Shakespeare On Babies: The Bard makes a case against childlessness

DAVID MORRISON

While the percentage of people choosing only one, two or no children may have reached its high point in the contemporary developed world, there is evidence that the conflict over whether to have large or small families is centuries old, at least in England.

Future historians may declare the embrace of childlessness and the small family to be one of the twentieth century's defining elements. Yet while the percentage of people choosing only one, two or no children may have reached its high point in the contemporary developed world, there is evidence that the conflict over whether to have large or small families is centuries old, at least in England.

Some of this evidence can be found in the William Shakespeare's work, particularly in some of his earlier sonnets, in which the noble and popular poet and playwright make a strong case for both the benefits and responsibilities of having children.

Many people are familiar with a line from Benedick, the foresworn bachelor of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. “The world must be peopled,” he declares right at the point he decides to follow the lead of his own heart and abandon his previously oft-expressed commitment to the single life. Benedick's sentiments, and the eagerness with which he throws away his previously defended single life, usually draw chuckles and laughs from modern audiences. But few that enjoy witnessing his change of heart on stage comprehend the depth of conviction with which Shakespeare believed the world really did need people.

Scholars generally credit Shakespeare with writing 154 sonnets. The sonnet at the time was a relatively new poetic form, imported from Italy, which was first published in the 1550's. Shakespeare used a slightly different sonnet form from those used by the Italians and other English authors, opting for a fourteen line poem in iambic pentameter with a slightly different rhyme scheme.

Some of Shakespeare's sonnets are considered among the classics of English literature, including “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day” (number 18) and “When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes” (number 29). However, it is in the very earliest sonnets, those numbered from 1 to 17, that Shakespeare makes his most sustained case for the benefit and necessity of having children.

The audience for these sonnets, many scholars suggest, was William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke, whose age and known close association with the poet seems to fit the both the poems and the known circumstances of the poet's life. Although scholarly consensus remains elusive, those who support the theory that Shakespeare wrote many of the sonnets to Herbert point out that Herbert would have been the right age for the sonnets. Further and most important for the first seventeen sonnets, was the saga of Herbert's marriage. Apparently his refusal to take marriage and parenthood seriously made it difficult for Herbert's parents to arrange a match for him. So under at least one theory, widely popular among Shakespearean experts, Shakespeare wrote the first seventeen sonnets to convince a close friend of the necessity and virtue of both marriage and children.

Shakespeare primarily argues in these sonnets that children preserve for posterity the beauty, success and memory that time and death would otherwise mar and steal. Life alone might seem a lark now, he argues, but the coming days and years will only “besiege thy brow” [1] and “dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field.” [2] What will you do when your proud youth will be nothing more than “a tattered weed of small worth held?” Wouldn't it be good, then, to look upon one's children and “see thy blood warm when thou feelst it cold?” [3]

But loss of beauty is not the only fear against which Shakespeare seeks to warn his friend. There is also the matter of who would carry on if everyone went childless. Human society, as Shakespeare points out in Sonnet 11, really does need people: “If all were minded so, the times should cease,/ And threescore years would make the world away.”

And there is the whole question of family as addressed in Sonnet Eight. If the sounds of the lute (often played at weddings at the time) annoys you, it perhaps merely chides and warns you for not following the course you ought:

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another, Strikes each in each in mutual ordering; Resembling sire and child and happy mother, Who all in one in one pleasing note do sing; Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one, Sings this to thee, `thou single wilt prove none.'

Failure to marry and parent, Shakespeare advises, can seem a freedom to love many but really translates into a failure to love even oneself: “toward others in that bosom sits / that on himself such murderous shame commits.” [4] He makes the point even more strongly in Sonnet Ten:

“For shame deny that thou bearst love to any, Who for thyself art so improvident: Grant if thou wilt, thou are beloved of many, But that thou none lovest is most evident; For thou are so possessed with murd'rous hate That `gainst thyself thou stickst to conspire, Seeking that beauteous roof to ruinate Which to repair should be thy chief desire.”

If these lines particularly jar the twentieth century ear it may be because they speak to many in the developed world who have an attitude similar to William Herbert's. Marriage and children are genuine goods which human beings should be able to seek no matter whether they live in the developed world's relative prosperity or the developing world's relative poverty.


Endnotes:

  1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 2 Back to text.
  2. Ibid. Back to text.
  3. Ibid. Back to text.
  4. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 9. Back to text.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Morrison, David. “Shakespeare On Babies: The Bard makes a case against childlessness.” PRI Review 9, no. 1 (Dec 1998-Jan 1999).

Copyright © 1999 Population Research Institute




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