Critical Interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnet 16
I will be critically analyzing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 for the meaning and intent of the author. It is very clear upon close reading and careful thought that the main point Shakespeare is making in Sonnet 16 is that: if you want people to remember you in all of your glory, your beauty and your internal worth and virtue; to leave the best of yourself in the world, the best way to do that is to procreate and to have children. The context of the sonnet is a battle with time; a battle with aging; a desperate battle not to lose the flower of our youth. The sonnet repeatedly refers to poems, paintings and other ways in which people represent themselves as inferior while it speaks of having children in almost idealized terms.
The first line of the sonnet “But wherefore do not you a mightier way” indicates that something is wrong; Shakespeare is recommending a different course of action. Shakespeare is saying, why are you only using half measures? Why would you use half measures when you have a much more powerful way to fight against time? Shakespeare is saying that there is a much better way to accomplish the goal, “a mightier way.”
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The second line of the sonnet set the stage for the poem. The second line “Make war upon this bloody tyrant, time,” gives us the context with which to understand and interpret the sonnet. All parts of the sonnet fall within the frame of a war against time. It is not just a war against time but against the “bloody tyrant, time” Shakespeare depicts time as not only as the enemy but almost as an all controlling and perhaps even evil thing.
The third line “And fortify yourself in your decay” means to protect yourself from signs of aging. It could also allude to a decay in control of lands or titles or even a kingdom. It sets up the goal as being immortal; to live on in our peak vitality, strength and beauty.
The forth line is “With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?” Shakespeare is saying that there is a better way to fight time or to stay immortally young than to be the subject of a poem. Shakespeare is saying that he could write a poem but it would be “barren,” something empty perhaps even dead compared to the other way. Barren of course also refers to the inability to have children, so again Shakespeare is hinting that having children is the “mightier way.”
“Now stand you on the top of happy hours” the meaning is that now you are in your prime. You are at the peak of your youth and beauty and perhaps success. Shakespeare is saying that because you are “on top of happy hours” you don’t realize that you need to take action now.
The next two lines are taken together, “And many maiden gardens, yet unset” and “With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers.” Here Shakespeare is again talking about how important it is to have children. He is saying that now in your prime you can choose any girl you like and they will have your children. Left unsaid is that later that choice might not be there. When he says “And many maiden gardens, yet unset” here he refers to virgin girls or girls who have not been pregnant before, in other words the purest or best choices are available to you now is what Shakespeare is saying. When he writes, “With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers.” He is saying any of these girls would gladly bear children with the purest of intentions. Shakespeare is also perhaps saying that the concept of love is associated with marriage and childbearing and that it is special and it is something that can touch us in the same way that the highest ideals of virtue can.
When Shakespeare writes, “Much liker than your painted counterfeit” he means if you had children now they would be much more likely to look like you than any painting would. The painting is merely a two-dimensional copy of how you look. He is again emphasizing that the painting is not real; it is “counterfeit.” Children are real; in fact, they would carry your real genes. They would almost be “you.”
The next two line speaks to childbearing being the best way to eternally represent and preserve one’s state of youth and beauty. Shakespeare is saying that having children is by far the most effective way to fight the ravages of time. When he writes, “So should the lines of life that life repair” I think he means the lines as in the family lines or lineage, so that with every generation renews that youth and vitality. Life is naturally renewing that youth and beauty for your genes when you have children.
The next two lines I will address together. “Which this time’s pencil or my pupil pen” “Neither in inward worth nor outward fair” he is saying that time created your beauty, intellect and virtue but that it will fade; that you cannot preserve it. When he writes, “or my pupil pen” he is saying that his poems will likewise not preserve anything real; not beauty nor internal worth. Shakespeare is laying out why decay is inevitable and saying that poems or paintings will not preserve who you are in a meaningful way. Without saying it here but rather by showing what does not work Shakespeare makes very clear what does; having children.
The next line, “Can make you live yourself in eyes of men” he is saying that his poems or any other form of literature or art would not make a person real to other people. It would just be a poem or a painting. The only thing that makes that “outward fair” is a real person, seeing and feeling the power of that beauty. The “inward worth” only becomes real inside of a person as well. The only way to fight time is to have children, to pass on your genes, to continue the bloodline, to renew your beauty and virtue in all its splendor and power the same way it exists in you today.
The last two lines summarize the point Shakespeare has been making all along; that the best way to preserve who you are, inside and out; is to have children. When he writes, “To give away yourself keeps yourself still” he is saying that when you give away your genetic material which perhaps you are afraid to do, you actually preserve who you are. You save yourself, who you really are inside and out, by having children. The last line of the sonnet is “And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill” it means that you will live on through your children and you must save yourself by procreating which is after all a sweet and pleasurable thing to do.
In conclusion, Shakespeare clearly advocates having children. Shakespeare makes counterarguments against the alternatives such immortalization in a poem or a painting and he rejects them all as being a pale comparison not only in his eyes but “in eyes of (all) men.” Shakespeare very clearly makes the point that if you want people to remember you in all of your glory, your beauty and your internal worth and virtue; to leave the best of yourself in the world, the best way to do that is to procreate and to have children.
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