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Just This Side of Death: An Interpretation of Shakespeare's Sonnet #73

Updated on July 9, 2009
Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion
Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion

Glossary a must for the student of Shakespeare. Think of it as your Shakespearean to (modern) English dictionary.


William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 reminds us of the inevitability and permanence of death and of how that reality should compel us to love fiercely before our time is over. Shakespeare expertly employs classic elements of literature to make his point. His masterful use of imagery creates a vivid setting. By using figurative language throughout most of the poem - interspersed with just the right amount of literal word usage - he accomplishes a powerful, complex, and timeless piece of writing.

Through strong images, rife with symbolism, Shakespeare paints a picture of nature at its most bleak – using this setting to represent the way we view old age and dying. Through the poem, our narrator speaks of his advanced age and of his approaching death to a beloved individual. He describes his own physical condition as like the very end of fall, just on the verge of winter, “when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang (Shakespeare 1056)." Right off, the poem is given more depth through Shakespeare’s use of figurative rather than literal language. Images of autumn’s end create at once a bleak and chilly sort of setting. A tree, stripped bare of nearly all of its leaves, is a powerful representation of the narrator. The leaves, its worldly raiment - the very symbol of its vitality and youth, are all but gone. In their wake, there are only “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang (Shakespeare 1056)." This seems a wistful remembrance, spoken in the past tense, of youthful glory and beauty as if to say “I wasn’t always like this.”

He continues “In me thou see’st the twilight of such a day,” - not only is he in a stage of life likened to a day at autumn’s last gasp; he is at the very end of that day (Shakespeare 1056). The end of the end. We are fed more images of dark abysmal, as he likens his condition to the black night slowly stealing away the last bits of sunset, “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest” (Shakespeare 1056). Yet, he himself will not wake come sunrise, nor will his “seasons” cycle back to Spring. It seems important to note that Shakespeare has capitalized the word Death – making it a proper noun rather than just an idea or a state of being. Death becomes real, tangible. Here, literal use is interwoven with archetypal use of the term, giving more depth and complexity to the idea of death.

Next, he likens his condition to a fire on its “deathbed,” again giving us both figurative and literal connotations of death. He lies on the ashes of his youth, with all that ash represents. It is burned away and devoid of any real purpose or substance. It is merely a by-product of the original thing – the fire, which would seem to signify his vitality and youth. Ash cannot be re-ignited and so the “glowing” he describes is certainly his last flickering of physical existence. He is “consumed by that which (he) was nourished by” – devoured by the fire that was his very being (Shakespeare 1056). This final metaphor is apt. Fire, unlike days or seasons, is not cyclical and will not start over or be renewed automatically.

Shakespeare then pulls out of the chilly despair and focuses directly on the recipient of the sonnet. He seems to observe the intensity of love increase on the part of his beloved upon seeing him in such a state. This beloved one is then compelled to “love that well which thou must leave ere long (Shakespeare 1056)." Speaking here in a direct manner devoid of metaphor or symbol, he punctuates the poem’s truth. All who live will eventually die. Shakespeare seems here to implore us to examine that simple and terrible fact. It is as true at this moment as it was in 1609, when he wrote the Sonnet. What else, then, can we do with this knowledge other than to live and love deeply and with regard to the finite nature of life?

Sonnet 73 is a compelling piece of work that speaks through commanding images associated with cold, sleep, darkness, and ultimately death. It transcends time, with its symbols of nature and fire carrying much the same meanings and associations now as when it was written. The use of figurative language throughout most of the poem makes the gravity of the situation come through much more effectively and the small injections of literal terminology only serve to cement what Shakespeare’s haunting symbols have already told us.


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    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 5 years ago from Here

      Thank you SimpleJoys! Your comment made my day. I wish you continued health and happiness!!!

