Candace Rohrer October 8, 2010 English 2310 The Light and Dark Side of Love in Shakespeare’s Sonnets Shakespeare’s sonnets are about love, and how love relates to life. Not life of the traditional sonnet variety, where all the men are charming, women are angels, and love and romance make the world go round. Shakespeare’s reality involves the entire spectrum of the human experience, and all the accompanying emotions. It’s fitting, therefore that the other themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets include mortality, lust, pain, beauty, and obsession.
Over the course of 154 sonnets, the gifted poet explains multiple, and even contradictory, attitudes about love or the lovers of his story. Upon closer inspection of sonnets 116 and 138, Shakespeare’s differing ideas and observations about love serve as interesting themes for the poet to utilize his mastery of metaphor, puns and other literary devices. Sonnet 116 is an instance of Shakespeare’s feelings about steadfast love and the threatening effects of time. In this case love is being glorified as an ideal.
Although it is written in standard Shakespearean sonnet form, it is dissimilar to the rest of the sonnets in tone and theme. Shakespeare defines love in each quatrain, using the repetition to create a sense of distance between the reader and the poet’s own experience. The sonnet isn’t about a person, or any specific instance of love, it is about the general promise of eternal love. There is no typical problem and solution set-up that is usually found in sonnets. Instead, each quatrain is used to further explain the nature of true love, almost as if the poet is searching for a definition of love that is neither vague nor exclusive.
This may explain why Shakespeare repeatedly uses negation to define love, beginning phrases with what “Love is not”. He exclaims that no one (including himself) should speak out against love in a “ marriage of true minds”, drawing on the moment in a wedding ceremony when the officiant asks if anyone protests to the marriage. This imagery is reinforced by the use of the word “alter” in the next line, and throughout the sonnet. “Alters” is also used when addressing how love isn’t real love if unfaithfulness or conflict can change it.
The poet compares love to a lighthouse and the North Star, guiding ships over stormy seas in the night. According to the poet, true love would not be affected by time, personified here by death and the reapers’ “bending sickle”. A lover’s beauty might fade over time, but a strong love would not. There is no conclusion or resolution at the end of this sonnet, but instead a couplet that employs a sly conceit. Shakespeare writes “If this be error, and upon me prov’d, / I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d”.
In other words, if it turns out that he is wrong about what true love is then he’s never written and no one else has felt true love either. This somewhat paradoxical because Shakespeare was in fact a well-known and accomplished author, so it couldn’t be true that he never wrote. Although this leads the reader to assume that the poets finds his definition of love accurate, there is still an air of discussion about what love is and what it can withstand. The meaning of the couplet could be an implication that the nature of love is actually based on those doing the loving.
After Sonnet 116, a reader would probably not assume that the same poet wrote Sonnet 138. The tone of the poem is much darker and unromantic, a transition that accompanies the appearance of the “Dark Lady” character Shakespeare wrote about in the later sonnets. This sonnet focuses on an aging man and an unfaithful woman, and the complicated issues that the two lovers struggle with. The woman, a departure from typical Petrachan characters is not virtuous and golden, but dark haired and eyed, foul and contradictory in nature.
As the poet discusses the faults of his mistress, he exhibits his own similar traits. This leads to a rather contemptuous and detached poetic voice. The reader may find it hard to remember the fact that the poem is actually about love. The sonnet also deals with the poet’s issues with his age and insecurities. In fact, the poet appears so detached that it could be argued that the type of love in this poem is selfish and based not in emotion, but in avoiding the pressures of life and sexual relationships.
The pun Shakespeare centered Sonnet 138 around is the double meaning of the word “lies”, which is used in reference to both dishonesty and sex. In some cases, like the first quatrain, the poet speaks of the lies she tell him that he chooses to overlook, in the hope that she will overlook his age and make him feel like a young lover. “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies, That she might think me some untutored youth Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties. ” Vanity and obsession play a large a part in this relationship also, especially for the poet himself.
He realizes that mutual deception is necessary for the affair to continue. In the couplet, the dishonestly and sex are more clearly being referenced with the same word, “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be. ” Here the reader sees the poet and the lady sleep together and lie to each other (she about her dishonesty and he about his age) even though they both know the truth of the situation. The pretext is more a self-deception than anything, and both lovers feel forced into the game by the nature of the relationship.
While both illustrations of love are deftly crafted and have elements of truth to them, neither sonnet succeeds in finding a middle ground. Love is either an eternal ideal, that will eventually be upheld or torn down, or love is a dark and egocentric sexual affair. Perhaps the conclusion to draw here is that love cannot be one thing, it can only be experienced in a spectrum. Would loves’ possible perfection seem so wonderful if the opposite wasn’t so disappointing? Would the light be as comforting if the dark wasn’t so scary? This is the differentiation made between Sonnet 116 and 138.
When love is being discussed as a paradigm, like in Sonnet 116, it’s easy to claim eternal qualities and strength. In that case, true love isn’t even questioned until an error has been proven. Time, sex, and human nature are a non-issue. However, reality is different. Lovers are not at the same stages of life, and the vanity that is bound to intensify with insecurity impedes honest interaction between people. Two people continue to feed of each other lies to fuel their own obsessions, and call it love for peace of mind. Ultimately, love doesn’t come with peace of mind, at least for the poet Shakespeare.