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Shakespeare's Obsession: Time
Throughout his many sonnets there are several prevailing themes: love, sexuality, and the beauty of the human body. Through many of his poem another theme constantly seems to be lurking, though no always directly addressed, and that is time. In sonnet 106 it is a more subtle reference, voiced in his lamentation about the great writers that have passed on, and the lack of writers of similar talent at present. In sonnet 73 a lament on his own aging, time, the cruel taskmaster has decreed the beginning of the end, or so our poet feels as he mourns the loss of his youth.
A Lover's Vow: An Attempt to Beat Lord Time
Sonnet 18 also reflects a fascination with time, though this sonnet is a unique case. Sonnet 18 is written in a playful, even flirtatious tone to a love interest of Shakespeare (most likely a male). It begins with the praising of this individual through comparisons to aspects of nature, all of which are inferior when compared to the subject of the poem. The subject is more calm and lasting than a summer's day, not as blinding and harsh as the sun and eternal in beauty. And yet, it is the last two lines of this poem that are the most interesting. Shakespeare goes beyond praising this beautiful individual to promise immortality to his subject. He claims to have bested even Lord Time, by giving his love an everlasting legacy. Shakespeare writes, that because I have recorded your beauty here in this poem you will be immortal, you shall never be forgotten. The generations to come shall breathe life into you as they read this, and you shall live forever.
The Intrigue: Unrequited Love
Over time as more people have studied Shakespeare there has been some debate about who Sonnet 18 is addressed to. Today's scholars largely agree that this sonnet and many of the others he wrote were addressed to men. This interpretation makes the writing of these sonnets a little more complicated because homosexuality was so largely rejected in the time of Shakespeare. Allison Scott in her article, " A Mutual Render, Only Me for Thee: True Gifts in Shakespeare's Sonnets", explores some of the turbulence and anxiety that must have tormented Shakespeare as he struggled to pen these pieces and possibly present them. While this article focuses on the "Procreation Sonnets" there is relevant material that pertains to Sonnet 18 as well. In her article, Scott refers to the dilemmas of gift giving, the procedure and expectation inherent in the very culture of gift giving. She addresses the trickiness involved in giving to a superior, the complications of gift that are motivated by more than just kindness or good will. She delves into the complicated anxiety that Shakespeare might have felt in trying to give this sonnet to a male superior, hoping that it might produce mutual feelings. She also addresses the further turmoil that he likely felt when these affections were requited.
The Sly Bard: The Betrayal
And yet, there is another aspect to this poem that needs to be addressed, as presented by James Boyd-White. He essentially argues that Shakespeare make the grandiose claim about being able to provide immortality to his love. However, if you read the poem a little more carefully you realize that Shakespeare has actually immortalized himself and his talent rather than his love. Despite the comparison to a summer's day and the praise of being lovely and temperate we know absolutely nothing about the person Shakespeare wrote the sonnet about. Modern scholars are left to argue and guess about even the gender of Shakespeare's sonnet. Instead, what survives is Shakespeare's graceful and masterful use of language. The poet effectively immortalized himself, and who is to say that wasn't his intention all along?
He Who Laughs Last Laughs Loudest: Bastille's "Poet"
Whether or not Shakespeare intentionally intended to immortalize himself in the words of Sonnet 18, the fact is that we still read, study, celebrate and seek inspiration from this sonnet. Recently the band Bastille, produced a song, "Poet", that was inspired by Sonnet 18. Part of the first stanza of the song is a sample of the creative license taken with the idea of immorality set forth in Sonnet 18,
"I can't say the words out loud,
So in a rhyme I wrote you down.
Now you'll live through the ages,
I can feel your pulse in the pages".
Shakespeare and his ideas live on. Immortalized in writing, his skill and deep thoughts continue to inspire artists and writers who in turn breathe new life into his works.
The Nitty Gritty Details: Sources
Link to the article by Allison Scott
Link to the argument presented by James Boyd-White
Link to the Bastille Lyric video, and typed lyrics