Physicality and Emotional Attachment in Shakespeare's Sonnet 46
In "Sonnet 46" of his works about the blond young man, William Shakespeare presents a unique view on the classic debate about physical lust versus emotional love. The poet struggles to decide if his feelings are based upon superficial desire and infatuation, represented by the "eye" (1), or true love independent of the physical world, symbolized by the "heart" (1). With a deft movement from violent imagery in the first two lines to the civilized language of law, Shakespeare dismisses the commonly accepted view of a battle between the eye and the heart. The diction of warfare denotes two very separate alien sides clashing in destructive confrontation. Shakespeare advances quickly away from such wording, setting his debate in the civilized context of a courtroom. While the parties engaged in a lawsuit are competing, they are not seeking the destruction of their opposition. A common bond exists between the two sides of a legal case, the bond of society. They are parts of the same whole, or they would not be bound by the laws of that whole. The same holds for the eye and the heart, as well as their metaphysical counterparts, lust and spiritual bonding. The eye and the heart are but organs that make up the body. Physical desire and emotional attraction are just aspects of the overlying concept of love. This is Shakespeare's final point: both physicality and emotional attachment combine to form the powerful force humans know as love.
The opening quatrain of "Sonnet 46" sets up the conflict of infatuation versus true love, acknowledging the classic view of a battle between opposing forces, but swiftly moving beyond such a black and white portrayal of the issue. The first line of the poem seems to say that Shakespeare, like many others, sees infatuation and spiritual attraction as hostile, warring parties. He even chooses to modify "war" (1) with the word "mortal" (1), signifying a conflict to the death with no possibility for reconciliation or pacification. But in the next line he contradicts himself. Though the poet continues to utilize martial imagery such as "conquest" (2), his choice of verbs subtly changes the meaning. "[D]ivide" (2) suggests that both parties in the conflict will receive some portion of the prize, an unlikely occurrence if the eye and heart are truly in "mortal war" (1). Shakespeare underscores this change in direction by substituting a trochee for the standard iamb as the initial foot of the line. Already, the poet is shifting focus away from the idea of warfare and onto the image of a courtroom.
The second quatrain completes that movement and establishes equality between the two sides. Words of violence are conspicuously absent from this point on in the poem, replaced by legal vocabulary, such as "plead" (5), "deny" (7), and "lies" (8). No longer bitter enemies, the eye and the heart become the...