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Tone in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Tone Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 1–10

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"So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon:      Unlook'd, on diest unless thou get a son...."   (Sonnets 1–10)

The closing couplets of this sonnet take on a more menacing tone than the previous sonnets. Here, the speaker employs an extended metaphor that likens the fair youth to the sun. Specifically, the speaker says that as the sun rises, “mortals adore” it; when the sun “reeleth from the day,” people look away in search of other beauty. This final couplet warns the fair youth that if he does not have children—metaphorically, if he does not rise like the sun and spread his beauty—he will fade in the same way the sun sets.

"Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

Although Shakespeare's sonnets are all predominantly in iambic pentameter, he frequently breaks the iambic rhythm to emphasize a particular thought or highlight a change of mood. The first words of these two lines, "Wishing" and "Featur'd,” substitute the typical iambs with trochees, metrical feet which place the stress on the first rather than the second syllable. In turn, the speaker changes the tone from one of disillusionment to one of hope and reconciliation.

"     Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,      Thine by thy beauty being false to me...."   (Sonnets 41–50)

Sonnets 40, 41, and 42 deal with transgressions committed by the fair youth, namely sleeping with his mistress. The speaker, who often concludes his sonnets in a lighthearted and redemptive tone, ends this sonnet in a plaintive tone. In the final couplet the speaker, disheartened by his lover’s betrayal, laments that the fair youth has left him for the beauty of his mistress. The sentence structure parallels how the speaker has been deceived by the beauty of the fair youth.

"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.

"Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,..."   (Sonnets 81–90)

In Sonnet 86, the speaker maintains the same subtle mockery of the previous sonnet. He hyperbolically claims that the rival poet’s verses trample over his own like a fleet of ships and render his poetry “inhearse[d]” in his brain. The speaker negatively associates the rival poet’s success with the supernatural, writing that “spirits” and a “ghost” inspired his verse. The final line suggests that the rival poet’s writing has “enfeebled” the speaker’s literary capabilities—a notion undercut by the poetic acuity of the sonnet itself.

"Return forgetful Muse,..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

The speaker externalizes and personifies his inspiration in the form of a “Muse,” one of the goddesses of artistic inspiration from Greek mythology. His Muse has been “forgetful” and “resty,” meaning that the speaker has not had the will or inspiration to write about the youth. This sonnet is addressed directly to the “forgetful Muse” as the speaker chides her for focusing on “worthless” subjects rather than his beloved fair youth. The dramatic and impassioned language of previous sonnets fades as the speaker adopts a more detached and dutiful tone. Rather than being overcome by despair at the thought of the youth’s beauty fading, he simply asks his Muse to help him preserve it before Time catches up.

"Because he needs no praise, wilt thou be dumb?..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

The speaker continues to chide his “truant Muse” for refusing to provide him with inspiration to write about the fair youth. He mockingly recalls the sentiments he expressed about the rival poet, asking his Muse if it has given up because it knows the youth’s beauty cannot be captured in verse. Sonnets 100-103 recall sentiments the speaker expressed passionately in earlier parts of the sequence, recasting them in a more irreverent light. As he mocks the source of his inspiration for its “dumb” silence, he recalls the arguments he made about how the youth’s beauty was tarnished by praise. When placed in the mouth of the Muse, such arguments become “dumb,” highlighting the speaker’s altered attitude.

"  Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Whereas the speaker’s relationship with the fair youth was emotional and often spiritual, his relationship with the dark lady is sensual. As he watches her play music, he personifies the instrument and grows jealous of it. The jacks “leap to kiss the tender inward of [her] hand” and the speaker envies the fact that the instrument receives her touch rather than him. There was minimal tactile and sensuous imagery in the fair youth sequence, reflecting the chaste and loving nature of that relationship in contrast to the far more physical one between the speaker and the dark lady. The playful, yearning tone of Sonnet 128 contrasts with the grief and shame that consume the speaker in Sonnet 129.

"Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,      And her quietus is to render thee...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

In Elizabethan England, the phrase “Quietus Est” would be written on receipts of debts that had been paid. In Sonnet 126, the speaker compliments the youth on having aged well while also reminding him that Nature cannot preserve him forever. Though Nature considers the fair youth her “treasure,” she will eventually be forced to settle her debt with Time and Death and hand him over to their ravages. The tone of this sonnet is tender and wistful, with the speaker having made peace with the fact that the youth will someday die. Rather than continuing to fight against Time, the speaker instead reminds the youth of the reality of aging, urging him to live well while he is still youthful.

" 'I hate',..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 145 is the only one of the entire sequence not written in iambic pentameter. Instead it takes up iambic tetrameter. The shorter meter contributes to a lighter mood, with the tone shifting away from the heavier considerations of Sonnet 144 in lieu of presenting a more gentle, almost comic, interaction between lovers. The dark lady begins by saying “‘I hate,’” but upon seeing the anguish it causes for the speaker, amends her statement to “‘I hate[…] not you.’” That this resolution arrives at the end of the final couplet allows the suspense of the speaker’s distress to encompass the entire poem. The exchange ultimately comes across as playful in its treatment of the lady’s statement, conjuring associations with the feigned hatred that chaste maidens were supposed to show for their amorous suitors before ultimately giving in to their advances.

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