Friday, December 18, 2009

Portrayal of the Fair Youth in Shakespeare's Sonnets

In Shakespeare’s Sonnets the 'Fair Youth' is an unnamed young man to whom sonnets 1-126 are addressed. The poet writes of the young man in romantic and loving language, a fact which has led several commentators to suggest a homosexual relationship between them, while others read it as platonic love. Though the name this young man is not mentioned,we can get a view of the mental and physical picture of him.

The thing that strikes our mind after we read the sonnets is that the speaker only pays the glowing tributes to the external features of his friend.But inwardly his friend lacks many qualities and the poet has to give advice to keep him on the right track.But the young man remains ever uninstructed.

Physically superb

Physically superb, radiantly youthful, politically ascendant, socially powerful, the fair youth represents nearly everything that Shakespeare's culture valued in external life accomplishments and courtly character. To highlight this idealization ,the fair youth's perceived virtues are explicitly contrasted with the poet's "too sullied" and demeaning real world existence.

This idealization treats lightly the youth's fundamental flaw, his selfishness in refusing to wed and procreate. But this initial idealization makes horrific the poet's gradual recognition and then public denunciation of the youth's vicious, shallow and selfish character. The poet's ideals become a pathetic illusion, and the poems describe a pervasive spiritual strangulation that goes far beyond amorous disappointment. It is this existential exhaustion that the poet struggles to overcome.

The sensual betrayal of the "dark lady" counterpoints the spiritual betrayal by the young man. With the woman (whose historical identity is unknown) the poet's "betrayal" is inward and visceral, as his lust turns into an addict's remorse.

Reluctant youth

In the opening 17 sonnets the friend is portrayed as a handsome young man who is very reluctant to get wed. In the opening sonnet the friend ,who ’contracted to thine own bright eyes’ and is interested only in his own selfish desires emerges as the embodiment of narcissism, a destructively excessive love of oneself. The poet makes clear that the youth's self-love is unhealthy, not only for himself but for the entire world.

From the Sonnet 7 we see that the friend’s youthful condition is compared with the sun's highest point in the sky,which resembles "strong youth in his middle age." However, after the sun reaches it apex, its only direction is down. This downward movement represents "feeble age" in the youth, and what is worse than mere physical appearance is that the people who looked in awe at the youth's beauty will "look another way" when he has become old. In death, he will not be remembered.
As usual, the poet argues that the only way for the youth to ensure that he is remembered after he dies is to have a child, making it clear that this child should be a son.

The sonnets open in a public, ceremonial tone. They graciously entreat a noble and beautiful young man (the "fair youth") to sire a child who will preserve his physical virtues after he is old or dead. (Conception implies the contract of marriage, which is never mentioned explicitly.) Most of the important themes or key images in the sonnet cycle are first expressed here in stylized terms: beauty's passing, the human desire to preserve beauty against time and decay, the deferential relationship between the fair youth and the poet who speaks the sonnets, the connections among people that the desire to preserve beauty motivates, the power of verse to persuade and memorialize, and (gently expressed) the narcissism and selfishness that underlies the youth's indifference to the poet's requests. 

The sonnets from 18 to 25 we find another picture of the youth.This time the poet is obsessessed with the physical charms of the young man.In the sonnet 18,for example ,the speaker says

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Thus the speaker here has glorified the physical charms of the young man,whose beauty far surpasses summer's delights. The poet's use of extremes in the phrases "more lovely," "all too short," and "too hot" emphasizes the young man's beauty.

The sonnet 20 gives another picture of the friend. In this crucial, sensual sonnet, the young man becomes the "master-mistress" of the poet's passion.

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou the master mistress of my passion.

As a man with the beauty of a woman, the youth is designed to be partnered with women but attracts men as well, being unsurpassed in looks and more faithful than any woman. Although to the poet he possesses a woman's gentleness and charm, the youth bears the genitalia ("one thing") of a man, and despite having a woman's physical attractiveness, the young man has none of a woman's fickle and flirtatious character.

Self-centred and unable to exercise good friendship

But from the sonnet 25 onwards we find another picture of the friend. Here the self-centred nature of the young man is clearly portrayed.The poet is devoted to his friend ,the latter is unmindful to the poet.As stated in the sonnet 34 the young man is not capable of a mutual,warm friendship.

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?

The speaker is puzzled and painfully disappointed by the youth, whose callousness dashes any hope of his enjoying a dependable friendship. The opening complaint, again based on the metaphor of the young man as the sun, shows how much the poet's perceptions have changed. He has been wounded by the youth, and apologies notwithstanding, the scar remains: "For no man well of such a salve can speak / That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace."

He is indocurous

In the following sonnets we also notice some indocurous behaviours of the young man.He is selfish and of loose morality as is portrayed in sonnets 40 and 42.From these sonnets it becomes apparent that the young friend has developed a secrete relation with the speaker’s mistress. Though the poet does not openly condemn his friend,he wavers between anger at and forgiveness of the young man. Line 7 begins, "But yet be blamed," and we expect the poet to rant in extreme hostility at the youth, but this mood then shifts to the forgiveness contained in lines 9 and 10: "I do forgive thy robb'ry, gentle thief, / Although thou steal thee all my poverty." In lines 11 and 12, the mood shifts again, but now the poet waxes philosophically about the contrasts between love and hate: ". . . it is a greater grief / To bear love's wrong than hate's known injury." And finally, even while angry over the affair, the poet forgives the youth's lecherous nature: "Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows, / Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes."

In the sonnet 42 the speaker also expresses his suppressed anger for his friend and also finds consolotion from the syllogistic argument that he and his friend are one and the same person and that his mistress therefore loves only him even if she has become his friend’s mistress.

The friend can be faithless but the poet remains ever faithful to him which earns good admiration to our eyes.Amid his suffering, the poet's dignity emerges in his high minded endurance, in the strength of his love, his forgiveness, his dry humor, and his powerful verse. The "fair youth" sonnets conclude with an awed realization of the power of genuine love to triumph over any suffering. Love is precious not because the youth is worthy or because the erotic impulse is sweet to fulfill, but because love alone can overcome life's unrelenting waste and futility:

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Whatever is the source of the strength the poet finds, it is this immortal truth and beauty that the sonnets magnificently celebrate.

Thus, though the poet’s emotion ,which originally is that of admiration ,develops until it becomes adoration.But the young man emerges as a selfish man of dual personality.He belongs to the aristocratic family but his moral taste is coarse and immoral.