A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 46: ‘Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 46th sonnet

Shakespeare and the number 46 have a curious relationship. The theory that the Bard translated the 46th Psalm in the King James Version of the Bible (because Shakespeare would have been 46 when work on the translation was nearing its completion, and the 46th word of the psalm is ‘shake’, and the 46th word from the end is ‘spear’) persists; but what about his 46th sonnet?

Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,
How to divide the conquest of thy sight;
Mine eye my heart thy picture’s sight would bar,
My heart mine eye the freedom of that right.
My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie,
A closet never pierced with crystal eyes,
But the defendant doth that plea deny,
And says in him thy fair appearance lies.
To ’cide this title is impannelled
A quest of thoughts, all tenants to the heart;
And by their verdict is determined
The clear eye’s moiety, and the dear heart’s part:
As thus: mine eye’s due is thine outward part,
And my heart’s right, thine inward love of heart.

Sonnet 46 is, like Sonnets 44 and 45, one of a pair: in that case, the Bard was pondering the four classical elements, and in Sonnets 46 and 47, he’s exploring the relationship between the eye and the heart, as his opening line here makes clear.

To paraphrase the content of the sonnet: ‘My eyes and my heart are engaged in a fight to the death, over who should own your image. Each wants to bar the other from access to your image. My heart argues that it knows the truth of you, and no eye, no matter how clear, has ever penetrated that truth; but my eyes argue that they see the true you, and the real essence of you resides in my eyes, not my heart. To settle this matter, I’ve put together a series of various thoughts that’s like a panel of experts (a sort of “thought jury”), all of whom pay rent to the heart. And their verdict will determine which part of you belongs to the eye, and which to the heart. The conclusion: that my eyes own your outward visible appearance, while my heart has rights over what’s inside – your inward heart, if you will. My heart, in short, has rights over your heart.’

It’s possible to analyse Sonnet 46 in light of Renaissance beliefs in Neoplatonism: that is, that there is a difference between the substance of something (containing its true essence) and its shadow. The ‘mortal war’ between eye and heart certainly takes on another layer of meaning when analysed in light of Neoplatonic ideas which Shakespeare and his contemporary John Donne, among other Renaissance writers, were aware of and used in their work.

Sonnet 46 begins with military language (‘Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war’, ‘conquest of sight’) but the sestet turns to the law, and Shakespeare’s language takes on a decidedly legal flavour: ‘defendant’, ‘title’, ‘tenant’, ‘verdict’, ‘moiety’. The impression or picture we get is of a courtroom, with the case going on in front of us: a neat conceit, although the jury’s verdict – and the poem’s conclusion – don’t really advance us any further than we were at the beginning of the sonnet, as Don Paterson has observed in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

If you enjoyed this analysis of Sonnet 46, you can learn more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.

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