An essay on love theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets


Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. To ordinary readers these sonnets are simply beautiful poetry. However, advanced users of literature simply cannot get away from the problems that raise from a detailed study of the sonnets. This led to many literary controversies. The problems with Shakespeare’s sonnets have taxed the minds of critics and commentators who have advanced many theories in an attempt to solve the problem. James Winny, writes: “The sonnets are among the most puzzling of Shakespeare’s works.” This essay on love theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets will try to point out the problems from a humbled reader’s perspective.

Before delving into the discussion of love theme in Shakespearean sonnets, we need to ask what love is. Love is a strong feeling of deep affection for somebody or something. Love can be a deep affection between a man and woman, mother and child, son and father, two friends, a dog and its owner and so on. Even the deep pull toward nature, wisdom, learning, and adventure can be termed as love. However, the most common form of love that exists in human is ‘the love of winning’. It is safe to say that Love is a term widely used to show the fascination, material and non- material, for somebody or something.

In religion, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude… Love bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; endures all things.”

However, some cultures don’t even have a word for ‘love’. Cultural differences make any universal definition of love difficult to establish. Love is essentially an abstract concept, easier to experience than to explain. The concept of love is still a subject to debate. Some even deny the existence of love. Some call it a recently invented abstraction. Others advocate the theory that love exists but is indefinable as it is metaphysical in nature.

Probably due to its large psychological relevance, love is one of the most common themes in art. Western society has historically emphasized romantic love far more than other cultures in which arranged marriage is the tradition. Globalization of Western culture has spread Western ideas about love and romance.

Love theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets

Love was one of the key aspects of Shakespeare’s works. Married love preserves humankind, love of friends ennobles human beings. but dissolute and immoral love corrupts and degrades humankind. One aspect of romantic love is the randomness of the encounters. The effect of physical attraction and impossibility of intimacy resulted in an excessive regard of the beloved as extremely precious. Winning the love, or at least the attention, of the beloved, motivated great efforts of many kinds, such as poetry, song or feats of arms. In more modern times, romantic love has been the theme of art and entertainment in all its forms. Some of the greatest poetry (e.g. Shakespeare’s sonnets), opera (e.g. La Boheme), and literature (e.g. Pride and Prejudice) have romantic love as the main theme.

Love turned to lust

A group of nine sonnets has the theme ‘love turned to lust’. Again illustrating the range of topics in the sequence. Shakespeare depicts himself as being sensually enslaved by the fascinating Dark Lady. The theme is introduced in sonnet 129. It is of a sensual feast that he speaks in sonnet 141, and in sonnet 142. He frankly admits that such love is his sin. He accuses the lady of being promiscuous and robbing other’s bed revenue of their rents. In sonnet 144, he describes the lady as his worse spirit in contrast to the young man as his better angel, whom he seeks to corrupt. Finally, he describes his love as a fever, and states that errs in not following the advice of reason, but his physician


The theme of immortality through love is developed implicitly and explicitly in several of the first one hundred and twenty-six poems. In sonnet 22, he argues that so long as he holds the affection of the youth, he can defy time. The theme of Time defeated by love also finds expressions in sonnet 62. Moreover, in sonnet 116, one of the finest in the sequence, the theme is presented: love is not love. The poet argues that time will never be able to boast how he undergoes a change of heart.

Shakespeare’s uncertainty about love

The dominant impression of all the sonnets may, from the point of view, be regarded as an extending awareness of the nature of love, even though his awareness does not show any progressive movement forward. Shakespeare’s concept of love and its nature does not seem to have moved forward steadily because what he sees early on one occasion is only dimly or faintly perceived in a subsequent sonnet. In some cases, a sense of certainty in respect of love gives way to doubt, and doubt subsequently gives way to certainty. However, we as a reader tend to form a form, which is cumulative in richness and in depth so far as Shakespeare’s concept of love is concerned. Our understanding thus grows to a total awareness rather than conveys a linear sense of a series of events.

Physical and spiritual love

Shakespeare was actually conscious of and of course troubled by, the dual nature of human love – the physical and spiritual love. Some of the greatest writers have regarded love between a man and a man as being superior to, and more genuine than, love between a man and a woman. Thus, viewed, the position of sonnet in which Shakespeare’s friend has been described as having the attractions and the allurements of a woman becomes quite strategic. In the first 17 sonnets, Shakespeare has addressed his friend as representing a beauty that should be regarded as something to be perpetuated through children and something to be lost. Actually the 15th, 16th, and 17th mark a transition in the theme. In sonnet 15, poetry is offered as an alternative method of ensuring immortality for the beauty of Shakespeare’s friend.

