Master or Servant

Upon close inspection of "Sonnet 146," by William Shakespeare, the reader may find that there is consistent imagery of a body and soul that are at odds with each other throughout the poem. It may also be inferred that the body and soul are connected and thus have a relationship. However, the kind of relationship the mind and body have is not clear from the poem as it exists due to the fact that there are missing words at the beginning of the second line in the first stanza. The phrase, "Served by"(handout) does the best job of resolving this ambiguous relationship in a manner that is consistent with the remainder of the poem. This phrase introduces a new register and thus the new metaphor of the body as a servant to the soul. The new metaphor successfully demonstrates the relationship between the body and soul. Once we understand this relationship, the reason that the body would want to "rebel" and "array"(line 2) itself against the soul, becomes clear. The addition of the words "Served by" bridges the first two stanzas, which refer to the suffering of the soul while it is connected to the body, and the third and fourth stanzas, which refer to the benefits the soul may enjoy without the body. It becomes clear that the soul would be better off without the body, which is dependent on the soul for life. Thus the body must accept death in sacrifice for the soul, which is tormented by life in a body, and the soul must accept life without the body.

"Sonnet 146" is a persuasive argument for the need for separation between the body and the soul. As we discussed in class, we can see that Shakespeare uses the metaphor of "earth" (line1) to represent something which is temporary like the human body by comparing it to something that is related but permanent, i.e. the "poor soul" (line 1). Because the next words have not been included in the text, it is difficult to comprehend how Shakespeare meant the body and soul to be related. The fact that he goes on to say that the body "rebels" (line 2) against the soul and will "array" itself against the soul, suggests that the body and soul are at odds, but we cannot say how. When the words, "Served by" are added this relationship becomes more obvious.

The servant is the body, which is tied to the soul, its master. This new register provides us with the new metaphor of master and servant, which allows the reader to interpret the relationship between the body and soul. We understand that the master (soul) is dependent on the servant (body) in life, but that the master is in the position of power, as the definition of master suggests, because it is the permanent soul. The relationship between the soul and body as master and servant, respectively, is paralleled in the second stanza wherein the soul is compared to a renter and the body is compared to a residence: "Why so large cost, having so short a lease / Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend" (lines 6 and 7).

Again in the third stanza, the body is referred to as the servant: "Then soul live thou upon thy servant’s loss" (line 9). Here it is clear that the body is not necessary for the soul to live, but instead the soul is necessary for the body. So it is really the servant that is dependent on the master. We begin to understand why the body desires to "paint its outward walls so costly gay" (line 4). It is because in doing so it may live longer or better, but the fact that it is costly to the soul suggests that the body will have to rebel against the soul in order to do so.

In the final lines of the poem it is clear that the soul does not need the body, in fact we see that the soul is better off without the body, which only drags it down because it is temporary and will eventually die. But the soul cannot die, once the body is gone it will live on and the poem suggests it will do so in a less restricted way. "So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men / And death once dead there’s no more dying then" (lines 13 and14). These two lines give the final argument that the soul, which is permanent, is better off without its temporary servant, the body.

Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 146,"presents the reader with a cumbersome task which requires a careful analysis and a clear understanding of the text. It also requires that the reader become Shakespeare in the sense that he/she comprehends the meaning of each word, line, image well enough to be able to insert the best missing phrase. In turn, the chosen words should add to the overall meaning of the sonnet and connect it in a way that makes it a more cohesive poem.


Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 1609.
  2. Handout with sonnet and possible phrases.