LOVE AS A DYNAMIC FORCE IN SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS Shakespeare’s love sonnets describe three different contexts in which love operates, as such, he depicts a multi-faceted picture of love. Love in Shakespeare’s poems does not have a single definition, but rather, an intangible conglomeration of characteristics that, together, make up an ever powerful force that defeats all obstacles. In Shakespeare’s love Sonnets numbers 116, 130, and 147, love is depicted as an overwhelming force that triumphs over time, the physical world, and reason, respectively. The force of love overpowers Shakespeare’s era’s cultural ideals of physical beauty in sonnet 130. In poem number 147, the speaker’s reasonable mind is overridden by emotions which arise from his love and desire for his absent partner. Finally, in sonnet 116, love is given an identity as an immortal force, which overcomes age, death, and thus, time. On another level, these three sonnets can be seen as describing the three different identities of love (Rowse, Shakespeare’s Sonnets 46).
Love can be seen as an internally possessed force which is directed within oneself; love can be an internal force which is directed against external factors, or love can be an external force, operating independently, regardless of the individual, and overcoming other powerful external forces. As such, these sonnets create a vision of love as a dynamic and multi-relational force. Each sonnet describes a different conflict in which love is engaged. In sonnet 116, love is depicted as an invincible force that defies time as well as time’s effects on beauty and youth, changes such as wrinkles and old age. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Within his bending sickle’s compass come (Lines 9 and 10).
Love, unlike the physical being, is not subject to decay. Through the capitalization of the words Love and Time, Shakespeare personifies both of these words, giving them identities, which are independent of any possessor (Angelou et al 22). Time becomes godlike, omnipotent yet abstract. Love, too, becomes a powerful character, despite remaining physically intangible. Love is presented as an entity with supernatural qualities. This identity is everlasting, immortal, and unaffected be the passing of Time, which is also eternal. In many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Time is often portrayed as the destroyer of all that is happy and beautiful, because with time, everything changes, happiness fades and what was once beautiful fades away and then dies (Brown 79).
The speaker claims that his love, real love, is untouched be the cruel hand of Time. Love, he says, is an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken (Lines 5 and 6). According to Shakespeare, true Love is more permanent and powerful than Time, hence, love remains immutable despite the changes brought on by physical decay and despite changes wrought by the world, such as storms, wars and revolutions (Rowse, A Biography 67). Shakespeare further develops upon his ideas of love as a force which overcomes the restraints of physical existence in Sonnet number 130. In this poem, Shakespeare expands his definition of love to include an image of love as a force that overcomes social pressures.
Shakespeare’s speaker resists the conventions of his era’s romantic poetry by describing his lover as an exception to all of the traditional romantic metaphors for beauty (Ballou 126). Shakespeare refutes one of his culture’s most basic ideals: that of the universal standard of beauty, if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun (Line 3). Unlike other romantic poets of his time, in Sonnet 130 the speaker describes his beloved as an earthly and realistic woman. She, unlike most women in poetry, is not misrepresented. Shakespeare’s speaker does not use false metaphors to describe her (Booth 84).
He is able to depict her in human terms because, to the speaker, love is not based on physical beauty but rather on feelings, sensibilities, and affections. According to Shakespeare, love is more profound than the materialistic, romantic poems of his era seem to imply. Love overcomes the romantic imagery of what the ideal woman should look like. The speaker’s love is, in this case, overcoming one physical reality of his situation: that his mistress may not be beautiful enough to deserve love and poetry, according to his culture’s expectations of beauty. Shakespeare’s speaker does not portray his lover as a goddess or as a princess; she does not float on air as she walks (Brown 92).
She is simply a human being, a woman, yet she is special to him, regardless of her physical attributes (Brown 93). In discussing the realistic and human qualities of his lover, Shakespeare’s speaker only disparages her physical attributes, and does not disparage either her mind or her soul- the things that truly sustain love. His love for the woman prevails and triumphs over her mere humanity, his love is unrestrained and exceptional, and by virtue of his remarkable love, he remains unconcerned with her appearance (Giroux 44). Shakespeare speaks of a love that is not subject to the rules and ideals created by social pressures that claim that one’s beloved must look a certain way. Shakespeare’s speaker refutes, through his love, a very powerful social pressure that claims that women are worthless if they do not live up to the societal standard of beauty (Giroux 46). To the speaker, his mistress is worthy of love, no matter what she looks like.
