Time Vs Sonnets: Shakespeare’s Resistance to Tyranny
Although Shakespeare’s sonnets are frequently read as well as quoted as individual poems, they are threaded together as a series by a number of recurrent themes and characters—for instance, the characters of the young man and the dark lady, and themes of beauty, love, and time. The issue of time is one that is met with a number of conflicting feelings on the part of the speaker; throughout the sonnets, it becomes clear that time—or rather, Time as a personified being—is something with which the speaker is deeply concerned, largely as a result of its anticipated effects on the youthful beauty of his love. Throughout the sonnets, we see the speaker attempt to make sense of and come to terms with his deeply rooted fear of Time. Though many of Shakespeare’s sonnets deal with this issue of trying to escape the effects of Time, Sonnet 19 and Sonnet 123 in particular reflect the speaker’s fear of, as well as desire to defy and overcome the effects of Time through the use of direct address to this oppressive and destructive character that the speaker has created.
Throughout the sonnets, particularly the early sonnets that center around the character of the young man, the speaker paints a portrait of Time as a destructive, tyrannical force that serves as a looming threat to the beauty of his love. For instance, in Sonnet 15, the speaker makes reference to “wasteful Time” (line 11) and to a “war with Time for love of you” (line 13)—the “you” presumably being the young man about which these early poems center. In the following sonnet, he again references this notion of a war against time, for he writes, “But wherefore do not you a mightier way / Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?” (lines 1-2). In all of these instances, it is clear that the imagery that the speaker associates with Time are those of destruction and decay, particularly in reference to its effects on the young man and his beauty. However, he does not simply lament the passage of time and the inevitable change it brings; instead, he presents Time as an antagonistic character who seems to be consciously and intentionally opposed to all that the speaker holds dear—namely, the beauty of the man to which the poems are addressed—and thus transforming the abstract notion of time into a clear and tangible enemy against which he must battle. In doing this, the speaker grants immense power to the character of Time, while simultaneously attempting to find ways to undermine this power and, in doing so, to immortalize the object of his love.
The sonnets, in this way, serve as an attempt on the part of the speaker to counteract the destructive effects of Time. He makes clear his belief that there are only two ways to preserve that which Time seeks to destroy: to reproduce, and to write. In the couplet that ends Sonnet 12, he writes, “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence / Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence” (lines 13-14), indicating that the only way to go against the destruction of beauty at the hands of Time is to continue the lineage and pass on one’s beauty. This theme of reproduction is the focus of many of the early sonnets; the speaker makes very clear his belief that the young man should reproduce, lest his beauty be lost forever. Later, the speaker also introduces a second method of defense, despite his assertion in Sonnet 12 that there is no defense against time “save breed[ing]”. In Sonnet 63, he writes that, “His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, / And they shall live, and he in them still green” (lines 13-14). Here, he is making reference to a theme that is woven through many of the early sonnets: the notion that, through writing, a person’s beauty can be preserved. Through this and several similar assertions which appear in other sonnets, the speaker presents his own writing as a method of immortalizing the subjects of his work, and in this way, the sonnets as a whole become a sort of fight against Time and its destructive nature.
