Shakespearean Astronomy: Analysis of Sonnet 14
Fertility may be the foundation of a society. As the natural production of offspring, the idea of fertility drives a nation. It, quite literally, creates the next generation, and in doing so offers the reality of innovations and the continuation of a culture. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14 explores this very idea of the necessity of procreation. In true Elizabethan fashion, Shakespeare writes Sonnet 14 in the traditional rhyme scheme of an English sonnet. As per usual with his earlier sonnets, he implicitly addresses a young man, offering a commentary on the role of the heavens in the young man’s life concerning his bearing future generations.
It is first important to understand that at the height of Shakespearean literature, the word “astronomy” was negligibly dissimilar to the use of the word “astrology,” and so the two words were used interchangeably. The significance of this wordplay presents itself in the denotation of the two words. While astronomy is a rather scientific study of the heavens, astrology can be defined as a more “divine” reading of the stars- less factual, and instead more spiritual. This note winds itself into the sonnet by creating a double meaning where the word “astronomy” is said.
Although the speaker in Sonnet 14 acknowledges his understanding of “astronomy,” he rejects his scientific knowledge in the face of judgment. The narrator begins by clarifying that he does not use the heavens as a basis for his decisions, even though is knowledgeable enough to do so. This reassures the reader that though the speaker is intelligent in this realm, he acknowledges his potential bias and refrains from subduing himself to it, offering a perspective of realism to the sonnet.
However, because of the implied astrological meaning, the narrator, in that statement, also denounces his transcendent abilities. He realizes his inability to predict bad omens that the future hold. By stating that foreseeing “good” and “evil luck” is beyond him humbles the narrator, allowing the reader to more fully appreciate his later warning.
In a similar fashion, the personal troubles, or “thunder, rain and wind,” of the individual is not something the narrator can describe with certainty, nor with accuracy. Additionally, he cannot foretell the prominence of a kingdom. His own analysis of what he may find in the sky is unreliable at most to tell the fate of an entire kingdom. In this second quadrant, the speaker does not claim that the heavens do not dictate the lives of anyone from the commoners to royalty, but also denies that one may find answers to life’s questions from studying the stars. By explicitly describing the extent to which the stars cannot determine his judgments, the speaker emphasizes the significance and weight of his later detailed ability to foresee the future in the eyes of the young boy.
Despite all this, there is one thing the narrator claims with absolute certainty, and this decision he makes not with science, but from the eyes of the young man to which he addresses the sonnet. In the eyes of the boy, he sees the stars: a fortune of the future. These are “constant stars” that leave the narrator without a doubt when reading them. Though unable to predict events of nature or personal experience from the real stars of reality, the narrator knows from the figurative stars in the boys’ eyes that if he does not pass on the gift of life and bear children, then the boy’s artistic values of truth and beauty will terminate along with him. In essence, truth and beauty are principles that “thrive” through the act of fertility. The death of the worthwhile values occurs in the sense that when kept to one’s self, truth and beauty are stored, as the narrator says, and therefore remain unused and undeveloped, and dissipate with the life force that carries them.
One must also note that the bad omens the speaker describes are a series of natural events: “plagues” and “dearths,” or famines, and “seasons’ quality,” or the weather and subsequent quality of the harvest. This line hints at a number of conveyances, all laced with a certain irony. Though a dearth bears the meaning of a famine, it is merely one letter away from the word “death.” This blatantly reminds the reader of the gravity of natural circumstances for people of the time, and accentuates the fact that not yielding and heir was a major concern. Along with this pragmatic reason, Shakespeare uses the values of truth and beauty to emphasize the more philosophical and spiritual reasons for bearing an heir.
The introduction of language regarding astronomical and astrological references characterizes Sonnet 14. Its structure suggests that humility may procure a more welcomed cautionary tale, such as that there exists a necessity of procreation to secure a life with certain core values. The speaker places the burden of maintaining these principles on the young man’s shoulders, while also intertwining it with the burden of maintaining a society, one generation after another.
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