Patterns of Consolation in Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-126 - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Patterns of Consolation in Shakespeare's Sonnets 1-126

Emily E. Stockard, Florida Atlantic University

Since their mysterious publication in 1609, Shakespeare's Sonnets have resisted a variety of attempts to place an ordering construct on them.1 This essay offers readers a purchase on what strikes many as a bewildering collection of poems. I will suggest that many of the sonnets can be understood as belonging to the tradition of Renaissance consolatory literature. Further, Shakespeare's rhetorical strategies of consolation place the sequence in the tradition of Renaissance skeptical thought. My approach to the Sonnets is unusual in that I consider individual poems in their surrounding contexts when, with the exception perhaps of the "procreation sonnets" (sonnets 1-17), it is more common to see them in isolation. In previous readings of the Sonnets, certain poems have been picked out for extensive treatment; many more have been ignored, perhaps rightfully so. But my approach does not require consideration of the relative literary merits of various sonnets; rather I will look at a sonnet's relation to those that surround it in order to point out patterns of argument that take form when individual sonnets are considered in their place in the sequence.

Although my primary objective in this essay is to identify the patterns of thought that the sequence as a whole displays, I do not want to suggest that these patterns can account for every sonnet. Nevertheless, despite the vexed question of the order of the Sonnets, Shakespeare's sequence has more cohesion than is generally acknowledged. For example, the many linked pairs and triads among Shakespeare's poems give evidence of a greater degree of organic unity than found in either Sidney's Astrophil and Stella or Spenser's Amoretti—the two major sonnet sequences contemporary with Shakespeare's.2 In addition to explicit verbal links within small groups of sonnets, larger groups of poems share thematic concerns (the "procreation sonnets" being the example most often acknowledged). Obviously, many of the poems share the subject of mutability, primarily of beauty, life, and love. Less obviously, the sonnets cohere in their manner of argumentation, and it is this rhetorical consistency that is my focus. By its nature my study will draw attention to the large number of formally and thematically linked poems in Shakespeare's sequence. But I will focus most explicitly on the patterned rhetorical strategies by which many of the sonnets seek consolation for the problems posed by intractable reality, a reality no less intractable for being incorporated into a fictional construct.3 In its attempt to grapple with reality, Shakespeare's sonnet sequence shares characteristics that Joel Altman finds in Renaissance drama. Altman asserts that

Renaissance tragedies and comedies reveal the inadequacy of invention before the "facts" of life. . . . Invention is variously characterized as persuasive power, poetic conceit, witty double-talk, imaginative capability, incantatory rite .. . but regardless of its local coloration, one can trace through the canon a growing anxiety about the capacity of wit, in its fullest sense, to master ultimate reality.4

The sonnets that I will look at also bring an array of inventive tools to the task of mastering the "'facts' of life." Shakespeare undertakes a search for ways to think about mutability that afford some consolation—but these methods ultimately fail.

An episode in Richard II demonstrates Shakespeare's interest both in the topos of consolation and, what is more important for my argument about the Sonnets, in the illusory or self-deceptive nature of consolatory thought. Early in the play, John of Gaunt suggests a variety of ways by which his son can console himself after being banished by Richard. All depend upon Bolingbroke's ability to think in a way that belies the reality of his punishment:

Think not the king did banish thee,
But thou the king. . . .
Go, say I sent thee forth to purchase honor,
And not, the king exiled thee; or suppose
Devouring pestilence hangs in our air
And thou art flying to a fresher clime.
Look what thy soul holds dear, imagine it
To lie that way thou goest, not whence thou com'st.

