The Concept of Love: Shakespeare's definition of love and how it is presented in his sonnets
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is regarded as a literary great, recognised for his many plays that still feature in many educational syllabuses across the world. He has also received adulation for his poetry and sonnets. This essay works on the basis that there are two individual specifications of love; lust and true love. Definitions of these loves can be found embedded within several sonnets and will be explored further on in this essay. Other types of love could also be distinguished and analysed within Shakespeare's collection of sonnets, however, for the purposes of this composition to achieve in depth analysis, the two most prevailing types of love will be focussed on. This essay will seek to determine Shakespeare's definition of both types of love and then also demonstrate how literary techniques are used to illustrate them. The use of pathetic fallacy will be the key allegory analysed that is used to help further the understanding of the two differing types of love and furthermore, distinguish between them.
The Shakespearean sonnet, more broadly classed as an Elizabethan sonnet, first appeared in the latter years of the sixteenth century. It is thought to have been brought to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), a young courtier of Henry VIII, who spent considerable time in Italy and France, where the Petrarchan sonnet has it's origins. As poetry and literature evolved, select writers and poets distanced themselves from political and religious poetry and instead, love became the key focus of their works, as “the supreme and inalienable individual experience, love necessarily became the central theme of literature during this epoch”. It was also considered that “the leading poets writing in the fifteen-nineties and after were attempting to evolve a treatment of love that accorded with the vision of their time”.1 Shakespeare is thought to have written his sonnets in the early to mid 1590s. However, the collection of sonnets went unpublished until 1609.2 It is thought that, due to the sensitive, personal and deeply emotional content, sonnets were initially circulated amongst friends and select literary groups. The Shakespearean sonnet has strict regulations, in style and rhyming scheme. It consists of two sections, the octave and sestet which comprise of three quatrains and a final couplet. In every sonnet, it is a necessity that the first quatrain proposes a subject; the second develops it. There is then a change in the perspective or notion and the third quatrain further builds upon this and the final couplet will then act as a conclusion, offering a resolution. It is necessary to understand the conflicting and changing perspectives within a sonnet so an extract is not taken out of context or considered a final emotion or idea of the speaker.
For this essay, many commentaries of Shakespeare's sonnets have been considered, however, the primary commentary utilised is the New Cambridge Shakespeare.3 Another text vital to the initial inspiration of the thesis of this composition is The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. To proceed, it is necessary to outline the contents of this book and Lewis' definition of love. The book examines love and distinguishes four different varieties; Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity.4 Lewis' idea of Eros establishes this essay's notion of true love and the word Eros will be used from this point onwards. It is defined as “that state which we call “being in love”; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are “in”.”.5 Lewis also makes a clear distinction between lust and Eros. Lust, which is referred to in The Four Loves as 'Venus' is defined as “the animal or carnally sexual element within Eros... what is sexual not in some cryptic or rarified sense... but in a perfectly obvious sense... what could be proved to be sexual by the simplest observations”.6 It is worth to note that Lewis also states that Venus can be found outside of a state of Eros. Furthering his definition of Eros and also distinguishing the difference between Eros and lust, Lewis presents the following anecdote.
“A man in this state [Eros] really hasn't leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact she is a woman is far less important than the fact she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what we wanted, the true reply would often be, “To go on thinking of her.” He is love's contemplative.”7
Whilst Lewis' definitions of lust and Eros can give an understanding of love, it is necessary to also consider the Shakespearean definitions of both variations of love. Whilst lacking the simplicity of Lewis' definitions, it is possible to interpret Shakespeare's definition of love through the examination of his sonnets. Firstly, Shakespeare's definition of Eros will be identified and will be done using sonnet 116.8 The definition is easier found 'inbetween the lines', as the sonnet proposes what true love is not, rather than what it is. It can be interpreted that Eros is solid and unchanging, in the first quatrain “love is not love, Which alters when it alteration finds”. The use of the word 'alteration' allows the speaker to encompass all tribulations and trials that two lovers may encounter; time, events, lust or perhaps even death.9 This notion is continued into the third quatrain, “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But it bears out even to the edge of doom”. 'Doom' could be considered death but could also include a lover's worst fears and the most unfortunate of circumstances; as what is considered doom can be individual. In describing what Eros is not rather than what it is, the emotion, or force, becomes transcendent. Words in a human language simply cannot describe the true definItions of Eros as love surpasses linguistic ability. It is only in the second quatrain in which Shakespeare describes what love is, “it is an ever-fixed mark... whose worth's unknown”, which reinforces the understanding Eros is transcendent, beyond human understanding as it's worth is “unknown” but it's existence is not doubted. “An ever-fixed mark” suggests the notion Eros is a power or force that is beyond any form of measurement and breaches the laws of time and space and leaves a mark that is eternal. J.B. Leishman, senior lecturer at the University of Oxford, commented that in Shakespeare's sonnets, “love appears as the Defier of Time”.10
