[What follows is a record of the emails that were sent to our Sonnets group.]

Sonnet 111

Sonneteers, good morning, and welcome back.

I didn’t mention it at the time, but the previous sonnet has often been interpreted with reference to Shakespeare’s public role as an actor. This one is often read in much the same way:

O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu’d
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:
Pity me then and wish I were renew’d;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel ’gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
     Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye
     Even that your pity is enough to cure me.

Another good ‘un, this time on the way one’s public persona can come to dominate one’s sense of self and the range of possibilities that are open to one. That it is coming from and actor/playwright, well-versed in roles, lends it a special resonance. A gloss:

Q1 Chide Fortune on my behalf, for its really her fault that I am the way I am; she didn’t set me up to be better

Q2 As a result, I’ve become a certain kind of person, and am subdued to that persona, bearing its mark indelibly

Q3 Pity me, and wish I could renew myself: I’ll do whatever is necessary

C My friend, pity me: I am sure that will be enough

It raises a few questions. First, what ‘harmful deeds’ (l. 2)? What has Shakespeare done to cause offence? Is this somehow linked with 109, and its suggestion that Shakespeare has been false? Second, how wide-ranging is it? Are Shakespeare’s ‘public manners’ related to his being involved with the theatre, or is his concern broader than that?

There is an episode in Rousseau’s Confessions that resonates with this sonnet. It occurs, if memory serves, at the end of Book I, when Rousseau, still a boy, is living in a kind of workhouse. The proprietor is something of a villain, and he underpays and more or less starves the boys working for him; Rousseau, hungry, steals some food from the pantry, and is discovered. He is thrashed, and from this point on treated as a suspected thief, and this image of him in the mind of the proprietor changes something in his character: he begins to act out, and comes more and more, against his himself, to resemble the thief that he is thought to be. What other people think of us, and how that is expressed in how they treat us, shapes how we are and who we are — even when, like Rousseau, we try to resist.

In this sonnet, Shakespeare bemoans the way the position one occupies in society shapes who one can be. The wish in lines 3-4 seems to be that, if he were a member of the monied leisure classes, he could be who he truly wanted to be, a wish that is frustrated by his need to earn a living. The specific ways in which he is frustrated with his lot remain veiled, but one can appreciate his point. The human being is a finite creature, and the possibilities that are open are always constrained by circumstances; the three lines that form Q2 proper (the fourth line being, in terms of sense, a member of Q3) are a beautifully compressed lament for finitude and circumstance: ‘Thence comes it that my name receives a brand, / And almost thence my nature is subdu’d / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand’. (One might object that this lament ignores the way these constraints can be productive: would Shakespeare have become Shakespeare if he hadn’t been under pressure to produce?)

The theological themes I’ve been noting recently continue here in a parody of the doctrine of grace and sin. Shakespeare claims that his nature has been subjected to circumstances that have branded it and corrupted it, making him guilty of harmful deeds; he cries out to his beloved for pity, and claims this pity will be enough to cure him of this corruption — although the fact that he has to cry out for it suggests that it might not be forthcoming. Similarly, the sinner is supposed to recognise that they live in a fallen world, and that this has corrupted their nature; they pray to god to take pity on them, and by grace cure them of their sinfulness — but grace, being unmerited, may or may not be forthcoming.


Sonnet 112

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Shakespeare makes clear that there is only one opinion he cares about:

Your love and pity doth the impression fill
Which vulgar scandal stamp’d upon my brow;
For what care I who calls me well or ill,
So you o’er-green my bad, my good allow?
You are my all the world, and I must strive
To know my shames and praises from your tongue;
None else to me, nor I to none alive,
That my steel’d sense or changes right or wrong.
In so profound abysm I throw all care
Of others’ voices, that my adder’s sense
To critic and to flatterer stopped are.
Mark how with my neglect I do dispense:
     You are so strongly in my purpose bred
     That all the world besides methinks are dead.

Am I alone in sensing a change in tone from Shakespeare recently? Earlier sonnets, even on similar themes, often seemed quite neurotic and tightly wound; the last, say, 10 or so have had the same intensity of feeling without also having the shrill self-abasement that was so often its accompaniment. There is some reason to suppose that the sonnets in this final stretch of the Young Man sequence (roughly 104-126) were among the last ones composed, probably in the early 1600s, so perhaps he’s entered into a period of calm after some turbulent early periods.