Bolingbroke resolutely rejects Gaunt's suggestion that imaginative thinking will relieve the pain of his punishment:

O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer's heat?5

Shakespeare's Sonnets display in a more complex form the types of consoling strategies that Gaunt urges his son to accept. The sequence lacks the overt skeptical voice that would correspond to Bolingbroke's, but the patterns in the search for consolation themselves suggest in a covertly skeptical fashion the limitations of "bare imagination."6

Although the notion of consolation as expressed in the English literary tradition is usually connected to Chaucer and his use of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, I prefer to place Shakespeare's methods of consolation in the context of Montaignian skeptical thought. The methods of consolation exhibited in the Sonnets are the same strategies that Montaigne attributes to his own mind. Doubting the efficacy of the mind's pursuit of truth, Montaigne describes his tendency to use ideas for his own purposes, to deceive himself, to rationalize, to explain. In "Of Experience," he tells of the workings of his mind, including both its powers and its limitations. During a severe attack of kidney stones, his mind finds good reasons for him to suffer:

[It] tells me that it is for my own good that I have the stone; that buildings of my age must naturally suffer some leakage. It is time for them to begin to grow loose and give way. It is common necessity. .. . [It tells me that] company should console me, since I have fallen into the commonest ailment of men of my time of life. On all sides I see them afflicted with the same type of disease, and their society is honorable for me, since it preferably attacks the great; it is essentially noble and dignified.7


With sentences that could describe the self-deceptive methods of thought that Gaunt recommends, Montaigne calls upon these powers of his mind to "flatter" his imagination:

Now I treat my imagination as gently as I can, and would relieve it, if I could, of all trouble and conflict. We must help it and flatter it, and fool it if we can. My mind is suited to this service; it has no lack of plausible reasons for all things. If it could persuade as well as it preaches, it would help me out very happily. (836)

The ability of the mind to invent strategies for relieving the imagination outstrips its ability successfully to persuade; however, Montaigne explains that his mind works on, undaunted by this failure:

By such arguments, both strong and weak, I try to lull and beguile my imagination and salve its wounds, as Cicero did his disease of old age. If they get worse tomorrow, tomorrow we shall provide other ways of escape. (839)

Montaigne's obsessive search for comforting ways to view his illness mirrors that of Shakespeare's persona, who also creates consolations in response to a painful reality.8 Like Montaigne's essays, Shakespeare's sonnet sequence implicitly calls into question the purpose and efficacy of mental effort. Both Shakespeare and Montaigne imply the skeptical view that momentary and illusory comfort, rather than truth, is the aim of thought.

This essay will track through the subsequence of sonnets 1-126, examining the different strategies of consolation that Shakespeare employs. Because similar methods tend to appear in clusters of sonnets, and because I want to point out the progression of these rhetorical strategies, I have divided the essay into six sections and organized it sequentially.9 The name of each section refers to the strategy of consolation that dominates the particular group of poems noted in parentheses. At the end of the essay, I will briefly place the first subsequence (1-126) in relation to the second subsequence (127-154), where the search for consolation appears in an exaggerated and specifically sexual form.

Conventional Consolation (Sonnets 1-18)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

In the course of sonnets 1-18 Shakespeare shifts the argument from one very conventional consolation for the mutability of beauty to another. This shift is the first instance of an argumentative strategy typical of the first subsequence: when a consoling argument fails to satisfy, Shakespeare's speaker alters the terms of the problem of mutability so as to derive a new means of comfort. The earliest sonnets in this group make the consolatory argument that the beauty of the young man whom the poems address will live on in his offspring. The speaker often aims this argument directly at the youth, who does not realize that fathering a child will provide his only consolation for old age and death. Shakespeare's argument for the consolatory aspect of procreation gradually gives way to a second consolatory argument—that the young man's beauty will be preserved in the poet's verse. After the first seventeen sonnets, sonnet 18 fundamentally changes the terms of the problem of mutability so that only the poet's art can defend the youth against the ravages of time.

This shift from procreative to poetic consolation for the mutability of beauty signals a primary alteration in the reality to which the sonnets respond. The poems of this group show the speaker coming to love the beautiful young man in whom he at first has expressed only an abstract interest. Like others, he wants beauty to regenerate itself. The speaker's initial stake in the argument for procreation appears in the first two lines of the first sonnet: "From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty's rose might never die."10 The argument for the natural means of reproducing beauty depends upon the assumption that one example of a beautiful species can substitute for another—that the beautiful child duplicates the once-beautiful parent. But the love of the particular beautiful individual comes to replace the more generalized love of beauty which had prompted the speaker's desire for "fairest creatures" to reproduce themselves. He first announces his love when, in the couplet of sonnet 10, he asks the youth to "Make thee another self for love of me" When the speaker begins to love the young man, procreation, the consolation first offered for lost beauty, no longer suffices.