Shakespeare's definition of lust, however, is vastly different to his idea of Eros. The sonnet that shall be used to determine the definition is sonnet 129.11 It appears lust is considered quite opposite to Eros. “Lust is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust”, unlike Eros, the sonnet is largely about what lust is rather than what it is not. Such contrasting use of description between the two loves makes lust appear a instinctual, basic and inferior emotion, easily obtainable with little to no worth. It is entirely negative and can produce nothing of beauty. Despite being deemed a loathsome emotion, there is no doubt of it's strength or power as a force to control one's mind and metaphorically, lead one down an unsavoury and immoral path. This is shown and eloquently described in the final couplet, “All this world well knows, yet none knows well, To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell”. It can be assumed that the sonnet is concerning immoral sex and for the purposes of this essay, will be considered as adulterous sex or premarital sex. Describing the act, and the emotion of lust, as “heaven”, allows the reader to understand the appeal of lust and how the anticipation of the act can be so powerful, it can influence one's actions. However, it is shown as short lived as only a few short words later, the heaven has turned into hell, like the immoral sex and lust that is “Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight”.
The contrast of these definitions is so vast and the key difference to be noted is the definition of what Eros is largely distinguished from what the sonnet describes it is not, yet the sonnet this essay used to define lust does not fall short in vast description of what lust is. It enforces Eros s transcendent and that is has the ability to transgress human capabilities so a human cannot truly define it, it is above the capacity of the human brain and greater than human knowledge can comprehend. Yet lust is one of the basest emotions which can only lead to negativity. This differs to Lewis' definition of lust, or Venus, as he purposely separates any judgmental connotations with lust. Therefore, a lot of emotion is removed and lust becomes definedas simple sexual desire rather than detailing the negative effects this sexual desire can have on man. Another factor worth noting when considering Shakespeare's definition of both lust and Eros and also the following analyses of pathetic fallacy is that the definitions cannot be found until the latter sonnets of the collection. Descriptions of love and lust are observable from the first sonnet, yet the first pallable definition is not found until much later in the collection. There is no proof Shakespeare wrote the sonnetx in this order, however, if he did it could be supposed that whilst he was aware of these emotions and loves, it took significant exploration of them and a lot of time to be able to comprehend and define lust and true love.
Using these definitions of lust and Eros, it is now possible to look at how pathetic fallacy is used in Shakespeare's sonnets to demonstrate these types of love. The sonnets that will be evaluated are 2 and 18.
Firstly, the use of the weather a reflection of mood in sonnet 18 will be examined to see how it represents Eros.12 The sonnet starts “shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”. By using the phrase 'summer's day', the reader instantly has thoughts in their mind of all the wonderful and positive things associated with this time of year; the warm sunshine, the pleasant smells, the long and light days and the beautiful nature that comes into bloom at that time of year. It has been commented that “[sonnet] 18 plays on the proverbial comparative formula “as good as one shall see in a summer's day', meaning “as good as the best there is””.13 This reflects the feelings the speaker has towards to recipient of his love and shows the beauty and warmth of his affections. Nature is also considered be a gift from God, and with the following line “Thou art more lovely and more temperate”, the love, or Eros, the speaker feels is likened to be better than what some consider the most beautiful scenario on the planet. This affirms the interpretation that Shakespeare feels Eros is transcendent. This notion is continued throughout the sonnet, once again using nature as a reference point, “Rough winds shake the darling buds of May...but thy eternal summer will never fade”. Summer appears fragile and breakable, a sensitive form of beauty. However, the 'eternal summer', possibly meaning the internal emotions and feelings of Eros that the speaker has for his love, will never fade and will span time and space. There is no a force strong enough to defeat it, once again suggesting Eros is an emotion that surpasses this world and human understanding. It is to be considered a force that is incomprehensible and unbreakable, never wavering or losing power. Eros lasts for eternity even though a human's life span is only a matter of decades.
