Brandon Riederer is an Adjunct Professor of English at Bryant & Stratton College. He has a M.A. in English from National University.
Theme of Love in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
The English Renaissance brought many changes to European cultures including advances in medicine, navigation, weaponry, and architecture (Craig et al, 2006). There was also a significant improvement in the arts too, such as sculpting, painting, drawing, writing, and language developments. With these cultural changes, alterations in popular ideologies were inevitable. One such alteration was the idea of individualism. Prior to the start of the Renaissance, the dogma of Greco-Roman culture enforced fates, destinies, and the rule of the gods and goddesses or the Christian God. There was no room for free will, autonomy, and personal decision-making in writing and the arts. However, the Renaissance flipped this popular notion on its head and poets increasingly expressed their inner voices and thoughts. For instance, Petrarch and Chaucer wrote in the first person to exemplify the role of the individual, and Shakespeare’s representations of love were highlighted with an unprecedented sense of earthy individualism.
Focusing on Shakespeare, his representations of individual love were unique compared to earlier writers such as Dante and Petrarch. Shakespeare adopted a style that evoked much sexual imagery and earthy passion in his sonnets. For instance, in Sonnet 126, Shakespeare explicitly displays the tension of lustful loving complete in its rawness:
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but still not keep, her treasure;
Her audit, though delayed, answered must be,
and her quietus to render thee! (Damrosch, p. 224, 2008)
For Shakespeare’s culture, the reference to the word ‘pleasure’ certainly had sexual connotations. Essentially, love for pleasure was opposed to Platonic love, which was the prevalent or highest form of loving according to Dante and his expressed love for Beatrice in his epic poem, “The Divine Comedy,” which was a product of Medieval Italy. In fact, as Dante travels into Purgatory, romantic love is forbidden because all love must be directed towards God. This idea is exemplified in Canto 1 of Purgatorio, when Dante says:
…but I am from the circle where the chaste
eyes of your Marcia are; and she still prays
to you, O holy breast, to keep her as
your own: for her love, then, incline to us.
Allow our journey through your seven realms…
“While I was there, within the other world,
Marcia so pleased my eyes,” he then replied,
“each kindness she required, I satisfied.
Now that she dwells beyond the evil river,
she has no power to move me any longer,
such was the law decreed when I was freed.” (Purg. I, 78-90)
Dante explains in this excerpt how mortal love, which is the lustful love expressed by Shakespeare, holds no power beyond the physical world. Essentially, Dante is promoting the idea of Platonic love, which is loving another person for the sake of loving; it is strictly non-sexual and chaste. Thus, as Shakespeare’s love is sexual and full of bodily desires, Dante steers clear of succumbing to fleshy needs and focuses on pure, spiritual love and appeals to God and the Christian afterlife. This is a major difference between Shakespeare’s representations of individual love in comparison to earlier works that also address forms of love.
Shakespeare’s emphasis on individualism and love shaped many literary qualities still admired today. Shakespeare penned many famous lines of poetry that address love. For instance, Shakespeare was a master of metaphor and simile in his short, lyric poetry. His Sonnet 130 is an excellent example of figures of speech to blazon a trail of masterful similes and metaphors:
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My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses demasked, red and white,
But no such roses I see in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak; yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love rare
As any she belied with false compare. (Damrosch, p. 224, 2008)
What is interesting about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is that he flips the literary qualities, mainly similes and metaphors, of traditional Petrarchan love poetry to make them negative in value. For instance, he is describing his mistress as what she is not, rather than what she is comparable to. In a way, he is mocking the traditional uses of love poetry by bringing metaphors down to reality. In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare exemplifies his earthy tendencies again in regard to addressing individual love by toying with common literary conventions such as simile and metaphor.
Influence Throughout the Ages
To say Shakespeare’s influence throughout the ages is profound would be an understatement. Shakespeare’s works and themes, particularly his representations of love, are timeless and enduring. His passionate and humane approach to love parallels what people feel every day. Our love and his view of love are one and the same despite the separation of time and space. The love we see in movies such as The Titanic or The Notebook, with all the highs and lows, tensions and conflicts, is forever enduring bouts of healing and sickness as Shakespeare’s poetry shows us. He grasps the universal observation that all love is a process of healing, and all heartbreak is a disease. This is an idea that people in every era and culture can relate to and learn from; this is love at its heart.
The English Renaissance stirred the waters of the arts and sciences and fortunately, the genius William Shakespeare was at the forefront of such literary developments. He captures the essence of the English Renaissance in his writings and remarkably distinguishes his writings from other periods and cultures, yet also addresses timeless themes such as individual love, which everyone in every time can relate to. He shows us in the most unique and enlightening ways the differences between medieval Christian dogma and Renaissance humanism, Platonic love and lustful love, and the tensions between high establishments of the spirit and the low establishments of base senses and desires. Shakespeare certainly sets the literary stage for the development of the English language from 1600 on.
Craig et al. (2006). The heritage of world civilization. (9 ed., Vol. 1). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Damrosch, D., Alliston, A., Brown, M., duBois, P., Hafez, S., Heise, U. K., et al. (2008). William shakespeare; The sonnets; 126; 130. In The longman anthology of world literature (2 ed., vol. a, pp. 140-166). New York: Pearson Education, Inc.
Dante, A. (2013). Purgatorio canto I. In Literature network. Retrieved from http://www.online-literature.com/dante/purgatorio/1/
“At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet”— Plato
© 2017 Instructor Riederer