The procreative argument makes its last appearance in sonnets 15-17, a triad which introduces instead the poet's power to immortalize the young man whom he has come to love. In these poems Shakespeare sets the two conventional methods for defeating mutability, procreation and poetry, in competition with each other, and describes each method...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Neoplatonic Consolation (Sonnets 22-42)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The manipulation of the Neoplatonic commonplace that lovers share identities provides the dominant strategy of consolation among those sonnets numbered 22-42. Concern with the mutability of love replaces the concern with the mutability of beauty. Because the speaker loves an individual, the problem that occupies most of the remaining subsequence is how to maintain that love and how to find consolation for its possible loss. Consolation is necessary because, in spite of the frequent arguments that the lovers are fundamentally united by their love, the sonnets portray both implicitly and explicitly the betrayal of that love. The following quotation from Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium, with its...

(The entire section is 2040 words.)

Absence and the Consolation of Alternation (Sonnets 43-56)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The breach between the speaker and the young man, explicitly described in sonnet 42, drives the lover to adjust his consolatory strategy according to the reality of a separation that he can no longer deny. Connected sonnets find consolation in the alternating states of mind provoked in the speaker by the beloved's absence or presence. Finally, as in the previous group of poems, other sonnets within this group undermine the illusions upon which the consolations depend.

Sonnets 44 and 45 both lament the unbridgeable distance between the lovers, working as a pair to find consolation in the lack of consolation itself. Sonnet 44 explains sorrow in physiological terms; as in the Neoplatonic sonnets, the...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Death and the Algebra of Consolation (Sonnets 62-74)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The consolations for the beloved's absence ultimately fail because they depend upon the eventual reunion of the two lovers—a reality that Shakespeare's speaker cannot control. Unable to reformulate reality, the lover reformulates his argumentative terms: he defines absence in its most extreme form—death.16 In its redefinition of absence, this group of sonnets again displays Shakespeare's argumentative tactic of shifting the terms of the problem posed in the sonnets immediately preceding. The shift in focus from absence to death offers advantages in the effort to find consolation. Death is an ultimate absence from which no return can be expected; it is also an inevitable absence that neither the lover...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)

The Consolation of Isolation (Sonnets 87-93)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Having addressed the loss of love by redefining absence as death, Shakespeare's speaker once again redefines the terms of his argument. This short but closely linked string of poems anticipates not death but abandonment, and the lover finds good reasons for the anticipated farewell as well as good reasons for the beloved to hate him. But his consolatory techniques prove unsatisfactory, and the final two sonnets of this group locate the ultimate consolation for loss of love in the speaker's isolation from reality. He states that he will live in a self-deceiving world of illusion, never acknowledging the lost love.22 These poems reveal the speaker's desperate state and so explain his willingness to accept a...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Infidelity: the Consolation of Mutability (Sonnets 113-125)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Following this attempt to deny reality, Shakespeare shifts the terms of reality itself in a fundamental way. This change, coming in the final group of poems in the first subsequence, provides a final solution to the problem of the loss of love. Throughout much of the subsequence, the speaker has been seeking consolations for the mutability of the young man's love. At the conclusion of the subsequence, however, mutability comes to the speaker's aid: the mutability of his own love for the young man provides him with the ultimate answer to his insoluble problem. This shift in reality brings about a corresponding shift in the object of the speaker's consolatory arguments. No longer does he formulate for himself consoling...

(The entire section is 1195 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

In the very earliest sonnets, before the development of a specific love attachment, the speaker portrays the youth's beauty as an individual instance of beauty in general, and the subsequence returns to that perspective in its final poem (126). In this last poem, however, the lover accepts conditions of mutability that he has earlier been at such pains to deny. His warnings of inevitable death recall sonnets 1-17, which instructed the youth to battle time by procreating and proposed ways by which the poet could immortalize the young man. But here the speaker makes no such proposals; this twelve-line poem lacks the final two lines where, in the sonnet, the speaker often constructs his consolations. By the end of this...

(The entire section is 2837 words.)