An Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146


How does one get to heaven? By indulging the body at the expense of the soul, or by depriving the body instead? Which division of the human entity is more justified in its desires? In his "Sonnet 146," Shakespeare has depicted this eternal struggle between the body and the soul as the relationship between a lord and his subject. As the soul is identified as being of more importance than the body in the registers of war, architecture and power, it is clear that the missing words in the second line should be "lord of."

When applied through the register of war, "lord of" can first be interpreted in a martial sense. It is quickly established that this lord is under siege, as the opening words of the poem are "poor soul." The second line reinforces this imagery by incorporating the word "array." In the Oxford English Dictionary, the word array has many meanings. One of these definitions describes an array as a disposition of men in martial order, a display of military force (I.2). Combining the imagery already set up in the first sentence, this particular definition of "array", and the phrase "lord of", the first two lines can be interpreted as follows: the soul is being described as lord, and the body, the display of military force that surrounds him, has mutinied to become the "rebel powers." Another way to view this is to imagine this lord (the soul) as the ruler of a small European country. His army (the body), once under his control, has been suffering from discontent, and can possibly overthrow him at anytime. The two forces are held within a constant state of tension, a civil power struggle.

Besides being used in the register of war, "lord of" can be interpreted in a domestic sense., with the body as a building to house the soul. This is shown by the many architectural terms, which are expanded upon in detail. There are phrases such as "Painting thy outward walls so costly gay"(4) and "thy fading mansion" (6). Once again, the word array adds insight to this metaphor of the body as a house. Here, the word means "to furnish or to attire" (OED III.7,8). This idea of architecture is compounded later in the poem, when the speaker exhorts the soul to "without be rich no more"(11). The idea here is that the soul is the lord of a mansion who spends time, money and effort on maintaining a fine exterior, the body. However, it is futile to spend "so large [a] cost," as the body has "so short a lease"(5).

Finally, the phrase "lord of" is especially accurate when applied through the register of power. Here, the true assignation of power is revealed; the prevailing idea of Shakespeare’s sonnet is that the soul is lord over the body. There are many lines that support this. In line five, the lord is described as having "so short a lease" over his earthly domain implying ownership. In line eight, the body is given the term "charge," meaning that it is placed under the care and direction of the soul; and in line nine, the body is described as the soul’s "servant." No matter how strong the body’s carnal desires are, they will always remain subject to the soul’s approval. Although the soul may be under siege from the worldly desires of the body, the fact remains that the body is mortal and the soul is not.

These three metaphors do not work alone; they are connected and emphasize each other. If all of these analyses are put together, based upon the order of the poem itself, a clear meaning emerges. The soul is being described as the lord of the body. The body serves to house, shelter and protect the soul, but has desires of its own which prevent it from remaining content with being completely under the control of the soul. The soul can give in to the body’s desires by furnishing it with costly adornments, but this action is detrimental to the soul. In this scenario, when this body eventually dies, the soul is eternally doomed. The soul should control the body’s desires by "buy[ing] terms divine in selling hours of dross" (11); by not wasting time indulging the body the soul will gain hours in the afterlife. The lord, by saving up his resources while letting his army fall apart or his mansion go to waste, will in the end have a more long-term reward.

Human beings are born into a constant power struggle which manifests itself in many ways. They are either in control, or they are being subdued and is trying to find a way out. A worldly example of this lies in the reality of the army, in which one man is placed in charge of all the others. Another variant of this is the lord-and-manor setting, where many serfs are subject to one baron. On a higher scale, there exists the struggle between the body, with its carnal desires, and the soul, with its divine ideals. "Sonnet 146" is aimed at giving the "poor soul"(1) advice on how to gain "terms divine"(11); the lord can overcome the "rebel powers" (1) that are arrayed to eventually reach heaven.

Works Cited

"Array." The Oxford English Dictionary. Second Edition, 1989.

"Sonnet 146." William Shakespeare. Assignment Photocopy.