Shakespeare In Question

In 1609 William Shakespeare published a collection of writing. Amongst the works published is Sonnet 146, a powerful and cleverly crafted sonnet regarding the relationship between the human body and soul, as well as human beings’ propensity to fear death. Unfortunately, due to a printing error, the beginning of line two was printed incorrectly. Consequently, the beginning Sonnet 146 reads, "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth, / My sinful earth these rebel powers that thee array," (1-2). Reading through the rest of the sonnet it becomes quite apparent that "My sinful earth" was not the phrase that Shakespeare penned to begin the second line. Since Shakespeare died without ever correcting the printing error, readers can only guess as to what the beginning of line two actually is. Yet, by looking at the meaning of the sonnet, the registers used in each metaphor, and the actual transition and translation of lines one and two, a solid argument can be made that line two of Sonnet 146 should read, "Soiled by these rebel powers that thee array".

Reading through Sonnet 146 one can see that throughout the poem there exists two distinctly different tones. The first half of the sonnet, which encompasses the first nine lines of the fourteen lined work, creates the dreary feeling that happiness is coming at a great cost and one must fear death. Shakespeare speaks gravely of death, asking whether worms eating his body is to be his end. He also speaks metaphorically of the great cost assumed by creating the allusion of bodily happiness. The meaning of the first half of the sonnet is that the soul suffers great anguish while attempting to please the body. Yet, beginning with line ten, the tone of the sonnet becomes drastically more upbeat as Shakespeare offers advice to the soul on how to overcome the encompassing feeling of anxiety created by attempting to please the body. Shakespeare claims that by buying "terms divine", or accepting God’s word, one will no longer have to experience the anxiety created by superficially pleasing the body. The first half of the sonnet is dreary with dark images of death, yet the second half becomes hopeful with Shakespeare giving advice on how to end one’s fear of passing on. Although understanding the tones and message of Sonnet 146 does not, in itself, lead to the missing phrase of line two, it does offers clues as to what it could be.

Another clue offered as to what the actual beginning of line two should be is Shakespeare’s use of metaphor in describing the human body. Shakespeare describes the human body metaphorically in the first section by relating it to both the earth and a building. The use of these two metaphorical registers occurs throughout the first nine lines and can be seen in passages where Shakespeare refers to the human body as both "my sinful earth" (1) and a "fading mansion"(6). Because Shakespeare uses the reoccurring register of the body being both of the earth and a building it would be expected that line two would contain an allusion to one of the two registers. Line two, however, contains no reference to either the body/earth register or the body/building register, leading one to believe that one of the two registers should be used in line two of the sonnet. Therefore, the phrase "soiled by" would be a perfect fit for the missing phrase in line two. "Soiled by" can relate to the earth register since soil itself is nothing but earth, or the phrases’ meaning can be stretched to fit the building register by interpreting it as soiling, or dirtying, the building that is the body. The clues offered from both the meaning of the sonnet, as well as the reoccurring metaphorical registers, lends further evidence that "soiled by" is the phrase that should be inserted in line two.

Yet to fully understand why "soiled by" belongs in line two it is important to look closely at the meanings, and transitions of, lines one and two. The first two lines read "Poor soul, center of my sinful earth, / [ ] these rebel powers that the array," (1-2). As stated earlier, the body, which is typically thought of as housing the soul, is referred to as "My sinful earth" (1), creating the original body/earth metaphor. The question then becomes, why is the body a sinful earth? Reading on, line two states, "[ ] these rebel powers that thee array" (2), which translated means, "these rebel powers that the soul lines up with." The rebel powers that Shakespeare refers to can be interpreted as those of Satan, the angel who rebelled against God and initiated sin on Earth. Looking at the first two lines from the point of view as Satan being the rebel power that the soul is lining up with, one can see why Shakespeare would have referred to the body as "My sinful earth." The soul’s alignment with Satan’s wishes is a sin that has made the body and soul dirty, or soiled, in God’s eyes.

It is at this point that the phrase "Soiled by" truly begins to fit. "Soiled by" not only continues the body/earth register but it also explains why the body/earth is sinful. The body has been "soiled", or dirtied by, the soul’s lining up with, or following, the temptations of Satan. Translation of the first two lines, with the inclusion of "Soiled by" as the opening phase of line two, is then, "Poor soul center of my sinful body which has been dirtied by the soul’s alignment with the temptation of Satan." Looked at from this angle, it is easy to see why one would fear death and implore the soul to buy the "terms divine". By buying "terms divine", or laws of God, the body would break from the rebel powers of Satan, saving the dirty soul from damnation and therefore alleviating any fear of death. It is only by looking closely at the meaning of the sonnet, the metaphors used, and the line in which the printing error occurred that one can begin to theorize what actually belongs in line two. Yet the theory that "Soiled by" is the missing term is well supported by the evidence Shakespeare offers in Sonnet 146.

William Shakespeare is without a doubt one of the great writers in history. He possessed an ability to stretch the English language and bring out depth in each individual word. Because his writing is so eloquently crafted it is very difficult to guess what Shakespeare actually penned to begin line two of Sonnet 146. However, because "Soiled by" fits so well with overall meaning of the sonnet, the existing metaphors, and the transitions and translations of lines one and two, one can make a strong argument that the opening of Sonnet 146 should read, "Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth, / Soiled by these rebel powers that thee array," (1-2). Yet, even with all the evidence to support the inclusion of "Soiled by" in line two, one can only guess what Shakespeare actually wrote.