Bound By Duty

Through no fault of his own, William Shakespeare has taken a literary genre known for its ambiguity and multifaceted nature to a whole new level. Poetry, even in its simplest form, is composed of layer on top of layer of meaning and can be elusive to even the most astute of literature students. Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 146" has undoubtedly driven one or two of these students absolutely mad because, due to an early printing error, the beginning of line two is missing. So, a student hoping to interpret this literary mystery must not only peel back the layers and examine what is written, but he or she must also examine what is not written—the one or two words that begin the line "( ) these rebel powers that thee array" (2), and explains the relationship between the two characters of the poem, the narrator, nearing the end of his life, and the soul he wants to let go of. The soul is "bound by" the individual who’s body it inhabits by a sense of duty, a duty to shine through even at the end of the body’s life, to be a comforting presence in the face of death, and, finally, to follow the body’s wishes and know when it is time to let go.

The body in "Sonnet 146" is a very knowledgeable body and knows exactly what will happen after it dies. "Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,/Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?/Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,/and let that pine to aggravate thy store" (7-10). The body is very clear on the fact that once it dies it is just gone, a good meal for a family of worms, but the soul will go on and, after a routine stop in purgatory "to be cleansed from venial sins" (OED Online), inhabit another body. The dying body wants the soul to let go, to stop fighting the inevitable, stop helping the body look happy and brave when it is slowly wasting and withering away on the inside. "Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,/Painting thy walls so costly gay?/Why so large a cost, having so short a lease,/Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?" (3-6). Though clear on what will happen when its life is over, the body does not understand why the soul is hanging on, why it doesn’t leave and move on to the next body. It doesn’t understand how deep the soul’s sense of duty runs.

Even with this awesome duty that the soul has, it has a hard time letting go, despite the body’s wishes. This is where the soul’s duty gets hung up on itself. It has a duty to protect and do what is best for the body, but in this case, what the soul sees and what the body sees are completely opposite. "Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,/Painting thy outward walls to costly gay?/. . .Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,/Eat up thy charge?" (3-4, 7-8). The body is trying to make the soul see that no matter how much effort it puts into making it look brave and strong in the face the death, the end result will always be the same, and once the soul has left the body all that hard work will disappear. The body assures the soul that it is not afraid of dying. "So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,/And Death once there’s no more dying then" (13-14). It knows that death is nothing to worry about, it’s just something that happens, the next stage of life.

I saw this sonnet as a dialogue, between a body and his soul, happening in three stages: The body questioning the soul as to why it is continuing to do its duty when death it so near, the body explaining death as something not to be feared, and the body finally convincing the soul that it is time to let go, to stop being bound by eachother.