Forswearing Fever: Medicine, Materialism, and Shakespeare's Sonnet 147

By Roychoudhury, Suparna | Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Forswearing Fever: Medicine, Materialism, and Shakespeare's Sonnet 147


Roychoudhury, Suparna, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies


Although the word self appears in nearly a third of Shakespeare's sonnets, the inward coherence of that self is perpetually elusive. Many of the poems seem rather to dramatize the difficulty of reconciling emotion and reason, mind and body, or self and other. Frustrated desire becomes an occasion for phenomenological meditation-not just on the quality of subjective experience but also on the felt reality of carnal embodiment. In situations of sickness and disorder this latter reality comes to the fore, as the individual is forced to confront the normally veiled disjunction between carnality and consciousness. It is at such moments that the chasm between the body's interior complexity and the self 's complex interior becomes most painfully apparent. This essay is concerned with how medical, philosophical, and literary thinking-and the differences and tensions between these forms of thinking-bear on the problem of inward rupture. How is the disconnect between body and self addressed in the cultural and scientific contexts in which Shakespeare wrote? What do Renaissance representations of sickness have to tell us about the nature of subjectivity? To frame my discussion of these broader questions, I will use Shakespeare's sonnet 147-"My love is as a fever, longing still." This sonnet is one of several in the sequence that takes illness as its subject. Yet its invocation of "fever" sets the sonnet apart-for, as I will suggest, this particular ailment occupied a unique place in early modern medical discourse.

Fever was a notoriously elusive and complex malady, a disorder in and of itself, and one that challenged Renaissance physicians as much as it had their predecessors. In the late sixteenth century, moreover, fever became mixed up with ideas emanating from neo-Epicurean materialism about the permeability of the body and the particle-based soul. When sonnet 147 is parsed against these contexts, its conceit emerges as more than just a striking trope. Rather, fever initiates a story that begins in the maze of a faltering body with permeable internal boundaries and winds up in the symbolic labyrinths of writing and discourse. The speaking lover meditates on the self-effacing nature of his disease, evaluates the descriptive and expressive merits of "physic," and finally declares that he has perjured himself by calling the dark lady "fair."1 This act of self-perjury is in part a forswearing of the irreducible carnality that the fever signifies: the lover realizes the incomplete perspective he has of his own person, yet he chooses to overtly reaffirm that perspective. Thus, the poem points to a tension between poetic representations of personhood and philosophical hypotheses about a world made purely of matter. This is a tension that appears also in the work of Montaigne, Donne, Burton, Milton, and Marvell. As such, Shakespeare's sonnet joins in a wider cultural negotiation in which a deepening interest in the materiality of the body creates a need to avow, even more self-consciously than before, what amounts to the necessary fiction of selfhood.

"For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, / Who art as black as hell, as dark as night." The final couplet of sonnet 147 is often quoted as an example of the perceptual distortion so distinctive of the "dark lady" sonnets. Although extended critical readings of this sonnet are relatively rare, there is consensus about the salience of its last two lines. For Joel Fineman, they illustrate the curious specular truth of the lady, "that she is both fair and foul at once" (22). For Robert Matz, the couplet articulates the "misogynist sensationalism" of dark beauty (129). Dympna Callaghan is among those who note its significance as a speech act, the fact that the lover must "swear" that "black is beautiful" (51). The power of the paradox that explodes at the sonnet's end, then, is clear. But what of the rest? The preceding twelve lines introduce a number of other ideas, among them "fever," "physic," and "discourse":

My love is as a fever, longing still

For that which longer nurseth the disease,

Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,

Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please. …

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