A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 9: ‘Is it for fear’

A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet

We continue our exploration of William Shakespeare’s sonnets with a brief analysis of Sonnet 9, yet another ‘Procreation Sonnet’ in which the Bard endeavours to find new ways of persuading the Fair Youth to marry and have children. ‘Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye’ is not a well-known sonnet, so a brief summary and paraphrase of the meaning of Sonnet 9 may be helpful, along with a bit of close analysis.

Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye,
That thou consumest thy self in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes, her husband’s shape in mind:
Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend
Shifts but his place, for still the world enjoys it;
But beauty’s waste hath in the world an end,
And kept unused the user so destroys it.
No love toward others in that bosom sits
That on himself such murd’rous shame commits.

A brief summary of the sonnet first. Shakespeare asks the Fair Youth whether he refuses to marry because he’s afraid of making some poor wife a widow when he dies. If this is the reason, the Bard continues, then by not marrying anyone, the Fair Youth makes the whole world his grieving widow, even while he’s still alive – since everyone collectively mourns the fact that the Youth will not marry and share his beauty with someone. (The word ‘makeless’ in ‘makeless wife’ denotes someone without a mate or match.)

Shakespeare3In lines 5-8, Shakespeare continues this argument, stating that the whole world will mourn the fact that the Youth will not sire any children; this is worse than a married man dying and making his wife a widow, Shakespeare argues, because at least that ‘private widow’ can remember her dead husband whenever she gazes on his likeness in the children he has left.

In lines 9-12, the third quatrain in the sonnet, Shakespeare returns to a favourite analogy in the sonnets: the economical or financial. He says that the money that an ‘unthrift’ (or extravagant person) spends remains in the world for others to enjoy it, because it remains in circulation somewhere; but a man’s beauty is not like his money, and won’t last forever unless he uses it (i.e. by finding a wife and leaving an heir).

Shakespeare concludes by returning, in effect, to the question with which he opened Sonnet 9: he rejects the idea that the Fair Youth is refusing to marry out of selflessness, because he’s worried about the woman he might marry becoming a grieving widow some day. He says that the man who commits such ‘murd’rous shame’ on himself – to decline to marry and ‘use’ his beauty while he can – is a man who is actually incapable of loving anyone else.

A few words of analysis, especially pertaining to the language Shakespeare uses in Sonnet 9. A number of the words he uses in this sonnet – ‘consumest’, ‘spend’, ‘waste’, ‘unused’, ‘shame’ – are also used in other sonnets in the sequence, where they have a double meaning, also suggesting masturbation – the ‘shame’ of ‘consuming’ all of one’s lust, ‘spending’ it all on oneself, rather than sharing it with a wife. Given the presence of these words here together in Sonnet 9, we can detect a similar sexual undercurrent in this sonnet too, especially given Shakespeare’s conclusion that, in keeping his beauty to himself, the Youth is being selfish (‘murd’rous shame’, too, might refer to the killing or waste of his ‘seed’ when he masturbates).

Another linguistic feature which is worthy of commentary here is Shakespeare’s repeated use of alliteration on the letter ‘w’, which we see right from that opening line (‘Is it for fear to wet a widow’s eye’) onwards:

The world will wail thee like a makeless wife;
The world will be thy widow and still weep
That thou no form of thee hast left behind,
When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes, her husband’s shape in mind:

This helps to bring the three central words of the sonnet – wife, widow, world (the world as widow, unless the Youth takes a wife) – together, but it verges on the excessive. It’s possible to interpret Sonnet 9 as a poem in which Shakespeare partly has his tongue in his cheek: he’s having a bit of fun with the argument now. These persistent exhortations that the Fair Youth should marry are becoming a bit overwhelming, perhaps.

Sonnet 9 is not a classic sonnet among Shakespeare’s poems, but a little analysis helps to shed light on some of its suggestive language, so we hope this has helped elucidate Shakespeare’s wider argument in these ‘Procreation Sonnets’. In what direction will the Bard take his Sonnets in the tenth sonnet?

6 thoughts on “A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 9: ‘Is it for fear’”

  1. This was wonderful – you have a great talent for teaching ( or to sound cheesy) but your are really good at expounding on so much lit – esp this Shakespeare stuff (sorry to call it stuff – but truly much Shakespeare is avoided by so many because it is a bit thick and with posts like this – well I hope more people appreciate it – ESP those that want more Shakespeare, but are not sure where to start – they can dive into posts like this)
    Anyhow – much to ponder with this one – the using the beauty and I like so much –
    Suggests living a full and rich INVOLVED life even if ends in sorrow or involves pain – the ol mess that comes with fullness – hm

  2. I too think he is having a laugh. I imagine the Fair Youth to be about sixteen. When Bill was that age he was probably in the orchard leaning up against Ann Hathaway’s apple trees.

    Sent from my iPad



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