Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496
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 Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), the heroine throws herself under the wheels of a locomotive after she has left her husband and children and ultimately finds herself deserted by her faithless lover. In Henrik Ibsen’s play Gengangere (1881; Ghosts, 1885), a promising young man dies because he inherited syphilis from his profligate father. In Anton Chekhov’s best short story, “Dama s sobachkoi” (1899; “The Lady with the Dog,” 1917), an adulterous relationship leads to endless mental torture for both parties involved. In Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925), lust leads to murder and death in the electric chair.
As Shakespeare wrote, the world well knows that sexual intercourse without love is often a grave disappointment and can lead to torment in a wide variety of forms. Unfortunately, many people have to learn this truth by bitter experience.
Finally, a political statement might be read into this sonnet. The fact that it departs from the norm and is not pretty and soothing might be taken to indicate a view that art should serve a higher purpose than merely helping the genteel elite to pass their leisure hours. Its denunciation of sexual lust might be read as an indictment of the aristocracy, whose favorite pastime, as shown by so many of the songs, poems, and paintings of the period, was playing at the game of love. Thus, it might be seen as foreshadowing views that led to the English Civil War which began only twenty-six years after Shakespeare’s death and changed the course of history.