Self-love a sin

It is not the self-love itself, which obsesses the poet here, but the sin of self-love and the guilty conscience for it. And as the first two quatrains of sonnet 62 shows, this is a sin of imagination. The poet is clouded with his own conceit. Such a conceit as the next six lines will prove, is begotten in absence from his mirror. In the 2nd quatrain, the gaze is still inward. This image of himself swells as the quatrain proceeds until this image becomes the measure of all things, and the poet’s own worth surpasses all others worth:

Uplifting love and degrading love

The vision, which therefore emerges from the two groups of sonnets, is of a man hung in the vacuum between damnation and grace of god. A man is capable of experiencing for his friend a love, which has a divine quality, but he can also experience a degrading lust for a woman. A man is capable, in a way, of cooperating in the continuing act of the redemption, and capable of also re-enacting the fall overthrow of the higher faculties by the lower ones. There can be no solution to a problem of this kind. After the intensity and momentum of such a vision, the desire for a withdrawal expressed in the line “Poor soul the center of my sinful earth” could simply not have been avoided.

Love as the highest aim

Here we need not assume that the friend who was specifically said to have survived the temptation of the youth victoriously, was by nature sinful. In certain moods, Shakespeare regarded the society as a base for a young man of such infinite worth as his friend. Shakespeare’s love was, in his own opinion the inmost center and highest aim of all things. It’s value being beyond human calculations. He regarded this love as “The star to wandering bark” whose worth is unknown although its height is measurable. This love was “the crowning glory of creation” and more than that. As already pointed out, such love suggested spiritual values, and was religious in nature.

In terms of the show, the canker blossom is as fair as the rose but its “tincture” lacks that sweet ornament, that perfume, which tells the true rose from the false. However, the poem also suggested that such truth remains hidden as long as the rose lives; odor here is figured as that essence (both scent and spiritual reality) which remains tucked inside- “Which doth in it liue”-until the flower is blown and dead. Since its hidden scent would have no smell at all and yet the difference between the two flowers, the very difference between a flower and a weed, is preciously essential. Unlike the rose, Cankers have beauty without truth -a beauty, which is not “beauteous”; when they fade, “they die to themselues.” “Unwoo’d” and “unrespected”. The beauty of the Canker is inessential, odorless, and thus utterly lost with the passage of time: mere fleshly appearance, it lacks the durance of spirit.

The “bell”, with the onomatopoetic accompaniment of the repeated “I” sounds is the death knell that tolls as a warning to all when a death occurs. The “world” (signifying “earth” in the third verse, “everyone” in the second) that is “fled may be “vile,” but the destination is even worse, that worm ridden dwelling the grave. In the next quatrain, the true motive and import of the discourse begin to emerge, though obliquely:

The “I” person would rather, “be forgot” himself than subject the other to the pangs of grief and would to spare him, even go so far as to relinquish his one happy prospect of an afterlife, that in “your suit thoughts”. No other survival will be possible for him once in his grave, where he must suffer besides the worms, coming to be “compounded … with clay”. A return of love is affirmed in line 12, “let your love even with my life decay”, and though along with advised to terminate it. Then in the couplet the tone changes taking on a needling note:

Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.


The “wise world” refers to the cynical, “knowing” public apt to scorn the youth for bemoaning his scorned lover, and he is admonished to “not so much as my poor name rehearse” in order to steer clear of the mockery to watch out for himself and never mind loyalty to a dedicated friend.

The opening of the sonnet 72 takes off from the couplet of 71-and especially does line 1 here echo line 13 there-to create the impression of a continuity:

The Matter of Inwardness

But in the subsequent sonnet 147, this comparatively simple opposition between the hungers of the body and the aspiration of the soul receives nightmarish complication. Rather than starving the body to feed the soul, the speaker of this poem articulates a desire evinced in its yearning for what at once precipitates and prolongs the illness.

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which I longer nurseth the disease,
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th’uncertain sickly appetite to please.


Behind the portrait of lover’s decidedly unhealthy diet in this poem- “Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill” (3)- is a larger meditation in the sonnets on food, appetite, and identity. This is the part a response to Galenic psychology, which puts immense pressure on the act of consumption, making each meal an occasion that determines the health and mind of body. Shakespeare, moreover, links the corollary appetites of food and love in order to explore the relevance of the necessary periodicity of hunger to the ebb and flow of erotic desire.

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