The 154 Sonnets of William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) offer insights into beauty, giving, love, conceit, impermanence, letting go, death and much more. He addressed many of his Sonnets to a handsome man and then the last section to a beautiful woman. Poet, playwright and actor, Shakespeare continues to inspire millions worldwide to recognise the dynamics of human relationships from the shallow to the deep.
A Sonnet consists of 14 lines – three quartets and two lines in iambic pentameter.
An iambic pentameter consists of 10 syllables per line, alternating between unstressed and stressed (soft-hard) syllables. Poets wrote sonnets and poems to be read. Ten syllables per line were said to match in-breathing and out-breathing.
A primary text of the Buddha, Middle Length Discourses, has 152 discourses exploring the depth and breadth of the human experience.
Lovers of Shakespeare often regard him this as the world’s greatest dramatist. He addressed the full intensity of human emotions, including the power of love and hate, happiness and suffering. His plays also explored the wisdom and the tyranny of the mind. He wrote about the emotional conditions for domestic violence, political-social conflicts and peace and war. I regard William Shakespeare as the Buddha of the Heart.
In his first four Sonnets, Shakespeare wrote on the value of people endowed with beauty and the vulnerability that goes with it. In the fifth sonnet, he reminds us of beauty emerging in the ‘gentle work’ of time while pointing out summer of beauty leads to winter.
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And tender churl mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Shakespeare explores the experience of beauty encouraging us recognise the difference between beauty and lust/blind sexual desire. Like the Buddha, he reminds us we can be our own worst enemy (thyself thy foe) bring problems and suffering to ourselves due to attachment to our beauty.
The playwright reminds uses beauty as a metaphor for parents and children. As the parents get older, the beauty of their youth begins to fade but their children can bring beauty for all of us to appreciate. We can create beauty in creative and imaginative ways like a parent of a child.
What beauty do we create? What beautiful acts do we initiate to contribute to making the world a more beautiful place?
If we contract around our beauty, via self-interest/narcissism, and use our beauty to get own way, we offer others little in the way of beauty. We might get the attention of others, but it is cruel to be so selfish.
Spring reminds us of our beauty, but Spring only lasts for a time.
We waste our beauty by keeping it to ourselves or hiding it.
People will see our self-interested relationship to beauty, and we can end up going to the grave with our faded beauty leaving nothing of beauty behind.
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed of small worth held:
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days;
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
By the time we get to 40 years (perhaps 60 years in the 21st century), the wrinkles on our forehead and rest of our face have dug deep into our youthful beauty.
Our pride today would be of little worth in years ahead when we becomeworn and of little worth. Others will remind us of the departure of our beauty. Our beauty used to trigger interest and sexual attraction from others – a reward for our beauty. Why tell a person our beauty is now deep within. It would be pointless praise and shameful. How much did we use our beauty to get praise?
We can create beautiful acts, an offspring of our initiative, even though it cost us our natural beauty. We would appear new and feel happy (warm blood) even when we come to die through the beauty actions we brought into the world.
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.
In this Sonnet, Shakespear encourages becoming a parent. He is speaking here to a handsome, young man. Look in the mirror and tell yourself what you see, says the Sonnet. Is it the right time to start a family and continue the hereditary beauty? You look fresh. You can bless a woman to become a mother. You can plant your seed as her husband. If you indulge in self-love, posterity will pay the cost. Your face confirms the mirror your mother looked at. She remembers her beauty in April. You too will see your child’s beauty despite your wrinkles. If you have no children, you will die alone, and your image dies with you.
Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive.
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tomb’d with thee,
Which, used, lives th’ executor to be.
Shakespeare asks the young man why he spends so much time on his appearance. Nature does not give beauty to you to but lends it to you. Nature lends it to those who are free to receive. It is ungenerous to only think of yourself, and an abuse this gift. There is no benefit behaving like this and you can’t live like this. If you only think about yourself, you deceive yourself. When you come to die, what have you left behind? Your unexpressed beauty goes to the grave with you but if expressed your beauty carries on.
Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel;
For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there;
Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’er-snowed and bareness every where:
Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was:
But flowers distill’d, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
Shakespear refers to the gentle process of time to create beauty. A beautiful face holds people’s gaze. Nature does not stop and in time the face loses its earlier beauty. The summer leads to winter, warmth turns to cold and sensuality disappears. Snow covers up the bareness, but we have remembrance of the beauty of what was remains. Flowers are made into perfume even in winter. Beautiful flowers lose their appearance, but the substance of their perfume offers a sweet appreciation.