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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252

There are two key themes in this poem which feature often in Shakespeare's first 126 sonnets, which are all addressed to the unknown Fair Youth.

The first is the theme of youthful beauty, in and of itself, as a worthy subject for art and a compulsion for man. The speaker discusses reading about beautiful things in "chronicles" from years gone by and thinking only of the beauty his beloved now "master[s]"—he imagines, in the descriptions of all these past "lovely" creatures, only his own beloved. However, he feels that the beauty of his beloved is, in fact, beyond the skill of human writers to capture—it is not possible to "praise" it adequately with human "tongues." The beauty of the speaker's beloved is a "wonder," something which draws artists over and over again like a muse, but which is in the end impossible to capture.

The second theme is that of writing as a means of immortalizing a person or concept. This is conveyed more vividly in some other sonnets, but, certainly, this sonnet is very concerned with art as a vehicle for memorializing beauty. Shakespeare describes this theme in an interesting way, suggesting that older writers who never knew his beloved were actually prophets, anticipating his beauty. But the speaker returns to the idea that while the "skill" of the older poets was inadequate to properly capture true beauty, so too do poets of "present days" lack that skill. However, this will not stop them from trying to immortalize beauty.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

Sonnet 106 is in many ways a typical love poem filled with conventional techniques. While it does not offer significant insight into the many mysteries of the sonnets, it does provide a glimpse of an idea far too often overlooked in much criticism—that Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers depended upon the authors of the past. It is often perceived that the literary works of Renaissance England rely solely upon the classical traditions or spring from an author’s sudden burst of inspiration. Sonnet 106 proves that is not true, for it clearly displays Shakespeare’s debt to medieval authors and their works.

Shakespeare was influenced by the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) is a major source for the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-1596). While Shakespeare somewhat alters the myth surrounding the marriage of Hippolyta and Theseus, the Chaucerian influence is abundant. This type of borrowing is continued in Sonnet 106. In this poem, Shakespeare clearly reminds readers of his debt to the older works. He also shows an understanding of the themes of many of the ancient texts: ladies, knights, courtly love, and chivalry.

It is clear that perceiving beauty is one thing, while putting those visualizations into words is quite another. Thus, ironically, the narrator fails miserably in his quest—yet he is also successful to some degree. Despite his omission of any physical description, he has captured at least a part of his love’s essence, and he is honoring her with a poem. Like the women who were glorified in literature long before her, she, too, has been given eternal life.

Sonnet 106 also has a consciousness of the theme implicit in the phrase “this our time” (line 10). The sonnet constantly reinforces the idea that what lovers can do is mandated by their particular era; what has previously occurred affects them, so they cannot ignore the past. Yet, after their death, they are doomed to become faint images for other authors to wonder about. At best, they can attempt an understanding of the ideals and the images of their present. This theme, introduced in Sonnet 106, is furthered in the more famous Sonnet 107 (“Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul”). The message of Sonnet 106 is clear, and its technique is conventional. It is of particular value because it shows an aspect of Shakespeare’s work that is too often overlooked: its debt to medieval authors.

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