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

Sonnet 116

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Here’s a little something from Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error and upon me proved,
     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

It’s bold, and it takes no prisoners. As a lyric about undying, unyielding, unchanging love it’s pretty hard to surpass. But how on earth does it relate to the sonnet before? First, a gloss:

Q1 Let me not allow that there exist any impediments that might hamper true love: for love is not love if it admits of any change

Q2 Love is a stable point; it is not shaken by tempests, it is a star to sail by

Q3 Love is not a fool to time, though the objects of love are subject to time; love remains steady until the very end

C If this is an error, then no man ever loved

What is that ‘this’ in the couplet? The meaning shifts depending on where one points it: is it ‘love is unchanging’? If so, the couplet means something like if it turns out that all love is changeable, then no of it deserves the name of love. But maybe it is more personal, meaning ‘my own love will be unchanging’; that would make the couplet mean if this love I feel turns out to be changeable, and thus not true love, then no man ever felt true love.

But the real question is: what is the relation of this to 115? Love in this sonnet is fixed and constant; love in the previous one was subject to change and growth. One might like to try to square them by saying that its object is fixed, and on both accounts seems to be unwavering; but, by introducing the idea of change in the last sonnet, Shakespeare implicitly introduced the idea of decay. Perhaps that accounts for the assertive force of the opening here: he is responding to, recoiling from, the account he had produced, and he urges himself not to introduce elements that might cause doubts.

While this account differs from the previous one, it also differs from what has come before. Shakespeare says, in the opening lines, that love is not love if it finds its object changed — but not that long ago he was insisting that the young man was quasi-divine and not subject to change. So what we appear to have is Shakespeare trying to work his feelings out: first, he leans on theological tropes; second, he tries to embrace the idea of change; but then, startled by the consequences of that view (explicitly stated by Hamlet, but not in the sonnet), trying to find another view which allows change and imperfection in the object (Q3) but keeping the love pure. We’ll see if he can hold that steady.


Sonnet 117

Good morning, good morning.

Rather a strange one from Shakespeare today, in which he seeks to defend his own apparent wantonness:

Accuse me thus, that I have scanted all
Wherein I should your great deserts repay.
Forgot upon your dearest love to call,
Whereto all bonds do tie me day by day;
That I have frequent been with unknown minds,
And given to time your own dear-purchas’d right;
That I have hoisted sail to all the winds
Which should transport me farthest from your sight.
Book both my wilfulness and errors down,
And on just proof, surmise accumulate;
Bring me within the level of your frown,
But shoot not at me in your waken’d hate;
     Since my appeal says I did strive to prove
     The constancy and virtue of your love.

Sure, he says, I may have been ‘frequent with other minds’ (I like this, it is a good and broad euphemism, and I will say more below), but when I strain your affection I have noble justification: I seek to prove just how constant your love is. A gloss:

Q1 Accuse me of squandering what should have been paid to you [sc. my time]; I’ve been absent, attending to other commitments

Q2 I have often been with others, passing time that was yours; I’ve allowed myself to be drawn by things I knew would drag me from you

Q3 Note all of my errors down, accumulate evidence, speculate further, frown at me — but hold your fire

C For I have committed these offences, but for good cause: I seek to prove the constancy and virtue of your love

One is struck immediately by the way the rhyme words for this couplet echo those of 116: ‘If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved.’ This strengthens the link between them beyond merely being sequential. But what is he doing?

First, we note the odd tone of this one. Earlier in the sequence, Shakespeare was for the most part painfully besotted, bemoaning the insecurity of his position, suffering sleepless nights when apart from his beloved, wounded by the young man’s wandering. Now he defends similar conduct on his own part. Being ‘frequent with unknown minds’ underlines this (possible) betrayal, contrasting with ‘the marriage of true minds’ in the previous sonnet: the kind of love he is most interested in is an affair of the mind as well as the heart. Referring to people as ‘minds’ summons to our minds the prospect of his intellectual congress with them, of their being people with their own intentions and designs into which he fits.

And then there’s that superbly ambivalent couplet. ‘Prove’ can mean ‘demonstrate beyond doubt’ or ‘test’, and the construction ‘strive to prove’ introduces the suggestion that maybe it wasn’t successful. He certainly doesn’t explicitly say he was successful, although the overall thrust of the sonnet strongly implies it. The feel of the sonnet, as a whole, is that it is supposed to be saying one thing on the surface, and introducing doubts and equivocations beneath.

But how does it relate to 116? It seems that the test to which Shakespeare is subjecting the young man is about the truth of his love for Shakespeare: does it alter when it alteration finds? Can he stand the thought that Shakespeare might be frequenting others? Will he succumb to the desire to add wild surmise to accumulated evidence (line 10)?


