water that symbolizes death. Considering the epoch in which the Bard wrote his sonnets as well as the influence of Latin and Greek literature and mythology on his poetry and prose, water is closely connected with the image of unnatural death. Shakespeare often used this image in his other writings. In Hamlet, for example, Ophelia committed suicide by drowning herself in the river, and in The Tempest Gonzago claimed that the most inhospitable land is better than the ocean (López, 1996). In Sonnet 60, water symbolizes the sequence of minutes that pass, bringing a person closer to death. In the second quatrain Shakespeare again, as in Sonnet 18, refers to the stages of human life, expressing the idea that youth is fleeting as the light, and maturity is connected with crawling to the end of life. Here Shakespeare restates the thesis of Sonnet 18, claiming that Time and life will take everything that was given to humans in the beginning: “And Time that gave does now its gift confound” (Shakespeare, 2002, 60.8).
The third quatrain is fully devoted to the theme of time. The Bard describes it as powerful and yet indifferent force that “transfix”, “delves”, and “feeds” on the human life. Thus, Shakespeare personifies Time, perhaps, in order to fight with it. As a rule, people are afraid of obscurity, but when they are able to imagine the threat, to make it visible and similar to what they already know, it becomes less fearful. The narrative reaches its climax at the end of the third quatrain with a common image of the scythe. Although it is commonly accepted that scythe is an attribute of death, Shakespeare uses it in the other context, thus equating time that flows like a deadly river with death. The whole piece of poetry is rather dramatic and pessimistic, and yet the Bard does not leave hope for life. In the last two lines he addresses to the young man, claiming once again that the art of poetry will save his beauty and will immortalize it: “And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand / Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand” (Shakespeare, 2002, 60.13-14). The pessimistic mood changes; the sonnet acquires joyful and festive tone when Shakespeare assures his Friend in the power of his lines.
Sonnet 64 resembles Sonnet 60 in many perspectives: the images of water and time, fear of the forthcoming and inevitable death, fear for the young man, or Friend, and the general pessimistic atmosphere of the narrative. The only thing that is different is the conclusion that Shakespeare makes. If Sonnet 60 ended with the strong belief in the power of art that can win the merciless time and death, Sonnet 64 concludes that death is inevitable and there is no power that can counteract it. In the first quatrain, Shakespeare makes reference to Horace’s ode Exegi Monumentum Aere Rerennius, stating that “the rich proud cost of outworn buried age”, or monuments of previous ages fell by the hand of Time (Shakespeare, 2002, 63.2). The Bard expresses the idea that even stone that seems to be eternal is the subject to the destructive influence of time. The former passion that Shakespeare had in Sonnet 18 comes back, and the Bard rages against nature and time that lead humanity to the eventual death, enslaving and enthralling it.
The image of water as the powerful force that in its omnipotence is equated to time and death appears once again after being mentioned in Sonnet 60: “When I have seen the hungry ocean gain / Advantage on the kingdom of the shore” (Shakespeare, 2002, 63.5-6). Shakespeare is convinced that time, “the hungry ocean”, may obliterate all kingdoms and states that were raised by people, implying that nothing lasts forever and all things will eventually surrender to the power of time. Again, the word choice is not accidental. Shakespeare repeats the verb “confound” referring to Sonnet 60. What is more interesting is that the verb “ruminate” resembles the noun “ruin” in line 11: “Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate” (Shakespeare, 2002, 63.11). Shakespeare highlights the idea of destruction caused by Time, focusing on its visual representation in the form of ruins. In the end, he concludes that Time will take his friend, and nothing can prevent it. Even art is powerless in the face of time and death; now the Bard sorrowfully resigns to the laws of nature.
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Shakespeare’s apprehension of the inevitability of death reaches its climax in Sonnet 73, in which the careful reader may observe the signs of autobiographical tone: first-person pronouns and conversational constructions. In this sonnet, the Bard reveals his sorrow and grief that time causes in him. The fear of death has never been expressed so distinctly. Shakespeare creates vivid images so that the reader could see and feel the Bard’s grief. He also resorts to the gradation of verbs of perception: “seest” to “perceiv’st” to achieve the highest point in the expression of his apprehension of time and death. In the first quatrain, the reader is presented to another simile where Shakespeare compares time with nature. However, if Sonnets 18 and 60 used the image of summer, Sonnet 73 features the image of fall. Here the description of the season is not aimed at praising the young man’s beauty, but at symbolizing Shakespeare’s mood.
