Analysis of William Shakespeare's "Sonnets 1"- from Fairest Creatures We Desire Increase

In Elizabethan England, aristocratic patronage was probably a professional writer's most valuable asset, because it offered money, protection, and prestige. William Shakespeare sought aristocratic patronage like the rest of his contemporaries, and in a bid to get noticed he went against established tradition in his collection of sonnets, aptly titled Sonnets. He decided to have a beautiful young man be the subject of his praise, love, and idealizing devotion, instead of a beautiful lady. He also replaced the chaste and aloof blond beauty with a much darker and sexually promiscuous mistress. Shakespeare did not limit himself to what the Renaissance thought as the despairing Petrarchan lover; his characters took on a whole new range of moods and characteristics. In the first seventeen sonnets of this work, he celebrates the beauty of this young man, and urges him to marry so that he can beget beautiful children. It is uncertain if this beautiful man is real or fictional; some have posed that he is Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton, and the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece; others think that it is William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, and a dedicatee of the First Folio. The one thing that we do know is that Shakespeare dedicated these sonnets to a Mr. W.H. These poems seem to tell a collective story, but we do not know for certain if they are in the correct order. Sonnets 1 is often thought of as a part of the "marriage sonnets," the speaker tries to persuade the young man to marry so that his beauty can live on through his children.

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty's rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory;

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel. (lines 1-8)

We want the beautiful people to have children, so that their beauty will never die-this reminds me of Charles Darwin's natural selection, although Darwin didn't publish his thesis until 1859, which is about 250 years after Shakespeare's Sonnets were published. There is a sense of urgency for this beautiful man to have children, because everyone ages and dies, and all there is left of one's life is the memory and the physical characteristics that your children carry on with them. The speaker tells the beautiful man that he is selfish and too self-involved. He is betrothed to himself; he doesn't think that his looks will fade, so he is consumed with living in the now, instead of planning for the future. He robs the world of beauty when he can so easily shower the world in his beauty; by not having kids he is creating a famine of beauty when he could very easily create an abundance of beauty by having heirs. He is his own foe, and he is only hurting himself by refusing to procreate.

Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content

And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding. (9-12)

You are the world's most beautiful ornament, and the principal foreshadower of the gaudy (Middle English definition- a yellowish green color or pigment) spring. Within your own "bud" (yourself) you hide away your content (what you contain- potential for fatherhood; and what would content you- marriage and fatherhood), and waste your beauty with all that "niggarding" (hoarding). "Bud" is a pun; the speaker is equating the human body with the bud of a flower. "Tender churl" is an oxymoron, it means gentle boor.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee. (13-4)

The speaker tells the beautiful man to feel sorry for the world and procreate or else this gluttony (one of the seven deadly sins- greed) will be to eat the world's due by willfully dying without issue.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century and the Early Seventeenth Century.

Published by Sophia Brookshire

I love books! I love the smell of them and the words contained within. I received a Bachelor s degree in English and an Associates degree in Comparative Literature from UC Santa Barbara. I love to read other...  View profile