“Nothing like the Sun”: Transcending
Time and Change in Donne’s Love Lyrics
and Shakespeare’s Plays
CATHERINE GIMELLI MARTIN
Where’s that palace whereinto foul things
Sometimes intrude not? Who has that breast so pure …?
The Tragedy of Othello
Kathryn Kremen defines the Western conception of the hieros gamos (sacred marriage) as a way of imagining the “sexual union of man and woman on earth” to be a prefiguration of “the hypostatical union in body and soul of man and the Godhead in heaven.”1 Even completely nonreligious love lyrics such as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 often reflect this idealized vision of sexuality: “[N]o impediment to the marriage of true minds” exists for soul mates whose love conquers age, time, and every other barrier. Donne’s love lyrics alternatively express this ideal in spiritual as well as in secular terms, but both poets pose significant challenges to Jonathan Dollimore’s claim that the Western love lyric inevitably exalts mutability. Yet the poets themselves are mutable: Donne’s imaginative efforts to transcend time and change seem to accompany his monogamous maturity, while Shakespeare’s mature period produces new and far darker insights into the male desire for unchanging love. Quite possibly influenced by Montaigne, Shakespeare’s middle and late tragedies frequently represent this desire as a deluded and potentially fatal quest.2 His critique is perhaps most obvious in Othello, where, from the moment the tragic hero hails his reunion with Desdemona as a miraculous escape from chance and time, he begins to go astray. After their joint deliverance from the storm, he proclaims that “My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate,” and so to die now “‘Twere … to be most happy” (II.i. 190–92, 188–89). This eerie foreshadowing of Othello’s fatal end is