Sonnet 118

Sonneteers, good morning.

This one reads like a more self-focussed riff on the same issue as yesterday’s:

Like as, to make our appetites more keen,
With eager compounds we our palate urge;
As, to prevent our maladies unseen,
We sicken to shun sickness when we purge;
Even so, being full of your ne’er-cloying sweetness,
To bitter sauces did I frame my feeding;
And sick of welfare found a kind of meetness
To be diseas’d, ere that there was true needing.
Thus policy in love, to anticipate
The ills that were not, grew to faults assured,
And brought to medicine a healthful state,
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured:
     But thence I learn, and find the lesson true,
     Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

Yesterday it was ‘I’m only straying to prove your love’; today, ‘I’m just trying to provide myself with some bitterness to balance your sweetness’. Either way, Shakespeare says, even if the consequences were bad he at least had good intentions. But half way through this one, he evidently found himself in a little bit of a pickle: in order to justify his prophylactic straying, he needs to contrast the sweetness of the young man with the bitterness he sought to balance it; but in order to make sure he only says superlatively good things about his beloved, he has to add ‘ne’er-cloying’ to ‘sweetness’, rather undermining the whole thing.

A gloss:

Q1 To make our apetites more keen we eat appetisers; to prevent maladies we take purgatives

Q2 And thus, full of your sweetness, I sought bitterness; sick of being well I sought disease, thinking I needed the balance

Q3 This was to apply rational forethought to love: expecting its overload, anticipating ills, I pre-emptively sought remedies to illness I did not yet suffer

C But what I’ve learned is that such remedies only make me needlessly sick

There are two things here. First, there is the somewhat amusing but also perversely impressive forethought that Shakespeare is claiming. He’s saying: look, I’ve been here before, I know the ill effects that can follow on love’s heels; so, in order to head those off, I’ve sought out things (presumably absences and people, as referred to in the previous sonnet) that would make me sick, as medicine does, in pursuit of a cure — or, as a gourmand seeks to enhance the enjoyment of a sweet dish by adding something bitter. ‘Policy in love’ he calls it, and I think we are supposed to see it as somewhat demented, trying to plot out loves turmoils in advance.

But then there’s the second thing: that he is also quite obviously trying to offer a retrospective justification for something he’s done. There was no forethought; he’s just pretending. It’s patently transparent, rather like straying to ‘prove’ his beloved’s love in the previous sonnet. Is the couplet a kind of apology? It says that, even if this straying were deliberate, it hasn’t worked: he just made himself sick. Perhaps that’s a way of saying sorry.


Sonnet 119

Good morning, good morning.

The drama we’ve been witnessing over the last few days is still unfolding:

What potions have I drunk of siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
What wretched errors hath my heart committed,
Whilst it hath thought itself so blessed never!
How have mine eyes out of their spheres been fitted,
In the distraction of this madding fever!
O benefit of ill! now I find true
That better is by evil still made better;
And ruin’d love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.
     So I return rebuk’d to my content,
     And gain by ill thrice more than I have spent.

There is a little narrative playing out here. In the octave, Shakespeare describes the illness he has brought upon himself, a ‘madding fever’. Then the sestet turns to his return to health and love. Essentially, it is a narrative of lovers falling out and then finding themselves more in love than ever after reconciling. A gloss:

Q1 I have drunk that have confused my aspirations, turning my hopes to fears and fears to hopes, injuring myself when I sought victory

Q2 My heart has committed wretched errors thinking that it couldn’t be more blessed; my eyes have wandered outside of their allotted orbits in this fever

Q3 But illness has been a benefit: evil has only made what was good better; love rebuilt is stronger than it was before

C I’ve been rebuked, and can now return to that contentedness that preceded my wanderings; I’ve gained more than I’ve lost

The siren’s tears of Q1 are a puzzle. The 1609 Quarto text has ‘Syren’ which probably means ‘siren’. But sirens typically lure people to their deaths by singing, not weeping, so precisely why Shakespeare is connecting them with tears is unclear (KDJ, from whom all of this information is coming, suggests that Shakespeare might be thinking of them as a bit serpent-like, and the connection might — by extension — be to false crocodile tears). But KDJ also notes a weather phenomenon called ‘serein’, which was a most or light rain that could occur in hot climates, and was thought by the Elizabethans to be toxic, and for which ‘syren’ was an acceptable spelling.

Interestingly, the two senses complement each other: if sirens are meant, there is a clear symbol for being lured, but the toxic nature of the tears is obscure; if serein is meant, then the toxicity makes sense, but the symbolism is obscure. I don’t know if it’s too much of a stretch to suppose that Shakespeare had a deliberate pun in mind, and meant both.