She remains special to him for reasons beyond those of appearance. Another conflict in which love is engaged is the conflict of love versus reason. Sonnet 147 depicts love as defying reason and truth. The speaker’s reason was once, the physician to [his] love (Line 5), but it has now left him. In the past reason and rationalization where the means by which the speaker recovered from and escaped the torment of the emotions created by the absence of his beloved (Ballou 135) . Reason dictates that emotional pain will eventually fade as the pangs of lost love will diminish over time, as one is forced to move on to new experiences (Ballou 135).
However, this poem describes a clear exception to this rule. The strength of his rational mind is not diminishing the pains of his emotions. On the contrary, the speaker is losing his sanity as time progresses. In the past, perhaps, the speaker’s rational thought processes allowed him to cope with failed romances. However, in the presence of this love for his dark mistress, all his logical mental abilities are overpowered. His rational mind, which he depends on for truth and sanity, has left him in the face of love.
The torment of love has made it impossible for the speaker to make truthful, objective observations about his world (Companion to 43). In this poem, Shakespeare claims that it is love, not reason, that shapes one’s perception of the world, for one’s mind, the ideal and rational judgment-maker, is subject to and overwhelmed by the whims of emotion (Companion to 44). At the beginning of Sonnet 147, the speaker’s love is described as a fever, but as the sonnet continues, the effects of love intensify. Towards the end of the poem, love has completely overwhelmed his mind, inducing him to become frantic-mad (Line 10). He continues, My thoughts and my discourse as mad men’s are, /At random from the truth vainly expressed (Lines 10 and 11). The language Shakespeare chooses further emphasizes the crazed effect love has had on the speaker’s mind (Rowse, A Biography 72).
The word discourse, for instance, derives from Latin, meaning to run about. The use of this word creates a clear image of a mad man running wild and uncontrolled. This love not only makes him go insane, it also blinds him from the truth (Rowse, A Biography, 74). He says, For I have sworn thee fair and thought thee bright, /Who art as black as hell, as dark as night (Lines 13 and 14) . The speaker’s logical mind knows that his woman is evil, yet his love for her blinds him and he sees her as beautiful. Love, then, is, for Shakespeare, a force that operates within several different contexts.
As such, love has a multi-faceted definition, which yields to a multi-faceted identity. Shakespeare defines love in three different ways. First, love can be seen as an internal force fighting against other internal forces, as we see in Sonnet 147, where the speaker’s inner turmoil stems from the battle of his love against his reason within himself. Second, Shakespeare epics love as an internal force which battles external forces, such as social pressures. Finally, Shakespeare portrays love on an even larger scale, where Love is an external power that, independent of any individual, struggles against and then defeats Time, another external entity (Booth 14).
Clearly, if love is an overwhelming, forceful entity that defeats time, death, social pressures, and reason, then love is no longer simply an internalized emotion; it is also an externalized power which can exist independent of human beings (Booth 22). Sonnet 147 deals with love as an internal agony where there is no mention of outside forces at play. This is a personal poem where Shakespeare uses the metaphor of disease and illness to represent the obsessive love which has taken over his speaker’s senses (The Works 119) . The speaker describes an internal battle where his mind is being devoured by his crazed sickness, love. Both his love and his reason though, are internalized, sparring forces. In contrast to poem 147, Sonnet 130 describes the experiences of a man’s struggle against external, social factors, such as his culture’s romantic ideal for one’s beloved.
Here, the speaker’s love is an internal force which overcomes external factors, as the speaker uses love as a justification for his adoring relationship with a woman (The Works 134). In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare goes one step further, and depicts two external forces, Love and Time, battling each other. These forces are independent of the speaker and his lover. In this poem, love has an elevated status as an individual entity, superseding the control of the individual human beings. Thus, through these three poems, Shakespeare presents a personification of love whose nature and function vary depending on the context (Ballou 121).
Shakespeare’s love sonnets depict love as an overwhelming force that manages to overcome death, reason and social pressures. By showing love from three varying perspectives, Shakespeare grants love a multifarious personality, powerful and flexible enough to defeat any obstacle. Love is not merely a disease that eats at one’s soul, nor simply a source of inner strength, nor just a sweeping, uncontrollable, godlike entity; it is a conglomeration of the three. As such, love is a fierce and powerful, albeit elusive being that shapes one’s life. Shakespeare melds different perceptions of love to form a more comprehensive image of that ineffable emotion.