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Diction in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Diction Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 31–40

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"O absence! what a torment wouldst thou prove, Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave,..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The volta, which begins here at line nine, demonstrates the main theme of sonnet 39. Following the fair youth’s mistake, the speaker decides it is in both his and the fair youth’s best interests to separate. The volta demonstrates the dual nature of such a decision: the speaker is both tormented with the prospect of separating but knows that it is the right decision. The combination of the words “sour” and “sweet” in the following line, as in sonnet 35, highlight this dichotomy.

"Although..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

Through coordinating conjunctions like “although,” “though,” “yet,” “lest,” “nor,” “unless,” and “but,” the speaker demonstrates his hesitancy and uncertainty following the fair youth’s error. The speaker, unsure whether to be “one” or “twain” with the fair youth, peppers his diction with tentative language, revealing his inability to reach a concrete resolution.

"Awakes my heart, to heart's and eye's delight...."   (Sonnets 41–50)

While Sonnet 46 deals with the battle waged between heart and eye, sonnet 47 describes their reconciliation. By the final lines in the sonnet, the heart and eye are equal: the eye can look at the fair youth’s image and the heart can reminisce on their relationship despite his love’s absence. No longer using legal jargon, the speaker instead employs words relating to lavishness, including words like “feast” and “banquet.” Such diction suggests that by working in “league,” or jointly, one uplifts the other.

"Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

The first line establishes the conceit of the next two sonnets: the speaker’s eye and heart are engaged in a metaphorical “war” in which both opponents are bent on conquering the fair youth. On the one hand, the eye “bars” the heart from looking at the image of the fair youth. On the other, the heart contends with the eye for the right to look. The theme of adversarial battle is furthered by the use of legal language, which is peppered throughout the sonnet in words like “right,” “plead,” and “verdict.”

"The imprison'd absence of your liberty;..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

Sonnet 58 represents a continuation of Sonnet 57. The speaker pardons the youth’s indiscretions and agrees to refrain from judging his behavior. However, the diction continues to produce contrasting messages. The fair youth is offered “liberty” and the right to “privilege” his time, but those words are surrounded by ones associated with captivity, such as “slave,” “suffer,” and “imprison’d.” By one reading, the cost of the fair youth’s freedom is the speaker’s suffering, for in such an arrangement he must watch the youth’s libertine indiscretions. However, the poem can also be read in the same disingenuous light as Sonnet 57, implying that the speaker actually expects his beloved to show the same devotion that he has.

"Being your slave what should I do but tend,..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

There is a conflict between the diction and argument of Sonnet 57. On the surface, the speaker professes his devotion to the fair youth by referring to himself as a slave and claiming to tend to the needs of his master. However, words like “bitterness,” “absence,” “sour,” “jealous,” and “fool” create a tone that is less devout and more resentful. The speaker has been faithful and good to the fair youth, at least in his own mind. The youth has responded to these affections with promiscuity and ungratefulness, leading the speaker to declare that love is foolish, blinding people to the negative actions of their loved ones.

"And him as for a map doth Nature store,      To show false Art what beauty was of yore...."   (Sonnets 61–70)

In Sonnet 68, the speaker continues to address the fair youth with a detached tone. He uses the personal pronouns “him” and “his” as he compares the fair youth’s more natural, unadorned beauty to the artificiality of others. The speaker refers to cosmetics and wigs as “bastard signs of fair,” claiming that real beauty is becoming a relic of the past, preserved only in the “map” of the fair youth’s face. The sentiment of this sonnet echoes that of the procreation sonnets, specifically Sonnet 11, which postulates that “bankrupt” Nature has stored the last of her wealth in the fair youth. The youth is to act as a “map” for future generations so that they might understand the “beauty of yore.”

"he..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

In a stark departure from previous sonnets, the speaker employs the personal pronoun “he,” instead of the pronoun “you” or terms of endearment like “my love.” The sonnet takes on a more distant, removed tone and indicates a move away from overly sentimental language in the previous sonnets.

"His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The word “lines” is used in two ways in this sonnet. In line 4, “lines” refer to wrinkles and aging. In line 13, “lines” refers to the speaker’s writing. This sonnet marks a shift away from the theme of jealousy and returns to the speaker’s war with Time. However, as opposed to the more universal explorations of the evils of mortality, this sonnet and the two following it personalize the loss of “sweet love’s beauty.” Time is no longer just robbing individuals of their youth; it is stealing away the joys of lovers as well. However, even if time attempts to fill the youth’s brow with lines, the speaker vows to preserve the youth with lines of his own.

"That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

In line 4, the speaker emphasizes the vileness of the world and the even greater vileness of the worms in order to prepare for the contrast when he comes to line 7 in which he says:

That I in thy sweet thoughts would be forgot...

The contrast with the vileness previously described serves to make the "sweet thoughts" and the person thinking them seem all the sweeter. 


