“Sonnet 11: As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest” by William Shakespeare – A Promotion of Ethnic Cleansing?

Shakespeare

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestowest
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

I had mixed feelings about this poem when I read it this morning over my first cup of coffee. But before I delve into why this poem troubled me, I figured I’d talk about the basic theme and metaphors.

This is another of the “fair youth” sonnets, where Shakespeare is entreating an unnamed young man to procreate. The opening lines describe how a child will grow at the same rate as a parent ages. The child’s physical and mental development progresses at the same pace as the parent’s abilities decreases. I suspect this was very important at a time that lacked elder care and care for the elderly was generally the responsibility of the children.

Lines 5 and 6 address heredity:

Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:

I like this image. For me, the idea of wisdom, beauty, and increase describes the parents’ ability to pass on to their children what they have learned in life, an appreciation for art and beauty in life, and an increase in wealth, both material and spiritual. Without a family to share these things with, all we have will atrophy and decay along with us in our later years.

So now we get to the point that I find troubling.

Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:

So I understand what Shakespeare is getting at here. He is saying that if the beautiful and artistically creative and intelligent people of the world failed to procreate, then the world would become dominated by those who would not be in as much of a position to advance culture and society. But looking at this from a 21st-century perspective, we can see how this type of ideology has led to abuse and human rights violations throughout history. Racist and ethnocentric propaganda consistently depicts “others” as breeding like vermin and threatening to overrun the purer population, while at the same time encouraging those of the desired race to procreate and ensure their continued existence and dominance. So when I read a line claiming that those who are “harsh featureless and rude” should “barrenly perish,” I cannot help but feeling horrified at the idea that the value of one class of people is elevated and preferred above another.

While I concede that Shakespeare probably did not have ethnic cleansing in mind when he penned this sonnet, it’s hard to read this today and not have those images conjured. Let’s just hope that the “wisdom, beauty and increase” of tolerance and acceptance will occur in our lives, and that hatred and intolerance will “barrenly perish.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Literature

2 responses to ““Sonnet 11: As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest” by William Shakespeare – A Promotion of Ethnic Cleansing?

  1. Alex Hurst

    That’s a tough thing to mull over before the coffee has settled in! But, I don’t know. I don’t read it as ethnic cleansing, at least under a modern lens. I can see, though, where you’re coming from. If I take away all the other things that were conjured in my own mind (such as the hope that those who can cont contribute to the culture he exalts die barren), and see it like you said, it’s sort of sad…. but, not unbelievable. I mean, all the way to Poe’s time, there was still hefty white supremacy in literature and culture (and Poe was considered sympathetic!)

    • Hi Alex. Yeah, it’s very likely that I read too much into this, but I am kind of sensitive to this kind of thing. But that’s the thing with art, you can interpret it in different ways.

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Cheers!

      Jeff

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