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Shakespeare’s treatment of Love and Marriage in his Sonnets.


The themes of marriage and love are two leading issues in Shakespeare’s sonnets drama. The 154 sonnets, which are divided into two groups, treat these two themes from various perspectives. In the treatment of marriage and love Shakespeare is both traditional and anti-traditional. He is traditional in the sense that like other Petrarchan sonneteers of his age, Shakespeare also gave emphasis on love theme in his sonnets. Sometimes, he also follows the courtly tradition. But he is also different from the Petrarchan sonneteers in the sense that he openly satirizes the courtly tradition of poetry in his sonnets. Now,let us discuss Shakespeare’s treatment of marriage and love in his sonnets. 
 
Shakespeare’s opening 17 sonnets, which are known as the procreation sonnets, deal with the theme of marriage. Here in these sonnets Shapespeare is preoccupied with the practical value of marriage. He does not treat marriage from spiritual point of view. Rather he views marriage as a tool to overcome the destruction of Time.In the opening four sonnets, Shakespeare urges his friend to get wed in order to preserve the ’beauty’s rose’ from the hands of destructive Time. The poet calls upon his friend to get married and to produce children in order to be able to perpetuate his name and his memory.

In Sonnet 5, 6 and 7, the poet views marriage as a tool to defy the ravages of Time. Here he gives a picture of the passing of time and the effect of time on beautiful things. When summer ends, all its beauty goes, without leaving any trace behind. Samely people gaze at the sun and worship its glory when it rises in the morning. But nobody bothers about the sun when it is setting. Here the poet encourages his friend to have ten sons if possible because that will mean ten times more happiness for him and for others.  

Shakespeare also considers marriage important for happy conjugal life. In Sonnet 8, the poet employs a new argument that music chides his friend for remaining single instead of getting married. Various musical sounds combine to form one harmonious whole. In the same way a father, a mother, and a child constitute one pleasing whole (i.e, a family).The poet’s feeling behind this sonnet is one of the regret at the failure of his friend to have played that role.
In Sonnet 9, we have a striking example of what is known as ’’hyperbole.” To say  that the world will be widowed if the poet’s friend dies issuless.

In Sonnet 10, the poet accuses his friend because the friend loves nobody and in fact he does not love even himself because he shows no concern for the preservation and perpetuation of his own beauty through marriage and begetting child.

In Sonnet 11 the poet appeals to his friend in the name of sheer commonsense. There is no doubt that, if everybody were to lead a life of celibacy, the world of human beings would come to an end after a certain period of time.

In Sonnet 15 the poet promises immortality to his friend through his poetry. Yet he urges his friend to seek immortality through a more effective way in Sonnet 16 and 17. The poet is trying to preserve an image of the youth and beauty of his friends in his sonnets, but the coming generation will not believe that such a handsome and charming young man as has been described in these poems ever existed.They will think that the poet has given a highly exaggerated account of his friend’s beauty. So, the best way for his friend to attain immortality, therefore, is to get married and beget a child.

Next comes the treatment of love. In his treatment of love Shakespeare is almost autobiographical. He expresses his views on love in relation with his male friend and the young lady. 

The first group of sonnets (1-126) is addressed to a male friend, most probably the Earl of Southampton; while the second group (127-152 with the exception of two) is addressed to Shakespeare’s mistress who has come to be known as the dark lady.  Shakespeare loved both his male friend and his mistress ; and his love for both of them was intense and passionate. But both of them betrayed him by developing a sexual relationship with each other.Inspite of this betrayal, Shakespeare could not help continuing to love both of them

Regarding his relation with his young friend, the poet writes 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.
Shakespeare’s love is ideal love, and it almost surpasses the love of Dante for his Beatrice, and the love of Petrarch for his Laura. Nor could Mrs Browning, in her sonnets, written much later and addressed to her husband, equal Shakespeare’s ardour and fervour.

Shakespeare’s treatment of love is also seen in his relation with the Dark lady. Here at first, the poet is anti-petrarchan in his treatment of love. Shakespeare did not follow the Elizabethan courtly tradition.

Shakespeare’s ridicule of the courtly tradition is best illustrated in his sonnet 130. This sonnet plays an elaborate joke on the conventions of love poetry common to Shakespeare's day.

In the sonnets, Petrarch praises her beauty, her worth, and her perfection using an extraordinary variety of metaphors based largely on natural beauties. In Shakespeare's day, these metaphors had already become cliche (as, indeed, they still are today), but they were still the accepted technique for writing love poetry. The result was that poems tended to make highly idealizing comparisons between nature and the poets' lover that were, if taken literally, completely ridiculous. My mistress' eyes are like the sun; her lips are red as coral; her cheeks are like roses, her breasts are white as snow, her voice is like music, she is a goddess.

In many ways, Shakespeare's sonnets subvert and reverse the conventions of the Petrarchan love sequence: the idealizing love poems, for instance, are written not to a perfect woman but to an admittedly imperfect man, and the love poems to the dark lady are anything but idealizing ("My love is as a fever, longing still / For that which longer nurseth the disease" is hardly a Petrarchan conceit.) Sonnet 130 mocks the typical Petrarchan metaphors by presenting a speaker who seems to take them at face value, and somewhat bemusedly, decides to tell the truth. Your mistress' eyes are like the sun? That's strange--my mistress' eyes aren't at all like the sun. Your mistress' breath smells like perfume? My mistress' breath reeks compared to perfume. In the couplet, then, the speaker shows his full intent, which is to insist that love does not need these conceits in order to be real; and women do not need to look like flowers or the sun in order to be beautiful.

In the case of the mistress, Shakespeare’s attitude is vastly different. Shakespeare’s love for his mistress is wholly sensual. He finds his mistress far more guilty than his male friend. He certainly recognises the physical charms of the woman even though she has a dark complexion. A dark complexion is far from being regarded by most people as beautiful; but there is something irresistible about this woman whose charms reside in her shape, figure, and features. Her dark complexion is, therefore, no obstacle in the way of Shakespeare’s infatuation with her.

But Shakespeare’s love in this case can only be described as an infatuation which he cannot overcome. Shakespeare does not find in her those virtues which the traditional heroine of the Elizabethan and pre-Elizabethan sonneteers possessed. On the contrary, Shakespeare finds this woman as being a nymphomaniac who would be ready to sleep with other men, besides Shakespeare’s male friend. Black from the outside, this woman is black inside too. In her case outward appearance and inner reality coincide  and, though a symbol of irresistible physical charms, she also becomes a symbol of treachery, foulness, and sensuality. While Shakespeare’s love for his male friend possesses the quality of loftiness, his love for the dark  lady shows the degradation of love.

Thus, the themes of marriage and love are central to Shakespearean sonnets. Like the Elizabethan sonneteers he used these two themes in his sonnets. But his treatment is different from other sonneteers. He views marriage as an important element to perpetuate beauty. And he expresses love not only in his relation with a lady, but also in his relation with his male friend.

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