Weather is also used to portray lust, this essay will focus on how this is done in sonnet 2.14 The sonnet starts “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow... Thy youth's proud livery.. will be a tottered weed of small worth”. Completely opposing the Eros imagery of summer, Shakespeare chose to use the imagery of winter. Winter days are short and the majority of the day is filled with darkness, only a few hours of light in which to see. This could symoblise the dangers of lust, as said in the definition, it is no sooner enjoyed as it is despised; a winter's day no sooner has light as there is darkness yet again. Winter also often brings harsh conditions and cold weather which is unpleasant and makes the reader associate lust with such negativity. By writing 'forty' winters, these unpleasantries are amplified as it seems they are never ending... there is no mention of the summers in between but only the harsh, cold winters. Forty simply could mean forty, however, it is suggested that “[forty is] an indefinite number frequently used to suggest what the Elizabethan's thought as the dangerously wrong side of the middle ages”15. To be taken in context, the imagery of forty winters is used to show that all the person has is good looks, and in time, they will fade and this person will be nothing, as pathetic and despised as a lowly weed, meaning either a tattered rag of clothing or an unwanted plant growth that is unattractive and kills the flowers it surrounds. Perhaps it could be the person spoken of is so beautiful and attractive, he inspires many people to lust after him and lead them into 'hell', as described in Shakespeare's definition of lust, but the speaker seeks to remind him that his sinful ways will bring him no happiness as lust is short lived and can and will fade, unlike Eros which is eternal and never changing.
A suggestion for further research could be analysing how pathetic fallacy develops throughout the sonnets; as this essay has previously mentioned, the definitions of Eros and lust came in the latter sonnets of the collection so potentially, pathetic fallacy could be used differently as Shakespeare's understanding of the loves deepen. Symbolism and the use of colours could also be reviewed and analysed to understand further ways in which Shakespeare portrays both types of love. Different variations of love presented in Shakespeare's sonnets could also be identified and analysed, referring closely to Lewis' The Four Loves and perhaps also the Allegory of Love. Potentially, the thesis of this composition could be extended to other Shakespearean works such as his plays, specifically Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.
After careful consideration and in depth analysis, it is clear there are two types of love shown within Shakespeare's sonnets. The first, Eros, is a love so strong that it is unchanging and transcendent. There is nothing on this Earth that can measure it's beauty. Lust is defined as quite the opposite, whilst still undeniably powerful, it is an awful and despised emotion that can only lead to hell, whether that be a literal hell or metaphorical hell. Shakespeare successfully uses nature and pathetic fallacy to demonstrate his definitions of both Eros and lust, Eros being compared to bright summers and lust to dark winters. Love is complex emotion with many different variants, but it could be argued that the two most prevailing variants of love throughout the history of human civilisation are that which has been detailed in this composition.
Bath, Mike, and Tom Furniss, Reading Poetry: An Introduction (2nd Edition), 2nd edn (Harlow: Longman Pub Group, 2007)
Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature Criticism and Theory (4th Edition), 4th edn (Harlow, U.K.: Pearson/Longman, 2009)
Bradbrook, M.C C., Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry Study of His Earlier Work in Relation to the Poetry of the Time (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1965)
Cunliffe, Richard John, A New Shakespearean Dictionary (Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1977)
Felperin, Howard, Shakespearian Romance (United States: Princeton University Press, 1972)
Leishman, J. B., Themes and Variations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Routledge Library Editions: Shakespeare) (London: Routledge, 2005)
Lever, J. W., The Elizabethan Love Sonnet, 2nd edn (London: Methuen & Co, 1966)
Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves (London: Collins, 1987)
Lewis, C S, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (London: Oxford University Press, 1936)
Schiffer, James, ed., Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays (Shakespeare Criticism, 20) (New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 2000)
Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans (CAMBRIDGE: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Shakespeare, William, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Arden Shakespeare, Third Series Revised), ed. by Katherine Duncan-Jones (London: Thomson Learning, 2010)
Shakespeare, William, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare The Sonnets, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins (Philadelphia, USA: George Banta Publishing Company, 1944)
Stallworthy, Jon, Margaret Ferguson, and Mary Jo Salter, eds., The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edn (New York: Norton, W. W. & Company, 2005)
1 Lever, J. W., The Elizabethan Love Sonnet, 2nd edn (London: Methuen & Co, 1966), p141
2 Bradbrook, M.C C., Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry Study of His Earlier Work in Relation to the Poetry of the Time (United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1965), p141
3 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)
4 Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves (London: Collins, 1987)
5 Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves, p85
6 Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves, p85
7 Lewis, C. S., The Four Loves, p87
8 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p84
9 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p215
10 Leishman, J. B., Themes and Variations in Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Routledge Library Editions: Shakespeare) (London: Routledge, 2005), p102
11 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p91
12 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p35
13 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p123
14 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p27
15 Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel, The Sonnets, ed. by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, p110