Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91 exemplifies how vulnerable lovers become when they put their love above all else. He has slightly altered the traditional Elizabethan sonnet from a form which glorifies love to one which exposes it as a deeply disturbing emotional experience. While countless Elizabethan poets employed the traditional techniques of composing sonnets, Shakespeare uses his control of language and images to twist the form and create an unusual and moving piece.

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The pining and lamentation for lost or unrequited love, a theme prevalent in many traditional sonnets, is replaced by a psychological examination of the process of love. Further, Shakespeare has developed the first quatrain in such a way that it heightens the poem’s surprise conclusion. This technique depends on several items, which the poem fails to explore, to present this viewpoint. Shakespeare never clearly states that any of the scenarios noted in the first quatrain are excessive or covetous. Indeed, many of the traits are honorable: One’s name is one’s identity, for example, and it is paramount that artists be skilled. In retrospect, the elements listed in the initial quatrain are normal characteristics of life.

People become admired for certain values and scorned for others. Yet, in any society, high values are placed upon birth, wit, wealth, beauty, and material possessions. Those items do not seem to fit in a love poem, however, except to serve as grounds above which love can be elevated. Thus, it is expected that once those attributes are mentioned, they will be acknowledged as foolish, and the author will demonstrate that love is much better.

Shakespeare does follow this to a point, but then he breaks from tradition. The narrator claims that he is better off than others because he has obtained love. Yet love is not a measurable attribute; one may determine another’s “worth” in terms of name, artistic ability, and sporting prowess, the elements mentioned in the opening quatrain and downplayed in the third. Moreover, love can be more decimating than those others when it is lost.

This raises the question of the value of love, which is answered by Shakespeare’s omission of strength from the characteristics downplayed in the third quatrain. It is the strength of the feelings between the two lovers that creates both the thrill and the torment of love. The energy that exists between lovers clearly surpasses the power which comes from one’s social standing, vocation, and sporting ability. It is love that bridges the gap between these characteristics, for it does not care about their value. Sonnet 91 demonstrates Shakespeare’s superb ability to stray from the normal path and manipulate the language to express deep emotion in a way which ironically heightens the psychological trauma of love.

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