The Soul Versus the Body in Sonnet 146 by William Shakespeare
In sonnet 146, Shakespeare presents the battle between depth and surface in different ways. The theme and message of the poem point consistently to a contradictory and difficult relationship between the inner and outer realms of a human being. The soul versus the body is the most obvious manifestation of this theme. But beyond this literal depiction of two forces at odds lurks a darker, deeper idea. There isn’t simply a difference between the outside and inside of a person, but an inevitable discrepancy. There is the presence of failure on one side, which renders the battle unequal and creates frustration. Subtle characteristics of Shakespeare’s language and attitude towards form paint a clear picture of this failure for the reader. In the language of the poem, the use of cold monetary references creates a parallel battle. At moments, Shakespeare shows us just how this outer mask of words fails to communicate the workings of the interior, which is the writer’s pure intent, the message from the soul. Shakespeare also betrays his frustration with form, which is essentially the corporeal shape forced upon his meaning. Essentially the poem itself, in its inability to truly communicate, becomes another battle in progress, another portrayal of a flimsy surface imprisoning its own core being.
The sonnet carefully examines its subject in terms of two spheres, and clearly marks differences between them. A strong sense of surface versus depth is made clear right away. When Shakespeare opens his poem with “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,” (l.1) his purpose of distinction is achieved in several ways. By addressing his soul as a separate entity, he is already operating under the assumption that there is an essential depth that is its own independent force. The term “sinful earth” could be a whispered reminder of the earthy realm, always standing opposed to the pure heavens. Beyond dividing himself in two, Shakespeare tells the reader who to cheer for. The description of his soul as “poor” immediately shows us where his preference lies. This cooing opening also instills compassion in the reader. We enter the poem feeling sorry for this abused interior. Even though his body is immediately rendered less worthy, it is on the offensive, and the victimized soul must learn how to fight back. The second line, with “rebel pow’rs that [the soul] array” (l.2) even goes so far as to place Shakespeare’s entire being in a state of perpetual war. Despite its crucial role as the “centre” of his being, the soul of the speaker is the victim of a constant ambush. Within the first two lines of the poem, an intense conflict has been established.
Shakespeare continues to embellish this conflict imagery, loading more and more meaning into his ideas and metaphors. The role of the exterior quickly expands, transforming from a simple cage into a pitiful foe. The body is not only a “sinful earth” (l.1) but also his “outward walls,”(l.4) his “fading mansion,” (l.6) and finally the “servant” of his soul (l.9). All of the adjectives here are subtly building a hierarchy. The existence of “outward,” “fading” and “servant” all refer to better states that remain unnamed. “Outward” requires an inward, just as “servant” requires a master. To be “fading,” the original, better state before deterioration is alluded to. The soul is being described by proxy. By so negatively characterizing the body, Shakespeare also creates its other, better half, too pure to be named or described. There is not simply an endless battle between good and evil, but the unjust imprisonment of the worthier force in an inadequate form. There is a discrepancy here. The first quatrain explains this in its last two lines: “Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth?/Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?” (l.4). Here, the frustration of the soul is solidified. It is not only poor but lonely, and in a state of suffering. And this suffering is hidden to the outside world, which is a horrible state of frustration. When Shakespeare concludes that to “Within be fed,” one must “without be rich no more” (l.12), the reader can agree, having witnessed the impossible discrepancy of soul and body . His interior substance is at constants odds with his feeble surface, and he must actually sacrifice one to help the other. This is an intense and unfair battle happening beneath the surface, just as the poem has intense themes behind its skin of cold monetary references.
The choice of terms involving commerce and money is a distinct one, most obvious and frequent in the second quatrain. The central lines, the heart of a poem addressing the soul and mortality, are occupied with petty allusions to profit and loss. A reader cannot ignore the connection between the words “cost,” (l.5) “lease,” (l.5) “spend,” (l.6) “inheritors,” (l.7) “charge,” (l.8) all found in this quatrain. Here, Shakespeare treats the battle like more of a financial argument, as he councils his soul in money management. He demands “Why so large cost, having so short a lease,/Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?” (ll.5-6). Again, the image of the victimized soul returns, but here it is simply bad business that imprisons this force. This monetary metaphor was introduced in the first quatrain, which demanded “Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,/Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?” (ll.3-4). Here, the soul is depicted as taking a loss to control the appearance of the outside. This is a situation that could be applied to the poet attempting to communicate his unique vision in the strict fourteen lines of a sonnet, with the limited capacity of the English language. The word “painting” (in the lines just quoted) signals this connection. The end of the poem, with its strange couplet, is another moment where Shakespeare expresses his frustration with the concept of beautifying the outside.
The last lines of this sonnet distinctly bring mortality into the forefront of the poem. This is by no means a new theme. The reference of “so short a lease,” (l.5) and the whimpering “Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,/Eat up thy charge?” (l.7) planted reminders of the body’s one weakness firmly in the second quatrain. In the third quatrain, Shakespeare even recommends that his soul use this flaw, mortality of its corporeal form, to ultimately triumph. He suggests, in one of the moments when he converses directly with the soul, “Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,/And let that pine to aggravate thy store” (ll.9-10). It would seem that the speaker has made his point, drawing mortality in as the body’s ultimate downfall and again, creating the soul’s purity by indirectly giving it immortality. But the couplet at the end, with its eerie sing-song symmetry, shows us a poet who does not feel that he has adequately explained. Suddenly, the reader is pounded with the word “Death,” repeated four times: “So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,/And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then” (ll.13-14). One can picture Shakespeare throwing his hands up in frustration, deciding to just say it, outright and direct. Like the soul that is honest and pure, battling with the form that carries it, the message of the poem has been dwelling beneath an inadequate surface. The decision to repeat the same word four times shows us the limiting quality of expression through words. The candid, mocking tone of the speaker is surprising when compared to his careful self-reflection through metaphor in everything proceeding these lines. This sudden burst of awkward, raw truth comes like a dying breath.
Although the entire poem shows us the inadequacy of surface in communicating depth, this final expression does indeed triumph. The body, though less pure, though sinful and inadequate, will ultimately drive the soul into oblivion. The sentiments of reader and speaker are complex after this final thought. Life is no longer the simple black and white battle of good versus evil, of soul versus body. It is simply fleeting, and Shakespeare finds himself drawn inevitably to that conclusion. The twelve lines spent moaning about souls and bodies are swept aside by the greatest force of all, the two spheres equalized in the face of their own inevitable end. Although he shows us the battle along the way, even choosing sides and judging its terms, this battle is relegated to the side of more important themes in a last breath. The frustrations of life, the constant struggle to communicate and paint oneself, should not be ignored. But they are hardly important in this universe, where they lie along one grand path, leading simply and always to Death.
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