Why was Shakespeare Obsessed with Time?
This entry investigates how Shakespeare uses time in his sonnets to express the frenzied cycle of carpe diem and futility associated with humanity. I will two sources, along with my close reading of sonnet 12 and sonnet 60, to elaborate my statement.
First, it is important to note that Shakespeare’s sonnets were not categorized to reference the calendar. Time is an “abstract category” rather than playing an integral, direct role in each of Shakespeare’s sonnets (Callaghan 115). To further explain this, time has a very fluid, subtle quality in the sonnets, due to it being presented in seasons, age, beauty, and clocks, as I will further explain at the bottom of this entry. That being said, interestingly, Dympna Callaghan argues, “Notably, two of the poems most keenly concerned with time in Shakespeare’s sonnets are given symbolically significant numbers: Sonnet 12 is about the twelve hours on the clock face, while sonnet 60 reflects ‘our minutes’” (109). At first, I did not understand what Callaghan was trying to prove until I compared sonnet 12 and sonnet 60 together by underlining few important words that evoke time imagery.
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence (12. 1-14).
As you can see from what I have underlined in sonnet 12, the speaker literally counts the hours on the clock (12.1), which support Callaghan’s stated argument above. The imagery of the “brave day sunk in hideous night” suggests to the audience that a day —or, the 24-hour cycle on the clock— has passed (12.2). Interestingly, the images of nature and a man’s beard are assorted in different layers of each line. First, the speaker notes that the violets are wilting (12.3), and that the black curls of a man’s beard are now extremely white to suggest that death is near and inevitable for all living elements and creatures (12.4). The speaker then skips again back to nature imagery, where leafless trees no longer provide shades for herds, to signify that summer has passed (12.5-6).
The next line’s tone becomes darker, as the speaker notes that the summer’s crops are tied up in bundles, and carried off like the corpse of an old man (12.7-8). The speaker in last quatrain then doubts his beloved’s beauty, since even beauty in nature flees quickly in due time (12.9-12). The couplet informs his beloved the statement of leaving heirs since he cannot defend himself against “Time’s scythe” (12.13), or literally death (12.14). Overall, sonnet 12 is a poem about humanity’s futility against time, and that the only salvation against the inevitable death is through having children.
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked eclipses ‘gainst his glory fight,
And Time, that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand (60. 1-14).
Sonnet 60, as Callaghan argues above, reflects the minutes of the speaker and his beloved’s lives inching toward death in languid motion, contributed by the subtle imagery of “the waves [making way] towards the pebbled shore” (60.1-2). The words “changing place” and “sequent toil” all suggest that time is never constant, but progressively moving forward with arduous fervor, which strangely and strongly contrast with the calm tone of the first two lines (60.3-4). The speaker recalls the languid tone of the first lines by tying it with “nativity” —that is, babies— and “light” (60.5). However, the innocence of “nativity” is lost as they crawl toward maturity, or fight in the real world for glory and fame as represented by the crown imagery (60.6). I suppose that from the first and second quatrain, Shakespeare sort of hints the futility of humanity and all its hard work through the cyclical nature of life and death. This is further supported in the third quatrain, where the speaker tells his beloved that Time can give and take away beauty and youth any day with his “scythe to mow,” which gives us the impression that Time is ruthless and not empathetic toward humanity (60.9-12). Yet, Shakespeare ends this sonnet with some positivity in his couplet, chiming carpe diem in hopes that his poem will stand against time and continue to praise his beloved’s worth (60. 13-14).
Why was Shakespeare obsessed with time in his sonnets? Georgia Brown argues that perhaps it was due to the pre- and post-lapsarian narratives that were prevalent in Elizabethan times (237). For example, Brown refers back to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where “love-making is leisured and unhurried” before the Fall (237). Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, which was a paradise where they could both live in languid pleasure. However, the post-lapsarian experience that extends to all humankind destroys leisured love that Adam and Eve once shared. Post-lapsarian love, as Brown argues, is “hurried, desperate, passionate, and impelled by restlessness, ” and that “the apprehension of time’s restless pressure introduces the mode of carpe diem” (238). This is clearly evident in my close reading of sonnet 12 and 60, which both reveal the anguish that the speaker feels due to the cutthroat, cyclic nature of life and death. Both sonnet 12 and 60 reflect on seizing any opportunity to leave mementos, such as heirs or works of art, to remember the beloved’s worth on earth. Shakespeare’s sonnet 12 and 60 reveal how precious time is to all inhabitants of earth, whether they are plants, animals, waves, stones, or humans, since nothing lasts forever.
So where does sonnet 12 and sonnet 60 exactly stand regarding hope and despair that time brings to everyone? Through my comparison of both poems, I believe that sonnet 12 is ‘macroscopic,’ while sonnet 60 is ‘microscopic’ in terms of how we can all view life. What I mean by macroscopic and microscopic is that macroscopic is more of a worldly view, which can be somewhat cynical. Microscopic reveals the speaker’s intimate thoughts, which can be hopeful or cynical. I argue that sonnet 12 is macroscopic since Shakespeare writes about the passage of life in more wholesome view through his incorporation of seasons, dying plants, death in old age, and leaving heirs on earth to carry on your spirit. Sonnet 60 seems macroscopic too, due to nature and ‘cradle to grave’ imagery. However, the couplet of sonnet 60 is actually microscopic because it peers through the intimate, inner desires of the speaker, which is to have his testimony of praising his beloved stand against the conventional time.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s obsession with time highlights the powerlessness and futility of humanity against time, no matter how much effort we put into glory and fame. However, it is also important to note that it is not such a bad idea to perhaps leave mementos — such as a collection of poems— for your beloved ones and the future generations to read, meditate upon how precious time is for all earth’s inhabitants, and gain inspiration to write more sonnets.
Brown, Georgia. “Time and the Nature of Sequence in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: “In sequent toil all forwards do contend.”” How To Do Things With Shakespeare: New Approaches, New Essays. Ed. Laurie Maguire. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. 236-254. Print.
Callaghan, Dympna. “Confounded by Winter: Speeding Time in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Michael Schoenfeldt. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007. 104-118. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 12.” The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002. 405. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 60.” The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2002. 501. Print.