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Sonnet 146

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Sonnet 146 Denise Kontara

William Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 146' reads as an internal monologue, fundamentally the protagonist is addressing himself. Although the use of transition between multiple metaphors has often been critiqued. As Fred Hasson (2013) suggests “The metaphors are choppy, jumping quickly from the mansion to the worms, and then to Death eating man and vice-versa. The "cost" theme mixes uneasily with the soul/body comparison.”, through a powerful use of metaphor as well as religious notions, the poet brings light to the idea of materialism and earthly greed as catalysts for the souls entrapment in the body and furthermore addresses the potential escape from such boundaries into eternal life.

Despite it's ability to appeal to both Christian and Non-Christian audiences, Sonnet 146 has been often declared one of Shakespeare's more Christian poems (David E. Anderson, 2005). This very accurately acts as a reflection of the poems context, with legal requirements on churches to read Psalms from The Book of Common Prayer monthly at the time. Richmond Noble (1940, p4) in 'Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge' lists at least 135 Psalm references in Shakespeare's plays, also vouching for other such references in the sonnets. Shakespeare's awareness and furthermore use of several Pauline paradoxes becomes apparent through the close study of the thematic structure and development of the Sonnet. Noticeably, paradoxes in Sonnet 146 work to emphasize the disparity between the initial state of the soul and the desired state expressed at the end comparable to Paul's ironic use of paradox when contrasting the 'appearance he has in the world's eyes and the reality of his life in God's site'. (Robert Hillis Goldsmith, 1978. p99)

The initial metaphor 'Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth', acts as an immediate establishment of the nature and subject of the sonnet, developing the idea and sense of captivity of the soul within the body or 'earth', instrument and bearer of sin. As audiences we are forced to ponder the notion of spiritual salvation becoming our primary goal in a desperate attempt to find purpose and importance in the temporal. The poet portrays his acknowledgment that it does in fact seem pedestrian to obsess over life on this plane. This powerful uncertainty works to form the predominant theme of the traditional debate between body and soul throughout the Sonnet. This constant war within oneself is hinted as early as line 2 through the use of the word 'array', a notion explored heavily by Charles A. Huttar (1968. p 355-365) which in it's nature often creates a sense of war. Subsequently the 'rebel powers' also act as symbols of this inevitable struggle that transpires between both soul and body as well as soul and God, which brings upon the questioned meaning and temporality of the soul and therefore such internal warfare. Following, lines 3 and 4 “Why dost thou pine within and suffer death/ Painting thy outwards walls so costly gay?" encompass the direct confrontation on the soul's tendency to encourage such suffering for no more than the sake than its 'sinful earth'.

The continuation of this metaphor in line 5 “Why so large a cost, having so short a lease” incorporates a sense of contract, that is between us as humans who so naturally bestow ourselves in the temporal, and death to take our souls from this analogously short life or 'lease' when it's inescapably time. The second quatrain introduces perhaps another metaphor of more human nature for the body, the “fading mansion” (line 6) acting as a corporal dwelling of Shakespeare’s soul. (G.B. Harrison1968, p. 1592)

To assist in placing strong emphasis on such a thought provoking theme, Shakespeare confides existentially on the imagery of financial bondage in order to further identify with the traits of the temporal he feels he must conquer in his search for spiritual salvation. This imagery, through the constant reference to money, becomes a reoccurring presence throughout almost every line of the sonnet. There are two reasons for the use of this imagery, both to identify with the enslavement of both body and soul to 'claims of beautification' (Blake Jason Boulerice, 2009. p 356) and to heighten the exposure of the sinfulness of earthly greed. Shakespeare impels his soul to “Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross”, implying doing so will set it free. This part of the sonnet focuses on the notion of a debt the soul has to pay off in order to escape deaths eternal doom, which can come only from the enrichment of the soul, bound to body, rather than on materialistic values of the physical world. The poet does incorporate a sense of positivity in proposing a resolution, “Then soul, live thou upon thy servants loss/ And let that pine to aggravate thy store” suggesting devotion to the souls self-cultivation in attempt to outlive the body, and even subjugate death as references by the final couplet “So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men/ And death once dead, there's no more dying then.” Its possible to draw a kind of ironic juxtaposition from death that feeds on men, being fed on, and death being dead itself, as well as the use of the words “death”, “dead” and “dying” ironically as the conclusion of the poem shifts to the idea of eternal life. ( Fred Hasson, 2013)

It is through the constant referral and emphasis on such powerful themes such as the constant battle between body and soul, and the idea of escaping death's grasp through a life lived enriching one's soul that Shakespeare is able to explore such confronting notions, doing so whilst incorporating religious ideas turning sonnet 146 into one of the most religious of Shakespeare’s poems.


Fred Hassen, 2013 'Shakespeare's Sonnet 146: A Brief Critical Analysis' British Poetry, Reading and Literature, Suite101, March 25. Viewed 20 August 2013.

Charles A. Huttar, 1968, Shakespeare Quarterly,Vol. 19, No. 4 (Autumn, 1968), pp. 355-365, Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University, Washington, D.C

Robert Hillis, 1978, Studies in the Literary Imagination;Spring78, Vol. 11 Issue 1, p99, Shakespeare's Christian Sonnet, Number 146, viewed 20 August 2013,

Michael West, 1974, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, pp. 109-122, Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University, Washington, D.C

David E. Anderson, 2008, “Was Shakespeare Catholic?”, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, 2008. A balanced and exhaustive look at many various theories regarding Shakespeare's religious beliefs.

Blake Jason Boulerice, 2009, GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: Shakespeare's Sonnets Study Guide,
Adam Kissel. Viewed 24 August 2013,

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