A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16: ‘But wherefore do not you’

A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet

Sonnet 16 by William Shakespeare continues the argument established in the previous sonnet, about art – and specifically, Shakespeare’s own poems – immortalising the Fair Youth’s beauty. Below is a brief summary and analysis of Sonnet 16.

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

First, as is usual, a brief summary of Sonnet 16. Shakespeare begins by asking the Fair Youth why he does not challenge Time – which seeks to destroy him through ageing him – in a more powerful way than Shakespeare can offer? All Shakespeare can do is seek to keep the Youth’s memory alive through writing poetry about him; but the Bard freely admits that his ‘rime’ is ‘barren’ – i.e. childless, infertile. The best way for the Youth to ‘fortify’ himself, or make himself strong against Time’s ravages, is – as the rest of Sonnet 16 will make clear – for the Youth to have children.

Shakespeare3Lines 5-8 make this solution explicit: the Fair Youth is now in his prime, Shakespeare argues, and there are many women out there who would willingly bear his child; Shakespeare likens these women to ‘maiden gardens’ which are yet ‘unset’ (i.e. the women are virgins) but would gladly bear the Youth’s flowers, i.e. his children. Your children would far more closely resemble you, Shakespeare tells him, than an artistic representation of him, or ‘painted counterfeit’ (‘counterfeit’ suggesting a copy, much as children are seen as ‘copies’ of the Youth in Sonnet 11). An example of such a ‘painted counterfeit’ is Shakespeare’s own attempt to depict the Youth in art, i.e. through his poetry. Having children is a far better way of making a copy of yourself than relying on my ‘barren’ poetry, Shakespeare suggests.

In lines 9-12, Shakespeare argues that extending the family line (‘lines of life’) by having a child would help to repair or restore the Youth’s own life, by allowing him to live again through his son. Neither ‘Time’s pencil’ (Time having ‘drawn’ the Youth as he now is, in his prime) nor Shakespeare’s pen (which seeks to capture him as he is in his prime) are powerful enough to make the Fair Youth live again or make him ‘come alive’ for others (especially men in the future, who won’t have been around to see the Youth in his prime, and who, by merely reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, won’t gain a full sense of just how beautiful and fair the Youth was).

In the concluding couplet, Shakespeare reminds the Youth that by giving himself away (the phrase suggesting the marriage ceremony, where the bride is traditionally ‘given away’), i.e. by marrying and having children, he doesn’t lose anything – he remains as he was. The only way he can truly live for future generations is if the Youth himself sees to it that he lives on, in the form of offspring. Shakespeare continues the artistic conceit of the sonnet by likening this to the Youth drawing himself.

Several lines of Sonnet 16, and even individual words, generate problems in terms of analysing and comprehending the meaning of the poem. In line 9, Shakespeare uses the fertile word ‘lines’ to suggest at least two meanings: 1) lineage, or the family line (which would be continued if the Youth had a son); and 2) the ‘lines’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The double meaning is to suggest that, although Shakespeare is doing his best to immortalise the Youth through his ‘lines’ of verse, the Youth possesses a far greater means of keeping himself alive: by extending his family ‘line’.

This fecund word ‘lines’ also feeds into the ambiguity of line 10, with its reference to Time’s pencil:

So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.

The best way to paraphrase Shakespeare’s meaning here is to say: ‘By continuing your family line through having offspring you will restore life to yourself, which neither Time (which has ‘drawn’ you into existence) nor my poetry can manage.’ But line 10 remains ambiguous. The meaning could alternatively be, ‘By continuing your family line you will restore life to yourself, which this (my pen, which you might also consider Time’s pencil, since it draws you as you are now) cannot manage.’ To us, the first interpretation seems more likely, since it is unclear why Shakespeare’s pen, which seeks to keep the Youth’s memory alive, should be referred to as an implement used by Time (which seeks to destroy the Youth). Indeed, ‘Time’s pencil’, though apparently meant to be analysed as a force for good (albeit an insufficiently powerful one) also conjures up the image of Time to destroy the Youth with its ‘pencil’ – the suggestion being that Time draws lines on the Youth’s ageing face in the form of wrinkles.

In short, there are several points in Sonnet 16 where Shakespeare offers an ambiguous word or phrase which we are meant to analyse positively but which conceals a secondary, less favourable meaning. Continue to explore the Sonnets with Shakespeare’s 17th sonnet.

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