Starving the Soul

The 146th sonnet of William Shakespeare portrays the lifelong interaction between the soul and the body. However, in the second line of the sonnet, there are two syllables that were lost from the original printing. Reading through the sonnet, one can see that there are many different phrases that would fill this gap and make sense of the sonnet. But if we take into consideration the register of war present throughout the sonnet, the connection of the metaphor of rebel powers to this register, and the definition of “array” that will be presented in this paper, then starved by best completes the sonnet.

Starved by is the best choice for this sonnet because of the way that it relates to the metaphor of “rebel powers” and “array”. Sonnet 146 is a tale of the soul being confined in the body at birth, and not being able to achieve its full spiritual strength and freedom. Normally, the soul is supposed to guide the body, and live in harmony with it. But in this sonnet, it is implied otherwise from the very first line of the sonnet. By opening with “Poor soul,” we know that the soul is not in harmony with the body. The “rebel powers” actually represent the body, because the body has decided to go against that which gives it life, and in doing so, is rebelling against the soul. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, we can see that the proper definition of “array” in the context of line two and the rest of the sonnet is “To set or place in order of readiness” (OED 1). So by this definition, the soul arrays, or places the body to house it, only to have the body rebel against the soul and starve it once the soul has inhabited the body.

By describing the body as rebel powers, we can strengthen the use of starved by in the sonnet. It is implied that the body is rebelling against the soul, and trapping it inside. This is similar to warfare, in which a castle is put under siege by an invading army. In siege warfare, the people inside of the castle are not necessarily attacked, but slowly starved to death by the invading army. The army accomplishes this by cutting off all routes of food and supplies that normally come into the castle, and taking the supplies as their own. If we view the body as the invading army, and the soul under siege, then we can easily see that ‘starving’ the soul is exactly what the body is doing. This justifies the word choice of ‘starved by’ for line two, as the completed line would read, “Starved by these rebel powers that thee array,” meaning that the soul is trapped, confined, and slowly starved by the rebellious body that it had set in place for its own habitat and use. The body is described as “ large cost”, and the speaker says “...why dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?”, asking why the soul spends its time in upkeep of the body (5-6). But the soul, unable to break free from the body, is forced to use its time concentrating on the upkeep of the body, spending its energy to keep the body from dying and being starved all the while. We can see that starved by works in relation to the position of servitude that the soul must undertake, and still be starved from its freedom.

Starved by relates to the last two lines because the body has died away, and can no longer starve the soul. As a result, the soul becomes immortal, no longer being starved by the body in which it was contained. This is described by the last two lines of the sonnet, which say, “So shalt thou feed on Death [of the body], that feeds on men / And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then” (13-14). The immortality of the soul is its final triumph against the body which had starved the soul for so long. Overall, the theme of this sonnet is the struggle between the soul and the body, in which the soul is forced to take care of the body while being starved off from the outside world. In the end, the soul is finally able to be freed from the body, feeding off of its death, and finally achieves immortality. This further justifies the use of ‘starved by’ in line two of the sonnet, because it fits in with the theme of the body starving the soul.

However, it is interesting to note that only the person being written about in the sonnet is the one whose soul is being confined, and that perhaps not everyone is in such a state. I believe that when William Shakespeare wrote this sonnet, he was representing a specific person’s soul and body. Perhaps this person had a very kind soul earlier on in life, but developed a disorder which crippled their body, and they lost the strength to keep their soul strong. And then in dying, perhaps the person’s soul returned in full strength, no longer starved by the boundaries of their body. Or a rather strong person who hid all of their feelings down deep, only to have their barrier be shattered by their soul as they lay on their death bed, and finally able to cry out in anguish for the starvation of their soul from the feelings that it required.

The poor soul of Shakespeare’s 146th sonnet is indeed starved by the body that it inhabits, unable to achieve the spiritual freedom that it needs, and thereby being forced to seek fulfillment by keeping the body alive until such a time that the soul can break free. When the soul breaks free and achieves this spiritual enlightenment, it becomes immortal, and is starved no more. We can see through the analysis of this sonnet that starved by, and not other word choices, best fits line two, because of the overall theme of warfare, the metaphor of “rebel powers” in line two, and the definition that we have appended to “array” so that it fits with the register of the first stanza. The soul is indeed starved by the body, and will be until the body passes away.


Works Cited

“Sonnet 146.” English 101D handout. January 2000.

“Array.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.

“Dross.” Merriam-Webster Online. Jan. 29, 2000. <>.