Shakespeare and Time

Discuss the themes of time and immortality in Shakespeare’s sonnets. What do these sonnets suggest how Shakespeare’s views about time?

10 thoughts on “Shakespeare and Time

  1. Shakespeare’s sonnets 12, 18, and 30 are three of his sonnets that contribute strongly to his idea of time. In sonnet 12, he associates the passing of time with the withering of nature around him. This leads him to question “that thou among the wastes of time must go” (10). He says the only way that one can be immortalized is through their children. In sonnet 18, one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, he uses the word eternal to indicate that his lover’s beauty will make her live forever. He predicts that she will thus live “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (13). In sonnet 30, he laments the passage of time as he “summon[s] up the remembrance of things past” (2). He sees the past as haunted with the ghosts of loved ones who are now dead. For Shakespeare, the passage of time eventually leads to death, something which truly frightens him. The only solace he sees in this is through love and the promise that his children will eternalize his spirit.

  2. Shakespeare identifies the passing of time as a universal truth, as is death, yet he recognizes the possibility of spiritual immortality. He laments the past as he writes, “I summon up the remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought” (sonnet 30). Shakespeare goes on to explicate his hopes that he won’t repeat the past, because, as time passes, so should he. He also addresses the passing of time in sonnet 20: “A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted with shifting change, as is false women’s fashion.” Shakespeare is seemingly implying that change would, and should, be inevitable. When he writes, “As the riper should by time decease, his tender heir might bear his memory” in his first sonnet, he recognizes that the physicality of the self, as well as the physicality of time, deceases, but his spirit has the possibility for immortality. Shakespeare further comes to terms with the passing of time and the physical self by recognizing that while tangible objects “die,” your love and spirituality gain immortality through the living. In sonnet 18, he writes, “They eternal summer shall not fade,” explaining that physical beauty changes, but one can be forever beautiful in the eyes of one’s lover. Shakespeare continues this similar theme in sonnet 55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme. But you shall shine more bright in these contents.” Love, in addition to beauty, is truly eternal, as Shakespeare writes in sonnet 116, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove. O no, it is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Prior to Shakespeare’s realization of love and beauty’s immortality, he questions he true beauty of his muse in sonnet 12, writing, “When I do count the clock that tells the time […] then of thy beauty do I question make.” Obviously, Shakespeare comes to terms with the fact that the physical self changes, passes with time, but its beauty is eternal.

    • I agree with Kevin that Shakespeare believes the concept of beauty is eternal. In sonnet 18 the beauty of nature, “the darling buds of May” (3) is a constantly changing beauty that comes and goes, as opposed to his lover’s beauty as an “eternal summer” in which she will always remain “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see” (14). Similarly in sonnet 55, the beauty of “the gilded monuments / Of princes” (1-2) will inevitably be lost in the course of history, as opposed to the beauty of his lover, “The living record of your memory” (8) will “dwell in lovers’ eyes” (14) forever.

  3. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 suggests he believed that art, and the subjects of art, are immortal. He writes, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (1-2). Wealth and fame do not last, but good poetry lives on. The subject of this poem is the speaker’s love, so for this poem, that love is immortal. The poem reads, “your praise shall still find room / Even in the eyes of all posterity” (10-11). The speaker’s love for his lover will be immortal because he wrote about it in a poem. So Shakespeare believed that poems brought a form of immortality to their subjects, and he chose to write about his lover in order to give them that immortality.

  4. Shakespeare characterizes time as the ever looming presence which stands to be the bane of all men’s existence. In Sonnet 12 he jokes that man’s only defense against death is to “save breed to brave him” (14). The only way to defy the natural process of life is to reproduce. While he finds humans and other creatures to be confined to the limits of their mortal bodies, his depiction of the changing seasons are eternal and he evokes a timeless quality even to the rustling of leaves. In Sonnet 55 Shakespeare expresses his sentiment against war when he poetically points out if war has the power to uplift memories, never forget that your name and all memory of your life can be wiped from the earth in an instant. Another condition of the human experience he believes transcends the grips of mortality is true love. The bond between two people in love surpasses the laws of our physical dimension and is something more. It is clear the relationship between time and mortality is one that through his writing can be seen to take on many different modes of engagement and is at its heart malleable to the powers we hold within.

