William Shakespeare (1564- 1616) is one of the greatest writers in the English language. He was a poet and playwright whose works have been translated into every major language and whose plays are still performed more often than the works of any other playwright today. His surviving works include 38 plays and 154 sonnets, which are often regarded as the greatest romantic love poetry ever written. Although Shakespeare’s Sonnets are widely believed to be the greatest romantic love poetry ever written, a careful examination reveals that these sonnets are often misunderstood. The sonnets are dominated by themes of procreation, greed, selfishness, and the ravages of time. These themes overshadow Shakespeare’s discussion of romantic love and love is more often depicted as a trial rather than a joy. Shakespeare’s sonnets are about his two loves. The first 126 sonnets were actually written to a man whom Shakespeare calls his “light and fair love” while the remaining 28 were written to a “dark lady” or “mistress” for whom his lust caused him great distress. In all of his sonnets, Shakespeare lets the reader know that love carries with it a multitude of burdens, deceptions, and disappointments, regardless of the identity or gender of the lovers.
The themes of procreation, greed, selfishness, and the ravages of time overshadow the theme of romantic love throughout Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The sonnets are filled with pleas from Shakespeare to his lover to have a child to save his beauty for coming generations (Heylin 189). Procreation is the goal of marriage and a child proves your beauty’s existence when your own beauty fades. A child eternalizes beauty and secures your own beauty by his very being (Heylin 191). In Sonnet 1, Shakespeare urges his fair love, a young man, to have a child for this very reason so that his “beauty’s rose might never die”. He further adds, “His tender heir might bear his memory”. In Sonnet 2 Shakespeare asks his love what will he have to show for his beauty when “forty winters shall beseige thy brow”? If his lover were to have a child, Shakespeare tells the young man that he could answer such a question easily, “This fair child of mine shall sum my count and make my old excuse, proving his beauty by succession thine.” Shakespeare’s biggest fear was that this fair and beautiful young man would die before he had a child (Matz 76). Sonnet 4 continues to urge the young man to have a child and warns, “Die single and thy image dies with thee”. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 represents a diversion from the constant pleading with his lover to procreate. In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare concludes that his own verse shall immortalize his lover as well as any child. This gives Shakespeare piece of mind for such a beautiful thing should not leave this Earth (Matz 77). Yet in Sonnet 18, Shakespeare still hopes that his love will procreate and have a child because then there will be both the fair child in his image and Shakespeare’s own verse to carry the young man’s beauty throughout time. These sonnets show the consistency of the theme of procreation and Shakespeare’s insistence that his love procreate and make another image of himself so that the beauty of the father will be transferred to the child. Procreation is vital to our existence and our legacy. Shakespeare was consumed with his lover’s beauty and determined to convince him to immortalize it (Heylin 195). Sonnets 1-18 speak constantly of this hoped for child while little mention is made of the mother of the child. This is because procreation is the primary role of marriage and a wife is merely a vessel to carry such beauty into the world for future generations to admire (Matz 77).
A study of Renaissance marriage and the role of women in procreation shows that the belief that marriage was primarily for procreation and a woman’s main role and reason for marriage was to produce heirs were widely held at the time. In his book,...
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