However, perhaps the speaker’s most assertive assaults against Time are found in Sonnet 19 and Sonnet 123, in which he addresses Time as a character directly. In many of the other sonnets, the speaker uses personifying imagery such as his reference to “Time’s injurious hand” (line 2) in Sonnet 63 and his remark that “Time will come and take my love away” (line 12) in Sonnet 64 to create a character out of Time that has motive, agency, and power, and in the sonnets which he directly addresses to Time, the speaker begins to talk back to this character that he has created. The first of these is Sonnet 19, which begins with the line, “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws” (line 1), and continues in its direct address to the character of Time throughout the duration of the sonnet. The speaker begins by conceding all of nature to the hands of Time; he instructs Time to, “Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger’s jaws, / And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood; / Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleet’st, / And do whate’er thou wilt, swift-footed Time, / To the wide world and all her fading sweets” (lines 3-7). Here, the speaker is offering a concession in exchange for the demands he goes on to make, for at the end of the opening quatrain, the speaker “forbids” Time dominion over one thing: his love. This address to Time is vastly different from the speaker’s many references to time in the other sonnets in that it neither laments Time as inevitable nor suggests a defense against it to a third party; here, he is openly facing Time and asserting rule over it which we, as readers, recognize immediately as futile. The speaker, it seems, quickly realizes this as well, for the final couplet begins, “Yet, do thy worst old Time” (line 13), acknowledging that Time, despite the speaker’s demands, will do what it will without regard for the speaker’s wishes. In this line, the speaker is both acknowledging the inevitability of Time as well as challenging it do to what it will. The speaker goes on to find consolation in an idea that has been present throughout many of the sonnets; he will immortalize his love through his writing, for he says, “despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young” (lines 13-14). In this sonnet, then, the speaker seems to be simultaneously bargaining with, making demands to, and accepting the power of this character of Time to which he is so strongly opposed. In this apparent contradiction, we see the speaker wrestling with his feelings about Time and struggling to assert power over it, ultimately coming to the conclusion that, though he can do nothing to prevent the passage of Time, he can attempt to preserve his love through his writing. The speaker ends this sonnet by finding some semblance of power in his writing, and, as much as he can, remains defiant toward Time in his assertion that his verse will allow his love to “ever live young” in spite of all that Time can do.
The speaker maintains a more consistent and assertive address to time in Sonnet 123, which begins, “No! Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change” (line 1). Here, unlike in Sonnet 19, the speaker makes no concession to Time in exchange for some other demand; instead, he simply asserts his defiance towards Time and his refusal to be subjugated to the “lie” that Time purports. In this sonnet, the speaker asserts that he is able to see through Time, and is not fooled by the apparent newness and novelty of things that the speaker knows to be “but dressings of a former sight” (line 4). Here, the speaker is calling attention to the cyclical nature of Time and, through this recognition, he manages to take power away from Time, since he knows that all that we recognize as “new” or “old” in our brief lifetimes have been and will continue to be a constant part of this vast, unending cycle, thereby reducing Time to a mere illusion. The speaker’s understanding of Time as such is indicated by the lines, “Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire / What thou dost foist upon us that is old; / And rather make them born to our desire, / Than think that we before have heard them told” (lines 5-8), pointing to the fact that all that exists and is admired has existed long before. The speaker goes on to say that, “Thy registers and thee I both defy, / Not wondering at the present nor the past” (lines 9-10), arguing not for any particular mode of defense against time, but asserting simply that he has no concern for it; he will not give in to wonder or thought about Time. He ends the final couplet with the claim, “I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee” (line 14)—a line that stands in contrast to his previous promotion of various defenses against Time’s scythe, such as in sonnet 12. Sonnet 123 is perhaps the strongest example of defiance against Time, not only in the fact that he is directly addressing and therefore openly facing the character of Time, but also in the fact that he makes no claims to undermine or prevent Time’s effects; instead, he asserts that he will more or less ignore the lies that Time presents.
Sonnets 19 and 123, taken both individually and together, point to the speaker’s recurrent desire to fight the effects of Time—an abstract concept that has taken on the form of a personified, antagonistic character through the speaker’s own portrayal throughout the sonnets—through the use of a direct address to Time itself. Sonnet 19 follows the speaker’s changing thought process as he first tries to bargain with and forbid Time from touching his love, and eventually conceding that, though Time will inevitably do what it will, the young man will be immortalized through the writing itself. Sonnet 123 differs in that it is the speaker’s proclamation that he will not submit to Time, but will live on in spite of it. In both poems, we see the speaker struggling to find a way to defy Time—the force which, as evidenced by his repeated reference to it throughout the sonnets, seems to be the thing that he fears most. In this way, these two sonnets in particular are a by-product of the inherently human process of grappling with fear and, despite its persistent threat, attempting to stand up and talk back to it.
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