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Treatment of Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare uses the word 'time' seventy-eight times in the sonnets 1-126. As we go through the sonnets it seems to us that the narrator is hauntingly preoccupied with the passing of time and everything that it entails, including mortality, memory, inevitability, and change. He is distressed over such things that he has no control over time ,but still he tries to conquer the time.At times it seems that the speaker is fighting a futile battle against time itself.

Time personified

Shakespeare often personifies time.It is said that Time is the fourth character in his sonnets.But the Time is the great villain in Shakespeare’s sonnets-drama.Shakespeare describes time as a "bloody tyrant" (Sonnet 16), "devouring" and "swift-footed" (Sonnet 19). Time is making Shakespeare old and near "hideous night" (Sonnet 12) or death. And time will eventually rob the beauty of the young man. This treatment of time is prevalent throughout the sonnets, and it takes many different forms, sometimes referring to the destructive power of time in general, other times focusing on the effects of time on a specific character in the sonnets such as the narrator or the fair lord.


In the first seventeen sonnets which are called the procreation sonnets Skakespeare makes an earnest plea to the fair lord, begging him to find a woman to bear his child so that his beauty might be preserved for posterity. In these 17 sonnets the treatment of time is almost. Through the imagery of military, winter, and the Sun the speaker tries to give the picture of the ravages of time. In sonnet 2, the poet writes, "When forty winters shall beseige thy brow / And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field ... Time is the great enemy, besieging the youth's brow, digging trenches — wrinkles — in his face, and ravaging his good looks. In the sonnet 5 he repeates the same theme and says that hours are tyrants that oppress him because he cannot escape time's grasp. Time might "frame / The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell," meaning that everyone notices the youth's beauty, but time's "never-resting" progress ensures that this beauty will eventually fade.Time is related with death .Sonnet 13 furthers the theme of time by stating that death will forever vanquish the young man's beauty.

But the speaker also suggests the way how to comquer time. The poet argues that procreation ensures life after death; losing your identity in death does not necessarily mean the loss of life so long as you have procreated. The poet is lamenting the ravages of time and its detrimental effects on the fair lord's beauty, seeking to combat the inevitable by pushing the fair lord to bequeath his exquisiteness unto a child. In Sonnet 12 again the narrator speaks of the sterility of bachelorhood and recommends marriage and children as a means of immortality.


The destructive nature of time is shown again in the sonnet 18 ans 19.But here the speaker finds an alternative way to conquer the time namely his verse.In sonnet 18 Initially, the poet poses a question to his friend — "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" — and then reflects on it, remarking that the youth's beauty far surpasses summer's delights.But the poet admits the ravages of time again and we see it especially in line 7, where the poet speaks of the inevitable mortality of beauty: "And every fair from fair sometime declines." But the speaker is very confident and defies the time.The poem end with the concluding : "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." The poet opines that his eternal verse will capture and mummify the friend’s beauty.
The same theme is repeated in the sonnet 19 in which the speaker pictures time with help of the animal imageries.The poet addresses Time and, using vivid animal imagery, comments on Time's normal effects on nature. The sonnet's first seven lines address the ravages of nature that "Devouring Time" can wreak.The poet then commands Time not to age the young man and ends by boldly asserting that the poet's own creative talent will make the youth permanently young and beautiful.However, nature's threatening the youth's beauty does not matter, for the poet confidently asserts that the youth will gain immortality as the subject of the sonnets. Because poetry, according to the poet, is eternal, it only stands to reason that his poetry about the young man will ensure the youth's immortality. The youth as the physical subject of the sonnets will age and eventually die, but in the sonnets themselves he will remain young and beautiful.


The sonnet 60 may best illustrate Shakespeare’s treatment of the ravages of time.Sonnet 60 is acknowledged as one of Shakespeare's greatest because it deals with the universal concerns of time and its passing. In the sonnet, time is symbolized by concrete images.

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.

Each quatrain engages the theme in a unique way, with the destructive force of time redoubling with each successive line. In quatrain one the flow of time is compared with the incessant beating of the waves against a shore, each wave building in strength and then crashing down again only to be followed by another in its place. The second quatrain uses the sun as a metaphor for human life: it is born ("Nativity") and "crawls" (like a baby) until it reaches its highest point, whereupon it is "crown'd" (with maturity) and then proceeds to fall back into darkness, or death. Line 8 concludes the metaphor with the assertion that Time both gives the gift of life and takes it away again.Although the poet seems certain that Time's destruction is inevitable, he is nonetheless hopeful that his verse will get away with it in the end. The final couplet speaks of the poet's intention to outsmart Time himself, defying his "cruel hand" by eternalizing the fair lord in his verse.

In the sonnet 65 the poet also says that nothing withstands time's ravages. The hardest metals and stones, the vast earth and sea — all submit to time.The poet once again is reassured that his sonnets will provide the youth immortality — his verse is the only thing that can withstand time's decay. Returning to the power of poetry to bestow eternal life, the poet asserts "That in black ink my love may still shine bright." He believes that his love verse can preserve the youth's beauty.

Sometimes the poet thinks his attepmts to conquer the time as futile and without any result. In Sonnet 64, the poet is portrayed as a historian, philosopher, and antiquarian who dreams of time's relentless destruction of ancient glories. Monuments that reflect the noblest ideas of humankind — castles, churches, and cities — will one day be "confounded to decay."Whereas Sonnet 60's concluding couplet evokes feelings of high-spirited joy and confidence, Sonnet 64 ends in despair: The poet is now certain that death will "take my love away," but he no longer seems satisfied that his verse will ensure the youth's immortality. The sonnet's last two lines convey a grievous, depressing tone: "This thought is as a death, which cannot choose / But weep to have that which it fears to lose." The poet finally acknowledges the youth's — and his own — mortality.


Time,old age and death are inter-related.Sonnets 73 and 75 treat this aspect of time.Sonnet 73 as sonnet 60 in expresses the theme of the ravages of time. The sonnet focuses on the narrator's own anxiety over growing old. In the first quatrain, the narrator compares himself to the late autumn season, that time of year when the trees have begun to lose their leaves and the cold is setting in.Quatrain two makes life still shorter, going from the seasons of the year to the hours of the day. The narrator is at the twilight of his life: his sun has set, and Death is soon upon him.

The poet continues his obsessive concern with his own death in the sonnet 75. Although he emphasizes his own inadequacy as a person, he boldly asserts the greatness of his verse: "My life hath in this line some interest, / Which for memorial still with thee shall stay." He claims that his better part will survive his death in his poems. In keeping with his exaggerated mood, the poet alludes to the belief that his demise will be "Too base" for the youth to remember, but the best part of him will survive in his immortal verse.

The inevitable ravages of time is also shown in the sonnet 104.

True love can defy time

Like the children and the verse true love also can defy the time as mentioned in the sonnet 116. Unlike physical beauty true love is not "Time's fool." and subject to the ravages of time

"Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come."
Time's "hours and weeks" are "brief" compared to love's longevity.

The same view is repeated in the sonnet 123 ,in which the speaker directly addresses Time, and explains that he must defy it.

No! Time ,thau shalt not boast that I do change
Thy pyramids built up with newer might.

The narrator claims to be a man of steady and stable character ,not subject to the changes which Time brings about.He vows that he would never change towards his friend and that he would always remain true to him ,despite the scythe of Time.

This I do vow and this shall ever be,
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

Thus, the theme of time is built gradually through the first 126 sonnets and the poet comes to the conclusion tha inspite of the ravages of time love can shelter him.

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