There’s an intriguing description of the derangement of desire in Q2. It’s not clear whether the heart that ‘thought itself so blessed never’ is the heart that thinks, with the love of his young man, nothing could ever go wrong; or the heart that was temporarily waylaid by some passing fancy, in the moment thinking that things couldn’t possibly be better. I think it’s supposed to be the latter; his eyes, he says, moved out of their prescribed orbits, distracted by the attractions of others, in the grip of a madness. The fear that became a hope may be his fear of straying, which became a hope that he might successfully seduce a new love interest; his prior hopes, which had rested with the young man, then become a fear.

The sestet’s account of love rebuilt I find both maddening and heartwarming. Heartwarming: isn’t it reassuring to be reminded that love between two finite, imperfect creatures is necessarily going to involve some conflict, and that the resolution of this conflict is part of the lovers’ drawing together? That it might deepen the love? Maddening: there’s still that air of post hoc rationalisation to the whole thing, an air of Shakespeare trying to put a positive shine on what seems to have been rotten behaviour on his part.

What the development has been, from the earlier sonnets with their abjection to these later sonnets with their faithlessness, I don’t know.


Sonnet 120

Sonneteers, good morning.

Here we have it. Yesterday I mused on the relation between Shakespeare’s recent transgression and the hurt he felt against the young man previously. Seems he’s also been pondering that:

That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow which I then did feel
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammer’d steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you’ve pass’d a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffer’d in your crime.
O, that our night of woe might have remember’d
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me then, tender’d
The humble salve which wounded bosoms fits!
     But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
     Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.

Something interesting has definitely happened between Shakespeare and his beloved. This sonnet dispels the odd sense I’ve had recently that, possibly, the sequence of the sonnets was out — that, perhaps, these later sonnets didn’t follow those earlier ones, or referred to a different relationship. (This stems from my reading of the recent edition of the Sonnets by Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson, which is sceptical of the kind of narrative approach I’m taking.) But no: as this sonnet makes clear, this present crisis is very much occurring against the background of crises past. A gloss:

Q1 You hurt me before; and because of the sorrow I felt then, I must bow to the hurt I have caused now

Q2 For if you’re shaken by my present transgression as badly as I was by yours, you’re not having a great time; I cannot help but tyrannise you with reminders of that hurt, on which I dwell without rest

Q3 We quarreled, and I wish I had remembered at the time how you soothed me when I was hurt

C Now, instead, we’re mutually wounded parties: we must each allow our grievances to balance the others

This one skirts around the question of guilt and forgiveness. Shakespeare suffered a transgression before: does that justify his own transgression now? They argued about it, and rather than trying to soften the blow or offer some kind of balm, Shakespeare evidently insisted on maintaining his status as the injured party. Now, with this fight hanging over them, he muses that perhaps their mutual hurt can cancel out.

Q2 meditates on sympathy and how we relate to those we’ve hurt. First, he tries to understand the young man in the simplest terms by which we sympathise with people: by imagining how he himself felt when the positions were reversed. He notes that he has been prone to tyrannising the young man by ceaselessly obsessing about how hurt he was when he was the injured party. So he knows how it hurts.

I find all of these quatrains more or less cryptic, but Q3 was probably the worst. I’ve taken ‘night of woe’ to refer not to the transgression itself (a reading I couldn’t make sense of), but instead to some argument they’ve had in the meantime about the transgression. That then makes sense of Shakespeare’s contrast of the young man offering a balm, with his own (implied) refusal to do so, and sets up the legalistic metaphor of the couplet.

The couplet gets interesting if one thinks about it in terms of justice and mercy. It speaks to a situation in which actual forgiveness has failed, and instead wounds must be ransomed. Crudely, mercy is when a crime is forgiven even though no adequate reparation has been made; justice is the cancellation of the crime because the debt has been paid. But the kind of mercy that Shakespeare has in mind here is the reverse of its usual form: it is not so much forgiveness from the wounded party, but rather an act of grace from the guilty party, who offers a balm (perhaps an apology) rather than defensively insisting on their right to have acted as they have. It is, in a way, the precursor to forgiveness: apologising or extending an olive branch is not making adequate reparations, but it does at least sooth the other’s hurt and open a door; it forms part of the mutual character of forgiveness in a relationship. And it is this process that has failed, so Shakespeare instead suggests that, being mutually injured, they call for the mutual cancellation of the debt. The twist is that Q2 and Q3 suggest that his insistence on mutual injury is precisely what they argued about in the first place.