Sonnet 146 Introduction
In A Nutshell
Something tells us the speaker of Sonnet 146 doesn't have a gigantic YOLO poster hanging above his bed. Don't get us wrong, Shmoopers, the dude loves reminding us that we are all going to die someday and that worms are going to feast on our guts. But he doesn't think that's a good enough reason to party like a rock-star or blow your allowance at the mall every week so you can rock expensive kicks and a bunch of designer duds.
In fact, Sonnet 146 is all about rejecting materialistic stuff and worldly pleasures. The Speaker argues that since life on earth is really stinkin' short, it's more important for him to develop a rich, inner spiritual life so his soul can kick it with the Notorious G.O.D. for all of eternity.
No wonder this sonnet has got a rep for being Big Willy Shakespeare's most religious poem. It's also what some fancy literary critics like to call a memento mori. (Memento mori is just Latin for "remember, you will die.") Gee, Bill. Thinking about the certainty of death sounds like boatloads of fun. Why not just invite us over for a BBQ in the middle of a graveyard so Hamlet can shove a decomposing skull in our faces?
Truth be told, Shmoopers, when we read all 154 of Shakespeare's sonnets in chronological order, this one sticks out like a sore thumb. Most of the other sonnets are about sex, friendship, professional rivalry, freaky love triangles, and so on. Basically, all the worldly stuff that gets rejected in Sonnet 146. Technically, this sonnet is part of what academics like to call the "Dark Lady" sequence, a group of R-rated sonnets that are mostly about the Speaker's steamy relationship with a dark-haired mistress. (Check out Sonnet 130 if you want to meet her.) Like we said, Sonnet 146 is a huge departure from all of that.
This poem is also notorious for creating some controversy among scholars. That's because there's a major printing error in the first edition (1609) that's got literary critics scratching their heads and doing a whole lot of bickering. What's all the fuss about? Basically, line 2 of the sonnet begins by repeating a phrase from the end of line 1 ("my sinful earth"), which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Most scholars think there's no way Will Shakes would have written it that way because it totally screws up the usual meter and just sounds awkward and clunky. Naturally, Shakespeare critics are always fighting over what line or phrase should go there instead. You can check out the original here and decide for yourself.
That is, of course, after you read the poem.
Why Should I Care?
Why should you care about Sonnet 146? Well, if you asked the speaker of this sonnet that very question, he'd probably say this: you're going to die some day so you better make sure your life on this earth counts. Wow, dude. Way to be a downer.
But hey, there's a reason for all the dark clouds. Some scholars think Shakespeare wrote the sonnets when the plague closed down the theaters between 1592 and 1594, during an outbreak that killed about 11,000 people (source). Add to that the fact that the average life expectancy at the time was 40 years and, well, we can see why Shakespeare might be just a tad preoccupied with croaking. And hey, it's not like he doesn't write about the theme of mortality in a bunch of his plays or anything, right? Go read Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet if you don't believe us.
These days, we tend to live a lot longer. But the poem still resonates because—news flash—we really are going to die someday. Tragedy can strike at any moment and life can be over in the blink of an eye. At some point, we all have to decide what's going to give our lives meaning here on Earth.