Moreover, the fall as an intermediate season between summer and winter may imply the “crawling” of a person from their youth to death. In the second quatrain, time is presented as a constant change of day and night, implying that a person lives peacefully through these moments mostly unaware of the number of years, months, or even days that are left to them. The end of this quatrain is sudden and even sharp. It contrasts with a smooth sequence of the preceding lines and cuts them unexpectedly by direct introduction of the Death’s image. This whole quatrain may be projected to life where day goes after day and then suddenly comes death. This suddenness, sharpness, and directness together with the alliteration of a sound [s] in the last line of the second quatrain cause the ringing silence after it: “Death’s second self that seals up all in rest” (Shakespeare, 2002, 73.8).
In the third quatrain, the reader finds the same idea as in Sonnets 18 and 60: “Consummed with that which it was nourished by” (Shakespeare, 2002, 73.12). If one compares it with lines “And every fair from fair sometimes declines” (18.6) and “And Time that gave does now its gift confound” (Shakespeare, 2002, 60.8) then they will see that Shakespeare is convinced that eventually a person should compensate for all happiness, love, and joy that was given him with his life. The themes of time and death are closely connected in this sonnet. In fact, in Sonnet 73 Shakespeare concludes that time and death may be interchangeable because both refer to the mortality of human existence. Yet, he finds a solution to this dramatic problem. If in the first sonnets Shakespeare could state that only childbearing helps to prolong human life; that only art is able to immortalize a person, in Sonnet 73 he claims that the key to immortality is the strong, passionate, and self-sacrificing love.
Shakespeare’s sonnets convey the poet’s philosophy that can be characterized as existentialism. Apparently, the Bard was not a philosopher in the real sense of this word. As Dostoevsky, Shakespeare simply expressed his thoughts in his works. His poetry reveals the pessimistic view of life and more often than not features almost complete negation of possibilities. He presents time as an external, inimical force that is beyond of control but follows the universal laws of nature: everything must have its rise, fall, and disappearance. The theme of time in Shakespeare’s sonnets is connected with the themes of death, art, and immortality. Despite the sorrow and apprehension, the Bard does not relinquish hope and suggests his own solution to mortality. He believes that art and love lead to eternity and help humans to become immortal.
Nevertheless, grief and despair prevail in most of his works. Sonnets 18, 60, 63, and 73 present a series of gradual change of Shakespeare’s perspective on time and death. In the beginning, the Bard believes in omnipotent art as a means of fighting death and gaining immortality. Then, he starts to analyze the concept of time and realizes that it is rather powerful, but still, Shakespeare is sure that the poetry will protect his beloved ones from its influence. Further, the Bard deepens his analysis in which he begins to compare time and death and concludes that nothing can last forever and that everything will eventually come to an end. Finally, Shakespeare realizes the omnipotence of time over humanity and all its creations; he also concludes that time is an alter ego of death. In this sequence, the reader may observe the way in which Shakespeare’s existentialism developed over time. Perhaps, the Bard was right that art is not all-powerful; however, one should not forget that Shakespeare wrote almost six centuries ago but the images and characters that he created live up to these days and remain popular among a wide range of readers.
Cousins, A. D. (2014). Shakespeare’s sonnets and narrative poems. New York, NY: Routledge.
Leishman, J. B. (2013). Themes and variations in Shakespeare’s sonnets. New York, NY: Routledge.
López, M. M. (1996). Teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets: Time as fracture in Sonnets 18, 60, 73. SEDERI: yearbook of the Spanish and Portuguese Society for English Renaissance Studies, 1(7), 287-296.
Schiffer, J. (2013). Shakespeare’s sonnets: Critical essays. New York, NY: Routledge.
Shakespeare, W. (2002). The complete sonnets and poems. (C. Burrow, Ed.). Oxford University Press.