  5. Small appearances and influences are time in most of Shakespeare’s sonnets. For example in the very first one he describes being ripened by the passage of time (line 3). The twelfth sonnet breaks down imagery of time, on a daily level with two images of the sun, on a seasonal level with the trees losing their leaves and finally on across his lifetime (since it is safe to assume he was not born with white hair) we see the speaker age as well with “sable curls all silvered o’er” (line 4). Time is defied in Sonnet 18 , amidst all the things that are beautiful and lost to time in this poem, Shakespeare has outwitted time and found a way to make her beauty live on, because “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this (the poem), and this gives life to thee” (13-14). There is a remarkable amount of melancholy when discussing time in Sonnet 30 as he describes all the things that time has taken from the speaker, most notably his friends. These poems have an immortality to them, as Shakespeare foretold in Sonnet 18, and I think it is because his poems are vague enough for any reader to easily associate them with their own friends or loved ones, and because his poems describe timeless things such as seasons and time.

    • Shakespeare’s sonnets definitely reflect the tradition of paradox. As Joyce mentioned above, time is presented in varying, contradictory lights; in some instances Shakespeare seems to supersede time itself while in others he writes about the inevitability of his aging and death. Sonnet 18 is interesting because he presents the possibility of his lovers’ beauty breaking the constraints of time, which is in some ways true because we are here reading it today. He does intertwine the theme of love with time very frequently to reveal something new.

  6. Shakespeare uses continual references to the continuity of time in his Sonnets. He often somehow puts this notion of eternal time in context with romance, his love. Even in sonnet one he mentions the fairest creature is eternal- progeny, possibly suggesting that love also makes man eternal. In sonnet 12 he compares the ephemerality of flowers to his love. He has a similar effect in sonnet 18 by describing the seasons. He seems to however be drawing this contrast between the mortal qualities of beauty and relationships, and making claim to a greater presence- possibly the lasting effects of love. In sonnet 55 I thought it was interesting that he uses his poems as a reference of something that would be considered eternal. I wonder if this fixation with the everlasting, and with time is a sensation that Shakespeare got from printing his writing- that maybe through writing down all these feelings of love, what is eternal and what is not, he himself felt something of a permanence in all that is fleeting.

  7. Like just about everyone else has said, I think that Shakespeare’s sonnets indicate how he saw time as an inevitability of life, and that while it’s something deeply saddening, as he indicates when he says “Then of thy beauty do I question make, that thou among the wastes of time must go” (Sonnet 12 lines 9-10), it is also a part of life that we must accept and try to find some kind of solace in. As someone said earlier, lines 9 and 10 of Sonnet 12 are an indication of how time changes not only the beauty of nature but the beauty and character of individuals. However, Shakespeare also indicates, in the final two lines of his famous Sonnet 18, that sometimes beauty and love can overpower time in the minds and spirits of humans. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long as lives this, and this gives life to thee” (Sonnet 18 lines 13-14) is saying that the beauty of the person he’s addressing and the love that he and other men feel for them are so strong that no matter how much physical change time brings, those feelings of love will remain untouched.

  8. It appears that Shakespeare’s relationship with time often changes. In some of his sonnets he uses time as an indication of his own mortality and creates an eerie, decaying tone. In other sonnets, such as in Sonnet 18, Shakespeare tries to resuscitate the idea of immortality by describing ways in which someone or something may live on such as love. Every sonnet seems to be marked by time as he “counts the clock” or mentions the passing seasons, showing how much mortality consumes his thoughts in dealing with all aspects of life.

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