"Or I shall live your epitaph to make, Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;..."   (Sonnets 81–90)

Sonnet 81 breaks the flow of the rival roet sequence and once again looks ahead to the eventual deaths of the speaker and his beloved. The word “shall” is used seven times, emphasizing that the speaker is speculating about the future. The futures he envisions for himself and the youth are contrasted through a series of alternating statements in the first six lines. Notice the claim that the youth will be preserved through poetry while the speaker himself “to all the world must die.” While this is not inconsistent with the speaker’s self-deprecating tendencies, it is also not accurate. Though it is the youth whose glories will persist in “the mouths of men,” it is the speaker's words that documented those glories. One can even claim that the words themselves have had a more lasting impact than their ostensible subject—the fair youth.

"     But that your trespass now becomes a fee;      Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me...."   (Sonnets 111–120)

Sonnet 120 extends the speaker’s written defense for his conduct. However, unlike the previous sonnet in which he places the blame on himself, the speaker reiterates the fair youth’s misconduct as recompense for his own actions. As the final couplet shows, the speaker brings up the fair youth’s infidelity in order to cancel out his own. The speaker’s “trespass” is balanced out by the fair youth’s “fee,” much in the way debts are repaid. Through parallel structure, the final line of the sonnet demonstrates how the speaker’s transgression “ransoms,” or releases, the fair youth, while the fair youth’s transgression releases his.

"all-the-world..."   (Sonnets 111–120)

In Sonnet 112, the speaker claims that any of his shame or “vulgar scandals” are overshadowed by the fair youth’s “praises.” Echoing Sonnet 31, in which the speaker states “And thou—all they—hast all the all of me,” the speaker states that the fair youth is his “all-the-world.” This phrase suggests the speaker’s all-encompassing and blind devotion to the fair youth. The second half of the sonet demonstrates the extent of the speaker’s faithfulness and allegiance to the fair youth: all others’ opinions may as well be thrown into an abyss and the rest of the world may as well be dead.

" But thence I learn and find the lesson true,      Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you...."   (Sonnets 111–120)

At the volta, the speaker accepts that his actions were ultimately an ineffective medicine. The speaker has spent so much time ruminating on the potential ills of the relationship that he has now introduced the very “maladies” he was so worried about. The final line also holds a potential double meaning. It can be read as referring to “lovesickness,” such that the speaker has been “poisoned” by his chosen medicine because he was unfaithful to the person he loved. However, it can also indicate that the speaker has grown tired of the youth and has “poisoned” himself with drugs in the attempt to rekindle the lost affection.

"As testy sick men, when their deaths be near, No news but health from their physicians know;--..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

In Sonnet 140, the speaker resorts to threatening the dark lady with public slander unless she pretends to love him. The diction of Sonnet 140 features words related to health, such as “sick,” “death,” “physician,” “madness,” and “ill.” This serves to characterize love as a sickness that has deteriorated the speaker’s mental state. Just as “testy sick men” only want good news from their doctors, the speaker only wants to hear faithful and loving things from the dark lady. Even if she doesn't actually love him, the speaker asks that she pretend that she does. Otherwise he will “speak ill” of her in his madness, which he claims is wrought by her “disdain.”

"Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:      He pays the whole, and yet am I not free...."   (Sonnets 131–140)

Sonnet 134 is a continuation of Sonnet 133. The speaker employs a combination of legal and financial diction to give the love between himself, the lady, and the youth a transactional cast. The dark lady is described as a “usurer,” or moneylender, whose currency is sexual in nature. When paired with the idea of a mortgage, the speaker’s offer to “forfeit” himself refers to the act of signing himself over to the lady to pay the youth’s debts. However, the speaker knows the lady will not give up the youth and laments his involvement. The closing couplet takes on a despairing tone: the fair youth is paying both his own debts and the speaker’s, leaving the speaker free from obligation but not from his attraction to the lady.

"When all my best doth worship thy defect, Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Throughout Sonnet 150, there is a clear hierarchical power structure between the two lovers. This hierarchy is seen most clearly in the use of the words “worship” and “command.” The speaker sees his lover as a sort of goddess or queen—someone to be worshipped and deified. He uses all his energy and willpower to praise even the worst aspects of her character. And she responds by exerting more power over him. The speaker is under the dark lady’s full control. There is also a vast difference in the amount of effort put into the relationship by the two characters. Where the speaker invests “all [his] best” in her “defects,” the dark lady responds with continued hate and oppression.

"Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not, When I against myself with thee partake?..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

This sonnet provides insight into the characters of the speaker and the dark lady. She has manipulated him so greatly that he will defend her before himself. Her cruelty is embodied by her lack of reciprocation. Although addressing the dark lady, the speaker never explicitly says who he’s addressing, referring to her as “cruel,” “tyrant” or, finally, “love.” The choice to use these words instead of a more specific address connects to the theme of the cruel and manipulative nature of love. The speaker’s anger toward the dark lady is one and the same with his anger toward Love.

"Love's eye is not so true as all men's..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 148 is primarily about the deceptive power of love. The speaker confesses his confusion regarding public opinions about the dark lady, which clash with his own views. Because his love has made him blind to the faults of the dark lady, the speaker is unable to see her the way that the rest of the world sees her. However, the use of “true” indicates that the speaker knows that his perception is being manipulated. The speaker is aware of the manipulation and deceit, but powerless against it.

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