A gloss:

Q1 Whenever scandal leaves a mark on me, you fill it in, encouraging new green growth; why would I care about anyone else’s opinion?

Q2 You’re the whole world to me, so I would like to know myself through your eyes

Q3 I throw all my care to you, and mark how I ignore all others

C I’m so intent upon you that the rest of the world may as well be dead

The sonnet is an expression of the intense dyadism of his relationship with his beloved. There is something of Romeo in Shakespeare’s intense fixation on his beloved, which we can only hope was (at least sometimes) reciprocated. Just as Romeo and Juliet were willing to reject anyone and anything in order to be together, so Shakespeare says that the rest of the world may as well be dead so far as he is concerned: there is only one person or object of interest in it, anyway.

What is most interesting is Q2, especially lines 5-6: ‘You are my all the world, and I must strive / To know my shames and praises from your tongue’. There are two levels here. First, following Q1, Shakespeare is downplaying whatever the world might have to say about him, and urging himself to care only for the opinion of his beloved. Second, more searchingly, he’s expressing a desire to know himself from the young man’s perspective, rather than (just) from his own. It’s a desire for an imaginative leap, linked with the dyadism of their relationship, that would let him see himself as his beloved sees him.

Yesterday’s sonnet was concerned with the way one’s social position shapes who one is; today’s is concerned with the way the opinions of others bear on us, which we might call the social structure of the mind. That somebody thinks of us a certain way affects how we see ourselves; different people experience this to varying degrees, but it seems that Shakespeare experienced it quite powerfully. It is striking that in line 5 he urges himself to ‘strive’ to resist the opinions of those he doesn’t care for; and it is even more striking that he doesn’t urge himself to resist public opinion in favour of his own sense of himself — he tries instead to make himself susceptible to the opinion of just one person. One wonders if his own mind was just so social that he couldn’t help it.


Sonnet 113

Sonneteers, good morning.

This one picks up on the dyadism of the previous sonnet:

Since I left you mine eye is in my mind,
And that which governs me to go about
Doth part his function and is partly blind,
Seems seeing, but effectually is out;
For it no form delivers to the heart
Of bird, of flower, or shape, which it doth latch:
Of his quick object hath the mind no part,
Nor his own vision holds what it doth catch;
For if it see the rud’st or gentlest sight,
The most sweet favour or deformed’st creature,
The mountain or the sea, the day or night,
The crow or dove, it shapes them to your feature:
     Incapable of more, replete with you,
     My most true mind thus maketh mine untrue.

We’ve had sonnets of separation before, but I think this ranks among the best of them. It is about the absent-mindedness that attends on one’s beloved being absent — wherever they are, there goes one’s mind (nicely captured by ‘mine eye is in my mind’). A gloss:

Q1 Since I left your company, you’re all I think about; my eye is turned inwards, and outwardly I am as though blind

Q2 For my eyes transmit nothing that reaches my heart, it cares for nothing it sees

Q3 Whatever it sees, it turns them into your shape

C My mind is full with thoughts of you, and incapable of taking in more

The last line is a puzzle: what of Shakespeare’s is untrue? Is he hinting at a falseness on his part, or that he is straying? This would be hard to square with the rest of the sonnet, so I don’t think it’s that. KDJ, in the Arden, quotes Malone’s suggestion from the 18th Century, which seems to me about right: he takes it to mean ‘The sincerity of my affection is the cause of my untruth; i.e. of my not seeing objects truly, such as they appear to the rest of mankind.’ Shakespeare is thus so turned inward that he cannot grasp, or cares not for, the true appearances of the rest of the world. In the words of line 7, ‘Of his quick object hath the mind no part.’

