William John Shakespeare born on 23rd April 1564 in a village called Stratford situated on the river Avon, Warwickshire province in England and died on the same day of 23rd April in 1616. Later some controversies arose regarding the biographical information of this literary genius but what is known today is accepted by scholars and critics. He is the most outstanding and immortal literary figure in English literature who has composed 37 plays, 154 sonnets and 2 long poems. His contribution to the world literature and English language valued immensely. He is most famous for his four tragedies which are known as Black/ Dark Tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear and Othello. He is also equally renowned for his series of love sonnets. 

His sonnets are not based on the Italian or Petrarchan model but has its own structure and rhyming scheme and it has become so famous that it is named after him, the Shakespearean Sonnet.

Summary & Analysis: 

The present sonnet numbered 144 has many interpretations but two are famous. The first interpretation is: it is about two lovers and up and downs in their relationship; the second interpretation is: it is about contradictory natures of the poet or human being. In literature, generally we find that a text can be interpreted on multiple levels or include many meanings depended on the readers. Shakespeare is no exception to this and sonnet 144 can be cited as an example here. We will discuss these both interpretations and structurally analyse the sonnet. 

Structure: as sonnet is comprised of 14 lines, it is divided into three quatrains and a couplet. A quatrain is a stanza of 4 lines each and couplet includes 2 lines. Here we have typical Shakespearean rhyming scheme interconnecting the lines and quatrains—abab cdcd efef and gg. 

Scholars have made a general division of Shakespearean sonnets based on to whom the sonnet is addressed: there are three figures or persons—first someone called Dark Lady, second a young aristocratic friend or a youth and last a rival poet. It is assumed that the present sonnet is addressed to both the dark lady and a young friend or youth. 

First Quatrain: in the first line, he made clear that he has two loves i.e. comfort and despair. Here the poet is trying to make himself a detached observer and commented on these two lovers. In the second line, he compares them with spirits or souls. And this spirit has told him about the two lovers i.e. a woman and a man. The spirit of man is a better and fair to whom he calls ‘The better angel’ and the spirit of woman is a worse one which is represented by dark colour. It is considered that the worse spirit comes from the hell and is in the form of demon. 

As per the second interpretation, we can say that the poet is talking about the two sides of his nature—comfort and despair which are like two different souls or minds. One is better and fair whereas the other is exact opposite, worse and dark. The better soul or nature is represented by a fair man and worse nature by a dark woman. Already the dark colour symbolizes something evil or bad. These lines also suggest the dilemma and internal struggle in the mind of the poet about someone or something. A common person also can be the victim of such internal struggle. These are highly antithetical and contrasted lines. There was some great sorrow in the life of the poet and it has taken expression through these lines. It also shows the inability of the poet in selection of someone or something.  

Second Quatrain: now, according to the poet, the spirit of the woman or female is stronger to fair man and she is casting her spell over the man and the result of this will be the landing of man/ fair spirit into hell. She is tempting better angel to do some evil and trying to corrupt his sanctity or contaminate him with the ill thoughts and actions. She is working to transform the fair man into devil. Anyhow she wanted to corrupt his purity or the freedom ‘with her foul pride’.

 Moving with the second interpretation, the internal struggle in the mind of poet is continued. The dark spirit i.e. bad soul/ nature represented by dark coloured woman is trying to tempt the better soul opening the gets of hell. The poet is afraid of the bad soul trying to corrupt the good one and transforming it into a devil. Here the poet is thinking that his good nature has become weak and conscience lame. He is afraid of his purity will turn into contamination and he will lost everything. 

Third Quatrain: here in the third quatrain, we find the turn in poets thinking that he is not sure about what exactly will happen—there is possibility on both sides that the good angel will turn into fiend that is evil spirit or demon or remain the same. He is suspicious about what will happen, and right now, he is not able to tell the exact outcome. Because both the good spirit and bad spirit are the part of poet himself and alternate to each other, but one thing is very clear that both are opposite to each other, ‘one angel in another’s hell.’

The Last Couplet: in spite of all these he knew, he’s unsure about who will win in the struggle of good and bad and this doubt will persist with him throughout his life that whether his bad spirit/ soul win and kick out his good spirit/ soul from his mind.

There may be other many interpretations of the sonnet. But analysing the diction and structure, we can put the above interpretation as an authentic one.                

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Author: Datta G Sawant