Long before Darwin, our European ancestors often had a sense of the objective reality of heredity and of the moral duty of reproduction. A powerful example of this is provided by William Shakespeare’s so-called procreation sonnets (numbered 1–17), which ceaselessly exhort a mysterious, male young friend to marry and raise children.
Shakespeare argues that, for a good person, childlessness is a kind of selfishness: one’s personal qualities can only live on in one’s biological posterity. He tells his friend of “the true concord of well-tunèd sounds / By unions married” (8) and urges him to have a son and thereby “your sweet semblance to some other give” (13).
Shakespeare posits a eugenic instinct in men, whereby they are sexually attracted to beautiful women so as to perpetuate that beauty:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory (1)
For a good and beautiful person to not have children is a kind of selfishness, which Shakespeare compares to death, a barren tree, winter, and a loss for the world. The superficially pleasant and free life of the single means keeping one’s beauty all to one’s self; several times, the poet uses doubles entendre suggesting masturbation — and its barren end. This is selfish given that one’s personal qualities are a rare blessing from Nature:
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largess given thee to give? (4)
Shakespeare describes singles’ “self-love” as a “tomb” (3). He says of the unmarried: “of thee this I prognosticate / Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date [i.e., end-time].” (14)