There is a tradition, which begins with Plato, of understanding human beings as being essentially finite creatures, incomplete in themselves, who are always searching for the thing that will make them feel whole. Plato raises this idea a few times, notably in the ‘Lysis’ (which is concerned with friendship) and in the ‘Symposium’ (which is concerned with love). It is in this latter that one finds the famous idea, spoken by the character of Aristophanes, that each human being is only half a creature, and that we are all searching for our other half; in the ‘Lysis’, Plato says that something that is whole has no need to search for anything outside of itself, for it is entirely self-satisfied. This is how Shakespeare depicts himself: his soul is ‘replete’ with his beloved, and ‘incapable’ of taking anything more in. He doesn’t need anything else. To this we might add the cynical rider: when his beloved isn’t causing him strife, anyway…


Sonnet 114

Good morning, good morning.

Shakespeare develops an idea introduced in the last sonnet, and meditates on the way love transforms one’s experience of the world:

Or whether doth my mind, being crown’d with you,
Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?
Or whether shall I say, mine eye saith true,
And that your love taught it this alchemy,
To make of monsters and things indigest
Such cherubins as your sweet self resemble,
Creating every bad a perfect best,
As fast as objects to his beams assemble?
O, ’tis the first; ’tis flattery in my seeing,
And my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Mine eye well knows what with his gust is ’greeing,
And to his palate doth prepare the cup:
     If it be poison’d, ’tis the lesser sin
     That mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

This one contrasts eye and mind, appearance and reality, and raises questions about the motivations that lead us to see as we do, and what the consequences of that might be. It is thus more ambivalent than yesterday’s sonnet was, by raising the prospect (not made explicit) that he might also doubt the young man’s appearance of goodness and virtue and love. A gloss:

Q1 Does my mind drink up the plague of flattery, in seeing your goodness in everything? Or is it that my eye has been taught alchemy from love of you… [‘Or … or …’ was a standard piece of Elizabethan speech, where we would say ‘either … or …’]

Q3 …such that it is able to take ugly, bad things and turn them into good things that resemble you?

Q3 It’s the first, it’s flattery: my eye makes the drink, and my mind drunks it up. My eye well knows what is to my mind’s taste, and prepares it thus

If the drink is false, the eye’s sin is not so bad, for it was caused by love

That couplet is somewhat baffling, and I’ve gone with a particular reading. By contrast, Burrow sees it as extended the mind/eye-king/cook metaphor, by rendering the eye as both cook and chief taster: being the taster of the poisoned drink, the eye kills itself and thereby commits a lesser sin than regicide. I can’t make much sense of that reading — how does the eye kill itself by misleading the mind? — so I’ve gone my own way: the eye’s offence (poisoning the mind by falsehood) is lessened by the motivation (its desire to please the mind).

Which takes us to the central issue of the sonnet. Shakespeare is aware of the love-tinged goggles by which he sees the world, and he poses himself the question: is the world a better place now than it was before, or is he just projecting his own happiness outwards? Rejecting the idea that his love has produced some special alchemy that has transformed the wretched world, he settles on the idea that his eyes are misleading his mind in presenting to him things that seem good when he knows they should be bad. And he muses that the eye loves the mind, and wants to present it with things that will be pleasing to it; knowing that the mind loves the young man, the eye does its best to make everything resemble the young man in some way. It’s a charming account of the way we are prone to seeing what we want to.

The question he doesn’t quite raise, but which comes up implicitly, is whether he’s right in seeing the young man the way he does. Lines 1-2 are ambiguous: ‘Or whether doth my mind, being crown’d with you, / Drink up the monarch’s plague, this flattery?’ What is the flattery? My initial thought was that it might be the flattery that Shakespeare’s beloved is good and kind and loves him back, although this sense is dispelled by the subsequent lines. Looking closer at the lines, they perhaps also militate against such a reading: a king’s flattery does not usually consist in people telling him (falsely) that he is king. That isn’t what happens to a king: it is what happens to a dupe or a madman. But, then again, perhaps we are supposed to hear Shakespeare’s worry that that is his own fate.


Sonnet 115

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, a great meditation on love and change:

Those lines that I before have writ do lie,
Even those that said I could not love you dearer:
Yet then my judgment knew no reason why
My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer.
But reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents
Creep in ’twixt vows, and change decrees of kings,
Tan sacred beauty, blunt the sharp’st intents,
Divert strong minds to the course of altering things;
Alas, why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,
Might I not then say “Now I love you best,”
When I was certain o’er incertainty,
Crowning the present, doubting of the rest?
     Love is a babe; then might I not say so,
     To give full growth to that which still doth grow?

