Love in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Majken Hirche

Adolescent development is synonymous with emotional development. It is a time in life where young people are inevitably bound to break away from parent influence and seek out individuation and identity of their own, and in this process, exploring love and searching for romantic partners are central themes to the minds of adolescents. Shakespeare’s sonnets offer a great opportunity for students to explore the emotional world of human nature and psychology, besides from introducing one of the most progressive, sophisticated and influential writers in the history of English literature. The sonnets introduce a range of perspectives on love and relations, among other themes, and show how love is a complex emotional phenomenon encompassing contradictory feelings and confusion in mind; themes that most adolescents can identify with. This lecture will invoke discussion and independent thinking about love, emotions and reason, and will focus on sonnet 116 in which we explore the first theme; love as perfect and ideal, and contrast it to sonnet 147 in which we explore the second theme; love as unhealthy and a disease. In between we will talk about the third theme; reason and emotion, inspired by sonnet 147. The students will contemplate love on their own, and relate their ideas to the poems. Some questions will be given the students to aid them in contemplating, and to show how the themes are related, e.g.: What are the differences and the similarities between the two descriptions of love in sonnet 116  and 147? What role does reason play in poem 147, if reason plays a role at all? In sonnet 147, there is a struggle of reason against emotion. Do emotions always lead us astray in love? What are the differences and similarities between reason and emotion, and what role do they play in thinking? Does reason and emotion affect the way we think about love, and if so, how?

Sonnet 116 presents love in an ideal form, and it does so by defining and defending the nature of love in a most dramatic way. The sonnet is rather straightforward in structure with each quatrain describing what love is in a concrete manner. In the first quatrain we are presented with the idea of love as loyal and unchanging in a world of change, even if the changes are encountered in the loved one (l.2-4). The changes in the loved one can be understood as; even if the lover is unfaithful (love is still standing). In quatrain two the poet uses seafaring metaphors to further emphasize the permanent, unbending and withstanding nature of true love, ‘being an ever-fixed mark’ (l.5), a ‘lighthouse’, that ‘is never shaken’ (l.6), even if it encounters a violent storm. The use of double negatives ‘never/ever’ in line five and six act as intensifiers, and add further to the dramatic scenery as well as underlining the constancy and dependability of love. The fixation on love as unwavering continues in quatrain two with the description of love as a steadfast ‘star to every wandering bark’ (l.7). Quatrain three introduces a timeless and ever lasting perspective of love, as love ‘alters not with [times] brief hours and weeks’ (l.11), and only some great and final apocalyptic destruction will make it cease to exist (l.12). Thus, the first theme for the students to identify is ideal love as expressed in this sonnet.

In sonnet 147 we now find the poet suffering at the mercy of love as it has taken over his body and mind like a maddening disease. Love is no longer overbearing and dependable, but rather yields its shadow in the shape of a self-perpetuating downwards spiral paving the way for self-destruction, disease and eventual death. The first line of quatrain one introduces an illness discourse that remains throughout the text, and thus becomes the sustaining theme of this sonnet: ‘Love is as a fever’, the poet asserts in line one, and continues to describe its unhealthy desiring nature feeding on the object of love, only to become ever more craving (l.2-4). In quatrain three love is furthermore characterized as inflicting insanity making the poet a mental patient beyond cure (l.9-12), only capable of bewildering speech: ‘My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are, At random from the truth vainly express’d’ (l.11-12). Thus, love is not only imposing somatic response, it also attacks the mind rendering the victim utterly helpless, and deprived of reason and clarity of mind. The ending lines, however, are somewhat ambiguous in nature in regard to whom or what they address: ‘For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, Who art as black as hell, as dark as night’ (l.13-14). Given that sonnet 147 is taken out of a context, and studied isolated with sonnet 116, the most meaningful interpretation in this case would be to ascribe the characteristics to love. Thus, the poet seems to momentarily wake up from his state of insanity, confronting his prior beliefs to an extent where he destroys the fair and shimmering image of love. Thus, the second theme for the students to identify is unhealthy love.

In the chosen sonnets, love is ascribed different characteristics which can be seen as two extremes on a continuum representing feelings of love. Thus, read together, the poems are almost bipolar in nature, leaving out all other facets of love that might be found on the continuum. In sonnet 147, quatrain two, line 5-8, however, the poet seems to know in the back of his mind that he is overindulging the feelings of pain and despair, and could he only hold on to reason, there might be an escape from darkness and hell – and perhaps even other ways of looking at love itself. This last statement is rhetorical towards the students and underlines the third theme of this lecture: Reason and emotion.

Understanding English literature as a whole begins by gaining a greater insight in the history of English language and literature. Shakespeare is, so far, one of the most influential writers in English literature. His sonnets encompass progressive and sophisticated writing and thinking, and it diverged significantly from conventional sonnet writing at that time, thereby paving the way for modern writing and thinking in future English literature. The sonnets have influenced modern romantic poets in particular