A Wretch but for Love: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91 Essay

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A Wretch but for Love: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91 Shakespeare’s ninety-first sonnet continues to address the young man to whom he has been writing the procreation sonnets. The theme of this sonnet is the incomparable value of the young man’s love. For Shakespeare, the pleasure of the young man’s love is greater than any other pleasure. His rejection of worldly pleasures for the greater joy of love also appears to highlight a distinction Shakespeare wants to make between true wealth and poverty. In doing so, he insinuates a social criticism about the notion of what is truly valuable in this world. Shakespeare emphasizes these points through the structure of the poem, which employs repetition and chiasmus, and through diction.
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It is the tying, middle section between the first and third quatrains which both specifically address the things in which people glory. Shakespeare begins the quatrain by referencing the humours, saying that “every humor hath his adjunct pleasure/Wherein it finds a joy above the rest” (5-6). In other words, a person takes pleasure in things that are associated with his or her disposition. Unlike those people of high class and wealth who are able to boast in the things mentioned in the first quatrain, the speaker finds “these particulars are not [his] measure” (7). These particular things in which others glory, he does not. Instead, he “better[s]” (8), or “[does] better than, surpass[es], excel[s]” (OED), these other pleasures in one general thing which is the best. The speaker may not have all the material things of others, but he believes he has something much greater than worldly pleasures. The third and final quatrain reveals what is the one best general thing that is better than all the other pleasures: “Thy love” (9). Shakespeare then reiterates the pleasures measured in the first stanza (only omitting “skill” (10), “their body’s force” (2), and “hounds” (4)). This repetition emphasizes the fact that the young man’s love is greater than the worldly pleasures in which men usually glory. Because the speaker has the young man’s love, he says, “of all men’s pride I boast” (12). He can boast of, or glory in, all that in which men take
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