He’s surprised himself: he thought he loved the young man as much as was possible already — but now it turns out that he loves him even more. But in meditating on this he touches on deep and interesting issues of human temporality, the limits of experience, and judgement. A gloss:

Q1 What I have written previously was a lie, even when I said I could not love you more: at the time I had no reason to suppose the flame of my love could burn clearer

Q2 Time, who rules everything, changes the course of things, blunts intentions, and overrules vows

Q3 Being so uncertain about time, why should I not declare (certain against uncertainty) that I now love you as much as it is possible to love?

C [Ambiguous! See below]

The couplet could go in two different directions, depending on the reference of ‘might I not say so’ in line 13: does it refer to ‘Now I love you best’ (line 10) or ‘Love is a babe’ (line 13)? If the former, then the couplet means: Love is always growing, but — given the uncertainties of time — may I not nonetheless declare it fully grown at any given time? If the latter, it means: Love is always growing, so may I not declare it a babe in order to express that it is fully given over to growth and development (‘full growth’) and not a static thing? I favour this latter reading, as an expression of Shakespeare changing his mind about the nature of love, and thus the best way to express it: not reifying it as something fully given, but instead acknowledging its true nature as change and growth.

The body of the sonnet is given over to considering the way time structures our experience and our judgements. Our experience is always broadening, so what we believe, at this present moment, about what is possible may be shown later to be the result of narrowness (lines 3-4); a lot can change between the time of a vow or a decree and its fulfilment (5-6); Time blunts intention and purpose, diverting minds elsewhere (7-8). Thus, Shakespeare says, one is tempted to favour the present in one’s judgements, downplaying the nature of change (Q3). (Then C proposes making acknowledgement of change internal to one’s way of seeing.)

I cannot resist comparing this with Shakespeare’s other great meditation on time and purpose, the Player King’s speech in Hamlet (3.2) — apologies, it’s long, but worth it:

Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity;
Which now, like fruit unripe, sticks on the tree,
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.
Most necessary ’tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
The violence of either grief or joy
Their own enactures with themselves destroy.
Where joy most revels, grief doth most lament;
Grief joys, joy grieves, on slender accident.
This world is not for aye, nor ’tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
For ’tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.
The great man down, you mark his favourite flies,
The poor advanc’d makes friends of enemies;
And hitherto doth love on fortune tend,
For who not needs shall never lack a friend,
And who in want a hollow friend doth try,
Directly seasons him his enemy.
But, orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown;
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

It’s a brilliant passage. In context, it is spoken by the actor playing the King in the play-within-the-play; Hamlet tells us he has composed part of that play, although he doesn’t tell us which bit — I like to follow Harold Bloom in supposing that this speech is his addition. As a meditation on time, it makes two points: (1) time renders all human purposes uncertain, draining our purposes of motivation once their motivating passion is gone, weakening the vows we swear, even changing the objects of our love; (2) this is not such a bad thing (‘Most necessary ’tis that we forget / To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt’). Shakespeare thus echoes Montaigne’s great essay ‘Of Experience’, in which he urges us to embrace the fact that we’re more like wind than stone; and he pre-empts Nietzsche’s praise of forgetting. If we did not forget, if we did not revise our purposes, if love were unchangeable, then we would have no capacity to grow or change or develop; and, given that we are so changeable anyway, we would be well advised to accept it. The passage ends with a cautionary note: our fates and wills often run contrary to each other — so just because we intend something, even if we cling desperately to it, that doesn’t mean it will happen.

I’m inclined to read this sonnet in light of the Player King’s speech, which is part of why I favour seeing the couplet as expressing a revision of Shakespeare’s earlier conception of love. You’ll recall that even as recently as the early 100s he was expressing love in broadly theological terms, as being a stable thing with a stable object; we could call this new conception of love a ‘process’ conception by contrast with a ‘static’ one. But this sonnet is not so pessimistic as Hamlet’s meditation: Hamlet explicitly raises the prospect of the object of love changing; the sonnet just opens up the idea of love growing beyond the bounds we think we’ve found for it. It’s interesting to reflect that Shakespeare probably wrote both around the same time (1600, give or take). One would to know which came first.