Detailed Analysis of Sonnet 147 by William Shakespear
In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 147, the speaker addresses his beloved using a metaphor, stating that his love is like an illness. However, he longs for the thing that keeps him ill, or in love. The fact that he compares his love to an illness suggests that he knows his love is a bad idea, but he is defenseless against loving the subject. The ‘illness’ of love can also account for his distressed and crazed state of mind. In the first two quatrains, reason and love are personified as two opposing forces, love in the form of an illness and reason in the form of the speaker’s physician. However, while love is the negative force and reason is the positive force, the negative force of love appears to overpower the positive force of reason. By the end of the poem, the speaker is able to admit that the object of his affection is not good for him, although it is unclear whether or not this admission means he will leave her.
In the first quatrain, the speaker presents his love as a disease that is feeding on his desires. The beloved is the one feeding it. Even still, the love is consuming him, “…longing still/ For that which longer nurseth the disease” (1-2) By using the metaphor of illness, the speaker shows that he knows loving the listener is a bad thing, as illnesses are detrimental to the health of those who suffer from them. This also indicates that he suffers from the love he has for his beloved, rather than enjoying it. However, rather than putting an end to it, he feeds it, allowing it to take over his thoughts and actions completely. He seems to be in a cycle in which he loves the listener, knows that it’s wrong, but is unable to separate himself from the relationship, instead feeding it and making it stronger. The fact that Shakespeare uses ‘fever’ in line 1 to describe the illness is fitting, as fevers cause one to act in a crazed, mad, and distressed manner. He expands on the metaphor of illness by stating that he ‘feeds’ on that which preserves his love, “The uncertain sickly appetite to please.” (4) This line breaks from the iambic pentameter, in that the word ‘feeding’ is trochaic. This emphasizes the fact that the love must be fed constantly. During illness, one’s appetite changes rapidly as one tries to find something that will satisfy him or her. The speaker, in this case, has found that his beloved pleases his ‘sickly appetite,’ no matter how ‘uncertain.’ The line could also reference lust and carnal desire.
The speaker expands the metaphor in the second quatrain even further by comparing his Reason to his physician. Reason is the opposing force in the speaker. Just as love is shown in a negative light, Reason is the positive force. However, reason was given the impossible task of curing the speaker of his love. Reason gives the speaker instructions on how to overcome his love, but soon becomes ‘angry that his prescriptions are not kept’ (6) and leaves the speaker to his miserable love. The judgmental and logical side of the speaker cannot win against the passionate and romantic side, even though it is the positive force. The speaker goes on to say that ‘Desire is death, which physic did except.’ (8) The speaker could mean a variety of things by that statement. The first is that desire as he experiences is will bring about death, while Reason would prevent it. That continues with the metaphor, as desire is an illness and physicians prescribe medicine to counter it. However, in the lines previous, the speaker says that “Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,/[he] hath left me, and I desperate now approve/desire is death, which physic did except.” (6-8) The speaker is desperate now, without Reason. And in his desperation, he could be showing that he wishes to die, but Reason, his physician, will not allow him to do so. Also, if one looks at it from a sexual standpoint, it could be argued that the speaker is talking about a venereal disease, as an excess of desire could lead to a potentially fatal disease without medication.
By the third quatrain, the speaker is severely disturbed, even acknowledging that he is ‘past cure.’ (9) His thoughts and words are like that of a patient in a fever, who has been declared by the physician to be incurable. This line is also irregular in that the first foot is trochaic. The speaker is emphasizing the fact that there is no cure for this love. No medicine or person can change his fate. It is a terminal affliction. However, he goes on to say that he doesn’t care that this love will be the end of him. Love has slowly eaten away at his sanity and driven away his Reason, so not even the logical side of him can care that this beloved will be the death of him. The next two lines are frantic and feverish, keeping with the theme of fever that was introduced at the start of the poem. “And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;/My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are” (10-11) As with fever patients, the speaker is speaking and writing like a madman. None of his thoughts or words are coherent. He cannot explain his infatuation with his beloved, only knowing it to be wrong. It holds with the saying “We are all fools in love.” This sonnet is proving the saying to be so. His writing is deteriorating from comparing his love to a fever to fully succumbing to that fever. His passion is turning him into a raving mad man, who is incapable of listening to reason. In the last line of the quatrain, the speaker admits that his words are straying erratically and irrationally from the truth, as they are spoken by someone so blinded by love that he can’t even see the truth anymore. Therefore his words are ‘vainly expressed.’ (12) They serve no purpose, as they’re nothing but extreme exaggerations, if not lies. The thoughts and words that he has toward his beloved are actually only things about the beloved that he’s objectified.
The couplet gets to the heart of the matter, explaining just how he has strayed ‘at random from the truth vainly expressed.” (12) The speaker is able to admit that while he believed the beloved to be beautiful and bright, she is actually dark and evil. The most disturbing aspect of the couplet is that it’s completely unforgiving and cold. Throughout the course of the entire sonnet, the speaker has been expressing just how much he loves the listener, even though the beloved clearly isn’t good for him. However, in these lines, the speaker actually reveals why the beloved is bad for him. While he believed the beloved to be ‘fair’ and ‘bright,’ the beloved was actually ‘black’ and ‘dark.’ That comparison could mean several things. On a surface level, the speaker could mean that he thought the beloved to be beautiful, when in reality the beloved was unattractive. That would be enforced by the saying ‘love is blind.’ However, the comparison could go even deeper. The speaker not only calls the beloved ‘black’ and ‘dark,’ but “black as hell and dark as night.” (14) Dark and black are already common symbols for evil. Combined with the reference to Hell, the speaker could be implying that the beloved was unfaithful, immoral, and evil. However, because he was maddened by love, he could not see that and thought the beloved fair and bright. Fair and bright can also be seen as symbols for purity and goodness. So rather than being pure and good, the beloved was immoral and unfaithful to the speaker. However, the speaker does not give any indication that he plans to leave the beloved, even though he knows the beloved’s true nature.
The speaker is a man who loves the listener so much that he is beyond caring about the beloved’s flaws. He knows that the flaws are there and that the beloved isn’t good for him, however he is beyond reason, so much that reason appears to have left him completely. However, he cannot forget his beloved’s flaws, acknowledging that the beloved is morally and possibly physically unattractive. The poem makes one think of the sayings ‘we are all fools in love’ and ‘love is blind,’ as the speaker is both a fool and blind in love. Ultimately, the speaker admits that being in love is detrimental and possibly dangerous to his health, however he cannot bring himself to leave his beloved.
- Shakespeare, William, and Alfred Harbage. “Sonnet 147.” The Pelican Shakespeare.Baltimore: Penguin, 1956. 152. Print.
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