The Soul Versus The Body In Sonnet 146 By William Shakespeare

Shakespeare shows the struggle between depth and appearance in sonnet 146. The poem’s theme and message are consistent in pointing to the contradictory relationship between inner and outer worlds of human beings. This theme manifests itself most clearly in the battle between the soul and body. Beyond this literal portrayal of two opposing forces lies a deeper, darker idea. It’s not just a difference in the appearance of someone, but a discrepancy that is inevitable. The failure of one side makes the battle unbalanced and frustrating. Shakespeare’s subtle attitude and language towards form portray this failure in a very clear way. The cold references to money in the language of this poem creates an additional battle. Shakespeare shows in certain moments how words can’t communicate the true intent of the writer. Shakespeare’s frustration is also revealed in his form. It is the physical shape that has been forced on his meaning. The poem, by its inability, to communicate its meaning, is a constant battle. It’s a representation of a fragile surface that imprisons its core.

The sonnet examines the subject from two different perspectives and highlights their differences. Right away, it is clear that surface and depth are distinct. Shakespeare’s opening line “Poor Soul, the Centre of My Sinful Earth” (l.1) achieves his distinction in a number of ways. In addressing his own soul, Shakespeare assumes that it is a distinct entity. The term “sinful soil” could refer to the earthy world, which is always opposed to heaven. Shakespeare does more than divide himself into two halves. He tells his reader which side to cheer. Shakespeare’s description of “poor” soul immediately reveals his preferred side. The reader is also moved by the cooing. The poem begins with a feeling of sympathy for the interior. The victimized spirit must learn to fight back, even though the body has been rendered unworthy. Shakespeare’s soul is in a constant battle with the second line of “rebel pot’rs” (l.2). Even though it is crucial to the speaker’s being, his soul is continually ambushed. The first two lines establish a strong conflict.

Shakespeare keeps adding meaning to the conflict imagery he uses, and his metaphors. The exterior expands its role, becoming a pitiful adversary. The body can be a “sinful soil” (l.1) as well as his “outwards walls”(l.4) or his “fading house”(l.6). The adjectives are building a subtle hierarchy. The terms “outward,””fading”and “servant” are all referring to states of betterment that remain unnamed. As “servant” needs a master, “outward” also requires an inner. To “fade” means to be in a better, original state. The soul’s essence is described indirectly. Shakespeare creates the other half of the soul by describing it negatively. This isn’t just an endless struggle between good versus evil. It’s the injust imprisonment of a more noble force. This is an inconsistency. The last two words of the first quintet explain this: Why do you suffer hunger and pine inwardly?/Painting outwardly so gayly expensive walls?” (l.4). The frustration of the heart is emphasized. It’s not just poor but also alone and suffering. This suffering is kept hidden from the world outside, which creates a terrible frustration. Shakespeare’s conclusion that “without being rich no longer” is necessary to “within be fed” (l.12) can be understood by the reader, who has seen the discrepancy between soul and body. He must sacrifice his interior substance to save the feeble exterior. It is a battle that is unfair and intense, as well as the themes of the poem hidden beneath its surface of cold financial references.

The use of words relating to money and commerce is distinct, and most evident in the second quadrant. In the central lines of the poem, which is about the soul and death, there are many petty references to loss and profit. This quatrain contains the words “cost,” (“lease”), “lease,” (“spend”), “inheritor”, (l.6),”inheritors,”(l.7)”charge,”(l.8). Shakespeare uses the battle as an argument about money, and he counsels his soul. He says “Why, with such a short-term lease,/Dost you spend on thy decaying mansion?” (ll.5-6). Once again, the image is of a victimized person, but in this case, it’s just bad business. This monetary symbol was first introduced in the first verse, where it asked “Why doest thou suffer poverty and pining within?/Painting all thy walls so gayly expensive?” (ll.3-4). In this case, the soul seems to be struggling with the external appearance. It is the same situation as a poet trying to express his vision within the fourteen lines of the sonnet. This connection is indicated by the word “painting”, which appears in the quoted lines. Shakespeare is frustrated by the idea of beautifying an outside.

This sonnet’s last lines bring death into sharp focus. It is a theme that has been explored before. The second quatrain is replete with reminders about the body’s weakness. Shakespeare suggests in the third quintet that the soul should use its flaw of mortality to achieve ultimate victory. In a conversation with his soul, Shakespeare suggests that the soul should “live on the loss of your servant,/And use the pine to increase the store you have” (ll.9-10). The speaker seems to have made his point by referring to mortality as the ultimate demise of the body and, again, indirectly creating the purity of the soul. In the end couplet, we see a poet who is not satisfied with his explanation. The word “Death”, repeated four time, is then hammered into the reader’s head: “So shall thou feed upon Death, who feeds on man,/And once Death has died, there will be no more dying” (ll.13-14). Shakespeare’s frustration is evident in his decision to state the truth outright. The poem’s message is also battling the form, which is akin to a pure and honest soul. The decision of repeating the same word in four places shows the limited nature of language. It is shocking to see the speaker’s mocking, candid tone when compared with his meticulous self-reflection in all that precedes these lines. The sudden, awkward truth is like a dying breathe.

This final expression, though it is evident throughout the poem that surface cannot communicate depth, does triumph. Even though the body is imperfect, it will eventually drive away the soul. After this last thought, the reader’s and speaker’s feelings are complicated. The battle between good and evil is no longer a simple black-and-white one. Shakespeare is inevitably drawn to this conclusion. The 12 lines that Shakespeare spent wailing over souls or bodies are quickly swept away by the strongest force. Both spheres will meet their end. The battle, which he depicts along the way by choosing sides and judging terms, is then pushed aside in favor of other themes. It is important to not ignore the frustrations that come with life and the struggle of communicating oneself. But they’re not very important in our universe, which is a path that leads only to Death.


  • tobyevans

    Toby Evans is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog to share her ideas and experiences with her students and fellow educators. She is passionate about helping her students learn and grow, and uses her blog as a way to share her knowledge and insights with the world.