Time in the Sonnets
Time is the most frequently repeated concept and image in the Sonnets. This is the pervasive Renaissance theme of mutability, and the poet presents various ways to defy Time. The first seventeen Sonnets constitute the most distinctive unit of the whole sequence, which is arranged more or less logically by similarity of theme. We don't, of course, know who devised the ordering of the Sonnets or what relation the sequence has to date of composition. The first seventeen sonnets all urge the young friend to marry and to reproduce his beauty in children. This is the familiar doctrine of use that is part of Venus's argument to Adonis in Venus and Adonis and that echoes the often-repeated parable of the talents in Matt. 25:14-30. Man is the steward, not the owner, of his good qualities and possessions, and he is obligated to put his natural gifts to use for the benefit of others. If you are beautiful, you must make use of your beauty (as money accumulates "use" or interest) by having children on whom to bestow your god-given gifts.
The beginning of the first sonnet announces the immortality of beauty through propagation:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die.
You are not allowed to be in love with yourself and waste your substance in "niggarding," or hoarding, to be "contracted to thine own bright eyes" and feed "thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel." This is to make "a famine where abundance lies," that is, the potential abundance that comes from creating children to perpetuate one's beauty. Children are like "flowers distilled" (Sonnet 3), or perfume, that defies the tyranny of Time.
Another way to wage war against Time is to write verse, which confers a kind of immortality upon the Friend. This is a repeated theme in the Sonnets. Posterity and poetry both do battle against oblivion. Nature is a destroyer of beauty, but poetry is immutable and guarantees that "thy eternal summer shall not fade" (Sonnet 18). In Sonnet 65 there is a series of unanswerable questions about Time, one in each of the first two quatrains, and two in the third:
0, fearful meditation, where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Presumably, "Time's best jewel" is the beautiful Friend, whom the Poet is trying to conceal from the ravaging hand of Time, who threatens to seize him and put him in his chest. How can "beauty hold a plea" against the rage of Time? The only solution to this "fearful meditation" is the miracle of poetry: "That in black ink my love may still shine bright." The immanence and immortality of poetry are postulated as a defense against the ravages of Time.
[In this concise appraisal of various issues associated with Shakespeare's sonnets, Charney pays particular attention to Shakespeare's development of the sonnet form and the effectiveness of his concluding couplets. Charney also discusses the motifs of time and mutability, the presence of both lyric and dramatic elements in the sequence, and the poet-speaker's reflections on his creative powers.]
Thomas Thorpe published 154 Sonnets by Shakespeare followed by A Lover's Complaint (also said to be by Shakespeare) in 1609. Unlike the texts of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, the printed text has many obvious errors, and Shakespeare clearly did not proofread it or see it through the press. Although the Sonnets seem to have an authoritative manuscript behind them, they were certainly not published with Shakespeare's knowledge or permission. Sonnets usually circulated in handwritten "books" among one's private friends and acquaintances. It was not considered necessary or even desirable to publish them.
The great vogue of sonnet writing was in the 1590s, and we know from Sonnet 104 that three years had passed since the poet first saw his "fair friend," which makes it likely that the writing of the Sonnets occupied at least three years in the 1590s, probably early 1590s. Some of the Sonnets may have been written in the early...
(The entire section is 55,120 words.)