    • SimpleJoys profile image

      SimpleJoys 5 years ago

      This was absolutely lovely. I think it can be interesting and almost entertaining to look at one's own life and determine what season is present. My daughters surely are in springtime with everything ahead of them. I have more yesterdays in my life than tomorrows, and my leaves are turning to gold. I pray my cancer will stay in remission and I will have a chance to see the snow.

    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 6 years ago from Lagos

      Good work on shakespeare. Awesome Piece i must commend. You re a natural born writer. Well talented

    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 6 years ago from Lagos

      Good work on shakespeare. Piece i must commend. You re a natural born writer. Well talented

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 6 years ago from Here

      Thanks for your input bogpan -- I love having further insight to add to the discussion!

      Me too, William...Shakespeare, that is. :) Thanks for coming by.

      Thanks Doug. I've merely dipped my little toe in, but am excited for more! Thanks for the support! :)

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      Doug Turner Jr. 7 years ago

      Very concisely written. You obviously have dabbled in the bard a time or two. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and passion on Sonnet 73.

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      William 7 years ago

      I love william

    • bogpan profile image

      Bozhidar Pangelov 7 years ago from Bulgaria Sofia

      Death is the only fiction in this sonnet, the idea of love is expressed in the beam. And fire.

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 7 years ago from Here

      Thanks, bobthym - I'm really glad you enjoyed this.

      Thanks to you, too, zac828!

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 7 years ago from Here

      Wow, thanks Rossimobis. Your compliment is very much appreciated.

      ematthews- as I said to some other commenters, I'm by no means an expert and am merely giving my (admittedly simplified and novice) personal interpretation. It was actually written for an introductory literature class and so if it is at least at a 101 level, I'm happy. :)

      I appreciate your taking the time to give me feedback, even though you weren't too big on the writing. Your insights have been noted. Thank you!

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 7 years ago from Here

      Thank you kindly, Moulik Mystry

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 7 years ago from Here

      Professor Eric-

      You are very likely far more knowledgeable than I in this area. I'm just firing off my own interpretation, which is certainly up for scrutiny as it has no basis other my own personal thought process. I greatly appreciate your having read and commented!! Thanks!

    • Zac828 profile image

      Zac828 7 years ago from England

      Great to read about Shakespeare on hubpages, great hub.

    • bobthym profile image

      bobthym 8 years ago from Nashville, Tennessee

      Great article! Just bought Stephen Booth's book on the Sonnets.

      From a fellow Bardolater!

    • profile image

      ematthews 8 years ago

      Sorry, Roo Bee, but your analysis seems like a pop review:

      Shakespeare expertly employs classic elements of literature to make his point. His masterful use of imagery creates a vivid setting.

      "expertly" and "masterful" glad you think's Shakespeare, after all.

      I appreciate what you are trying to do here, though, in your soft paraphrase of the sonnet.

    • Rossimobis profile image

      Chibuzo Melvin Mobis 8 years ago from Biafra

      You got me going,i felt at home while in your hub,dis is wonderful and i am glad i read dis today cos Shakespeare has been a force in my own world.(Nice hub).

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      sophs 8 years ago

      Great work RooBee I love this hub. Brilliantly written. I am now going to have to follow :)

    • Moulik Mistry profile image

      Moulik Mistry 8 years ago from Burdwan, West Bengal, India

      That is wonderful hub - very well written...

    • Professor Eric profile image

      Professor Eric 8 years ago from the laboratory :)

      Personally I think Sonnet #73 is representation of the inarticulate utterings of Shakespeare's inner muse. You must be viewing it from a lens more transparent than my own.

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 8 years ago from Here

      Hey Luke, I know you're not on HP anymore (or are you??)...I hope you come back when you turn 18. Maybe you even check in on us old cantankerous hubbers once in a blue moon. If so, thank you sir for the compliment. :)

      Hello, loua - very thoughtful. I enjoyed reading your comments very much, thank you for adding them. This was a first attempt, and admittedly a rather basic (even shallow) deconstruction. You got me. :) I had better go check out some of your hubs...I've been intrigued!

