Guardian letter 7 (April 2016)
The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 occasioned a lot of media pieces about him. One newspaper article said that Shakespeare’s sonnets show his belief that art can give immortality.
That’s true – but the famous Sonnet 18 shows that in aiming for immortality, Shakespeare could be heartless and selfish – oddly so, for the writer of one of the world’s best known love poems.
Sonnet 18, digested, says: You’re more lovely than a summer’s day at the moment, but soon you’ll wither and age. However, luckily for you, my brilliant poem about you will live forever.
The poem shows his love not for the supposed beloved, but for his own poetic skill in preserving youthful beauty – like some sort of youth-fetishising bardic taxidermist.
If he loved the subject of his poem, he’d say that he’d always love them even when they got old and wrinkled – not that their skin-deep youthful beauty would be immortalised by his precious sonnet.
The language is beautiful but the message isn’t. Did Shakespeare have emotional deprivation disorder – or was he just full of it?
To be fair, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments’) does better: ‘Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come‘.
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