Shakespeare’s sonnet LV entitled “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments” is a well-crafted poem. In the first line Shakespeare uses a word, namely gilded, that can mean more than one thing. I also found this word of interest because I had never heard of it. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary to gild can have six different meanings; (1) to overlay with or as if with a thin covering of gold; (2) to give money; (3) to give an attractive but often deceptive appearance to; (4) to make bloody; (5) to add unnecessary ornamentation to something beautiful in its own right; and (6) to make superfluous additions to what is already complete. The word is Middle English; from the Old English word gyldan alike to the Old English gold. The Middle English use of this word is dated to the 14th century, this makes sense because Shakespeare was born in 1564, thus placing the origination of gild before his use of it in Sonnet LV. Shakespeare also uses gild in two of his plays, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily” from Shakespeare’s King John, and “Gilded tombs do worms enfold” from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The use of gild in these two plays hints to me that he purposely uses gild to mean different things.
To overlay with gold is the most straightforward definition of gild. Shakespeare is telling the person for whom his is writing that with this poem his memories of that person will outlive the monuments of today. He is proclaiming that the pyramids overlaid with gold, the palatial tombs left to princes and royalty are nothing to the memorial of words he has left his love. The work of the mason and of the statute maker will perish under war brought by tyrants, greed, and sin. But his words will not come undone by any man or godly power to the end of time as he states in line 7, “Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn The living record of your memory”. His rime or rhyme will survive the world without end.
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What is money or death when you’re making tributes? The second and the fourth definition of gild, to give money and to make bloody, respectively, speak to how physical commemorations were produced before and during Shakespeare’s time. Kings and nobility spend large sums of money and manpower to build their courtyards, tributes, etc. Thousands of slaves died building the Egyptian pyramids. In the Middle Ages, it was not uncommon for a rich man to finance a Cathedral or sculpture in Italy by purchasing indulgences (a priest would relax punishment for sin).
It is also known during the Middle Ages that the church-owned huge amounts of land and thus wealth, and wore silk robes as they pursed their lips on gold cups filled with wine, under their marble and precious stone laid churches. It can be viewed that Shakespeare is saying no one died for him to make his written monument. The poem was underwritten with sweat from his brow, not the bloody sweat of a thousand men or their corruption. Shakespeare did not have to lay siege to an enemy’s rightful belongings or steal another country’s gold, silver, or diamonds to build his cenotaph.
The dual motivations behind the edifices of great societies can be the stimulus for Shakespeare’s use of the third definition of gild, to give an attractive but often deceptive appearance too. The extravagance of some structures seem to suggest the persons who funded them were ego-centric, they made monuments to themselves to show their status, wealth, and power, but they lacked self-confidence, control, or true devotion toward others. The churches of the middle age were beautiful but probably a tribute to the greatness of priests and not to the eminence of God. Shakespeare is writing this poem for the sole purpose of worship to this man or woman. Shakespeare is not selfish in his action, his boldness is to affirm the power of this person’s life and memory, and he will keep it alive against mortal deaths and plagues. The beauty is not in the poem alone but also in the one who is great enough to render Shakespeare to such devotion.
The last two definitions of gild speak to adding unnecessary ornamentation to something beautiful in its own right, and to making superfluous additions to what is already complete. The two descriptions speak to adding what is unnecessary. Why add makeup to an already beautiful face? Why add gold to an amazing construct? If something is ornamental but has no meaning it is worthless, as Shakespeare states all of these shrines of marble, stone, and gold are “besmear’d with sluttish time” (line 4); “When worthless war shall statues overturn” (line 5) there will be nothing left of the structure. Shakespeare is subtly stating the inspiration for his sonnet is praiseworthy enough to stand the test of time. The person he is speaking of is higher than natural and man-made resources. Shakespeare is not adorning his poem with the unnecessary, every word makes her “shine more bright in these contents” (line 3), the words compliment her, and they do not over-power her and her soul.
Shakespeare chose to use gild instead of gold because gild has more connotations. Gold can be a colour or a precious stone, but gild has many dimensions while usurping also the definitions for gold. Is Shakespeare speaking to monuments made by hand as gold-laden, deceptive, unnecessarily adorned, too costly, or as a cause of death or war? All the many definitions complement one another, and any one of them can spark up an analytical conversation of Sonnet LV. I chose this sonnet because, in the US, our monuments are the houses and corporate offices of “Big Business” and the wealthy. The World Trade Center was a target because of its architectural feats and because it symbolized American power and wealth. Did we have to build the WTC back after the first attack? Did we because it would show our patriotism or because of the fortune 100 companies and our arrogance. Shakespeare uses gild to speak to something that is unnecessarily ornamented, because a ton of gold, or a thousand men’s lives, do not have to be expended to show admiration for a person, place, or thing, nor does it make him, her, or it timeless. With fourteen lines Shakespeare’s pen is mightier than the knight’s sword, the person who he is celebrating greater than the vain aspirations of kings.
Merriam Webster Online. MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE copyright 2002 by Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Accessed on 09/20/02. http://www.m-w.com/home.htm
Luther and the German Reformation. Created 01/01/1999. Accessed on 9/23/02. http://piglet.ex.ac.uk/archive/itp3002/gosh.ex.ac.uk/%257Ege97alh/Links.htm
The Phrase Finder. Last updated 08/27/02. Accessed on 9/23/02. http://phrases.shu.ac.uk/meanings/shakespeare.html
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