Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 456 words.)