Analysis of Sonnet 141 by William Shakespeare

 


William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet, dramatist and an actor widely recognized as one of the greatest writers in English. Shakespeare is believed to have been a prolific writer, producing not only plays but sonnets, poems while being an actor as well.  His works have been reinterpreted and adapted over the ages, once again asserting his timeless versatility that enables even the modern readers to find familiarity in his works.

Sonnet 141 is addressed to the so called Dark Lady, the mistress, the subject of Shakespeare's final 28 sonnets of the complete 154 sonnet sequence. Sonnet 141 is one of several sonnets that explore the theme of 'eye against heart', the rational mind against the emotional core.

It focuses on the struggle between the speaker’s senses and his heart, between his conscious mind and his feelings. He knows his lover is not the most beautiful to look at; she hasn't the voice or smell or touch but nonetheless he's her tormented slave. He dotes on her because he is religiously devoted, a nothing of a man without her. She is the cause of the pain yet she makes it worthwhile.

 

Overview

Form: Three quatrains and end couplet. (14 lines), Shakespearean sonnet

Meter: iambic pentameter

Rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

Tone: confessional

Theme: There are other reasons for attraction than physical features. (like personality)

Narration: 1st person, written to the Dark Lady

 

Deep-end Analysis

In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,

For they in thee a thousand errors note;

But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,

Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.

 

Inversion: for they in thee a thousand errors note (bringing note at the end to maintain the rhyme scheme)

Hyperbole: a thousand errors (the poet exaggerates the errors in her physical appearance to imply that she is not the ideal type of women in the Elizabethan era) 

Personification: my heart that loves (heart represents his emotions which the mind cannot control)

Symbol: eye (vison) heart (emotions)

 

Shakespeare introduces a love which is beyond physical attraction. The speakers overwhelmed emotional attraction to the lady is contradictory with his vison which is a reflection of social convention – In Elizabethan age the beauty of women is highly valued and appreciated. So, the poets struggle between the mind and the heart is introduced in the first quatrain. His confession reveals that he does something unacceptable to be done by an ordinary person.

 

Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;

Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,

Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited

To any sensual feast with thee alone:

 

Anaphora: nor (emphasize the faults in her physical appearance)

Personification: mine ears delighted (his physical senses are not pleased by her acquaintance, by giving human qualities to his parts of the body, his physical self is separated from his emotional self: body represents his brain or mind/ his heart is stood out as an emotional body)

Imagery: implied sensual imagery- auditory (tongue’s tune) tactile (tender feeling) gustatory (nor taste) olfactory (nor smell)

Parallelism: nor + sensual imagery (to emphasize the less physical attraction of the lady)

Metaphor: tongue’s tune (voice), sensual feast (fulfilling the sensual pleasure- has a sexual connotation)

Alliteration: tongue’s tune delighted

 

Poet further emphasizes the physical imperfection of the ‘Dark lady’ to reveal that she does not possess any socially accepted norms of beauty to celebrate. His confession reveals: though she is full of blemishes, he still cannot help loving her. It further reveals that the speaker does not love her for merely having physical pleasures but his love is beyond physical reasons.  

 

But my five wits nor my five senses can

Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,

Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,

Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be:

 

Metaphor: heart’s slave and vassal wretch (A vassal was the tenant of a lord in medieval England. – vassal wretch means a miserable slave), proud heart (A chaste beloved's heart was always described as proud and cruel in Elizabethan era.)

Five senses: vision, taste, touch, aural and smell

Five wits: common sense, imagination, fantasy, estimation and memory

Inversion: who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man

 

Poet reveals the struggle between the heart and the brain (the physical self vs emotional self). He has lost his control over the wits and senses making him a slave to the dark lady who possesses the nature of stereotype women in Elizabethan era. He is unconditionally attracted to her personality like a slave. He admits that he has lost his control over his emotions making him a miserable character before the eyes of the society.   

 

Only my plague thus far I count my gain,

That she that makes me sin awards me pain.

 

Metaphor: my plague (his rigorous devotion to the Dark lady) – Plague is a disease caused by a virulent bacterium. (he is affected by the disease of love for Dark Lady)

Religious words: award, pain, sin

 

His predicament is shown in the last couplet. He reveals the pain that was awarded by the woman who possesses conventional proud and cruel heart. He believes loving Dark lady is a sin and his pain is the punishment for his rigorous devotion towards her. In a way, it is a complicated love which gives the lover pain as a gift.

However, the identity of the Dark Lady remains unknown to this day. Shakespeare in his most sonnets to his lovers, has a tendency to err on the side of caustic commentary rather than the beauty of verse. Despite this, Shakespeare’s idea was that the notion of romantic love had to be stronger, and far more solid, than contemporary poets made it out to be. He saw the lofty ideals that women were elevated to as a sign of juvenilia – something that older men have bred out of them.

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