Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shakespeare was not a deeply religious man. The moralistic tone of this poem seems so out of character that one distinguished Shakespearean scholar, A. L. Rowse, suggested that Shakespeare did not intend it to be taken seriously but wrote the sonnet as a sort of private joke for his circle of friends; yet its emotional effect is so powerful that it is hard to believe that Shakespeare was not writing with true feeling. It has also been suggested that Shakespeare wrote the sonnet after discovering that he had contracted syphilis from a liaison with a prostitute—or possibly from the mysterious “Dark Lady” mentioned in some of his other sonnets.

The theme is simple and clear. The poet is preaching a brief sermon on the dangers of sexual lust. These dangers have been a subject of literature since the stories of Samson and Delilah and of David and Bathsheba, recorded in the Old Testament. The Trojan War, which led to the destruction of a whole civilization and was described in both Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) and Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), was reputedly caused by Paris’s lust for Helen, the wife of Menelaus. In Shakespeare’s own long poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594), the story is told of how the Etruscan rulers came to be driven out of Rome because of Sextus Tarquinius’s rape of Lucrece and her subsequent suicide.

In Leo Tolstoy’s novel...

(The entire section is 496 words.)