    • loua profile image

      loua 8 years ago from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet

      RooBee, I had to comment on your assessment albeit is a fine interpretation of the piece; but in total I believe

      Shakespeare's end in all his works strikes at the moral of the matter with a clear understanding of the continuum of time and space. I sense his attitude to death was that of knowing that there is more to life than the flesh; but in shedding it there is a loss of sentimental attachments to it that pulls at the emotional strings of the heart.

      To me he clearly toys with the world in an effort to make humanity grasp their relative significance in the big picture. He uses his characters to exploit his means of conveying his message in a way that the audience can relate to the morals and ethics he legitimizes through his characters...

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      L. Andrew Marr 8 years ago

      If only you could take my English A-Level instead of me - then I would pass for sure =P


    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 8 years ago from Here

      It's been a long, long time since I read it, dohn121, but I may have to revisit it with that in mind. Thanks for the comment and I'm so excited that you liked this!

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Hi, roobee. You made a fan out of me! Have you read "The Tempest"? There is credible proof that being that it was one of Shakespeare's last works that the character Prospero very much embodies Shakespeare himself. The part about his embodying "twilight," clearly indicates the passing of years and I don't think anyone will argue the melancholy in his tone.

    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 8 years ago from Here

      Thank you, Cindy! You have made me smile big time! :D:D:D

      frogdropping, thank you as well for your blush-inducing comments. There is always that fine line between breaking down a great literary work and being happy in your discoveries, and feeling just plain dirty for molesting a delicate piece of art. As for the age difference, I don't know how the frog year-human year conversion thingy goes, so I hadn't thought about it! :D

    • frogdropping profile image

      Andria 8 years ago

      RooBee - I was raised to some degree on Shakespeare. I studied Henry V and his history. I always struggled with the 'learning' because we were often sent away with a passage, expected to return with it's meaning and some kind of understanding of what he was writing about - and why.

      I appreciate him much more as an adult, though I can't say that I have all his books lying around. Now - why weren't you my friend when I was a kid? (Don't bring up the age difference ... )

      This was well written and I admire your ability to break down his writing. Easily rated up :)

    • Cynnmcg profile image

      Cynnmcg 8 years ago from Pleasanton, CA

      That was great Raina.


    • RooBee profile image

      RooBee 8 years ago from Here

      shamelabboush - It is very difficult to find appropriate words with which to analyze something as transcendent as Shakespeare, but I tried! Your compliment is very much appreciated!

      Pete, thank you! I was studying this one during the time just before my grandfather passed on, so it seemed quite apt - my granddad was a big lover of literature, too. Your compliments mean very much to me, and I'm highly pleased to receive them!

      Thank you as well, alekhouse. The festival sounds great! I just did an article for my local Shakespeare festival running throughout summer & fall. I'm so excited to go, as it's my first. I'm flattered by your compliment, too. The only reason I didn't include the Sonnet in it's entirety is for fear of the "duplicate content" flag. Perhaps there's something about certain material and the purpose for which you've copied it..I'll have to find out because I would like to have it here for reference. Off to read yours! :)

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 8 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 8 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Roobee, very astute analysis of one of Shakespeare's best. I only wish you had written out the entire sonnet here. It's just 14 lines so don't think it wouldhave taken up too much room. I love Shakespeare. Go to the Festival in Stratford, Canada every year and very familiar with the sonnets My favorite is # 18. It's probably the most well know of all the sonnets, but it inspired me to start writing in iambic pentameter, which is my favorite poetry form

    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 8 years ago

      That was awesome! You bring out Shakespreare like I've never heard before. My mom is 86 and I can see those words in her and I will be 59 on Saturday and though I fight the good fight I know the corner is turning. This is great stuff.

    • shamelabboush profile image

      shamelabboush 8 years ago

      I have always been fond of Shakespeare. He is beyond classification with his magnifecent style. On the other hand, this article described his work in a high literary sense. Good job RooBee.