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

Sonnet 36

Sonneteers, good morning, and welcome back.

Today, Shakespeare continues unfolding his emotional aftermath:

Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
     But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
     As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

Shakespeare here appears to accept some kind of separation from his beloved, but also (after the accusations of the last few sonnets) seems to take on his beloved’s guilt, which strikes one as simply masochistic. The structure:

Q1 Although our love unites us, we are nevertheless separated, and those blots that dampen that love are borne by me alone

Q2 Our love unites us, though there is one horrible thing that divides us (‘separable spite’); it doesn’t change how much we love each other, but it does mean we can’t spend precious time in each other’s company

Q3 This horrible thing means I cannot publicly acknowledge you, lest I bring shame to you; likewise, you cannot acknowledge me without shaming yourself

C But I love you so much that I count you as part of myself, and thus your good reputation counts as my own, so it’s all OK

One desperately wants to know what the reality of this ‘separable spite’ was, although of course we never will. Something has happened, which caused Shakespeare such anguish over the last few sonnets. He went from blaming the clouds that blotted out the young man, to tentatively accusing the young man himself for (at the very least) lulling him into a false sense of security, to naming himself as counsel for the young man’s defence, and now this: Shakespeare has declared himself the guilty party, in apparent attempt to scapegoat himself and preserve the young man’s good name.

It’s masochistic, but the recurring impression one gets from the Sonnets is that Shakespeare was quite masochistic in love. He loves very intensely, bringing all his faculties to bear, and he is supremely unwilling to let his love be sullied by finding fault in the beloved; it is as though the way he thinks about love is opposed to the kind of realism that accepts the beloved as a real person, with all their flaws.

The subtext to this poem is the ancient saying, ‘A friend is a second self.’ So far as I know, the earliest recorded occurrence of this saying is in Aristotle’s Ethics, and Shakespeare’s divergence from Aristotle is telling. The point Aristotle is making (all-too-briefly summarised) is that one of the goods in life is the consciousness one has (if one has it) that one is a good human being, and this is part of what makes life desirable; by extension, one derives pleasure from the existence of one’s friends who are (also) good human beings. It is part of Aristotle’s view that genuine friendship is only possible between good people of roughly equal virtue; if one party admires the other to an extent that is not reciprocated, this makes genuine love/friendship impossible.

Shakespeare, on the other hand, is insisting that the love between him and the young man transcends their disparate worthiness: in Shakespeare’s eyes, he is evidently wretched and unworthy, while the young man has no faults to speak of; Shakespeare is quite willing to take on any perceived faults in the young man as his own, lest the young man be tainted by worldliness. But, he says, because he and the young man are identified in love, the young man’s good reputation is Shakespeare’s own by extension, despite his personal unworthiness.

Tomorrow, we will see Shakespeare play develop this theme even further.


Sonnet 37

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Shakespeare is continuing to expand on the theme of his identification with the young man:

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despis’d,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am suffic’d
And by a part of all thy glory live.
     Look what is best, that best I wish in thee;
     This wish I have, then ten times happy me.

He’s still down on himself, and is desperately pushing this identification-in-love thing; but here it seems that he’s emphasising the paternal dimensions of his love for this younger man:

Q1 Just as an ageing father enjoys his son’s displays of vitality, so I, decrepit old man that I am [he’s probably in his 30s] take comfort in how great you are

Q2 So many virtues call you home, and I have attached myself to you in love, so your virtues can sustain me

Q3 And this means that despite my gross unworthiness I am still worthwhile myself, thanks to my part in your glory

C I wish all the best for you, and seeing all is well with you, I am made happy

I was a bit confused at first that the fatherhood conceit of the opening lines seemed to be promptly dropped, but then line 14 recalled to me some lines from Sonnet 6:

That’s for thyself to breed another thee,
Or ten times happier, be it ten for one;
Ten times thyself were happier than thou art,
If ten of thine ten times refigur’d thee.

He was then, you’ll recall, suggesting that the arithmetic of parenthood meant that for every son the young man had, he’d be made ten times happier (and so, if he had ten sons he’d be happier ten times ten – that’s just maths). The allusion nicely rounds things out, so that the last line recalls us to the opening conceit.

But here’s the central puzzle of the sonnet, to my mind: what is the shadow of line 10? The line is a nice little inversion of Plato’s metaphysics, for whom our world is composed merely of the shadows of more real, more substantial things; Shakespeare instead has a shadow bringing forth a substance. But what is this shadow? I’ve found two particularly interesting ideas. One is from David West’s commentary, who reads ‘shadow’ in terms of the grafting metaphor from line 8, giving us the image of Shakespeare as a grafted plant growing (deriving ‘substance’) in the shadow of that bigger and more impressive tree, the young man. Katherine Duncan-Jones (in her Arden edition of the Sonnets) suggests that the shadow is Shakespeare’s imaginary identification of himself with the triumphs of the young man he deludedly supposes to be a bastion of ‘worth and truth’, which nonetheless gives him real emotional satisfaction. I like the psychology of this latter more, but I don’t think its self-consciousness befits the speaker of the sonnets (that is, I just don’t believe he’d acknowledge his own delusion quite like that); for mine, West has it right.

This gives us a sonnet in which Shakespeare has shifted modes, still reeling after his earlier upset, exploring the idea that he can continue to love the young man but perhaps not as a lover. He still can’t face the idea that the young man has committed some ‘sensual fault’ (Sonnet 35) against him; instead, he’s casting himself in the sexless role of loving father, not basking in reflected glory but rather deriving nourishment like a sad little cutting that has been grafted onto a much better tree.

We’ll get a little interlude from these developing themes tomorrow, but there is more to come.


Sonnet 38

Happy Wednesday, Shakespeareans.

Today, respite from emotional drama: instead, Shakespeare is musing on the inspiration his young man affords him.

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
     If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
     The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

The first wrinkle to iron out is that he uses ‘muse’ three times, and each time it means something slightly different. In line 1 it means his private muse or power of creativity; in line 9 it refers to the young man embodied as one of the Muses (the classical embodiments of inspiration); and in line 13 it refers back to Shakespeare’s private muse again, who might please via the poems written under its inspiration. Here’s how he gets there:

Q1 How can I possibly want for inspiration when you’re so excellent (and much too excellent to be captured on ‘vulgar paper’)?

Q2 I’m not very good at this, but if anything good does wind up in my verse, you’re the source of it; seriously, what idiot couldn’t write great material about you?

Q3 Really, you should be the tenth Muse (no, really), you’d be so much better than those tired old other muses that jumped-up versifiers like to call on

C My powers of invention are normally pretty weak, and writing is a laborious, painful process; whatever pleases in my writings has its source in you

What I like about the repetition of ‘muse’ in Q1 and C is that C’s insistence that Shakespeare’s muse is ‘slight’ casts different light on Q1. One might suppose that Q1 is almost flippant (‘How could one possibly lack inspiration?’), but in the light of C I’d be tempted to read it as slightly exasperated (‘Why does my Muse want subject to invent?’). Perhaps he’s having a dry spell.

Shakespeare’s conceit, that he is deficient in the creativity department but that the young man more than makes up for it, isn’t an original one, and in this sonnet he doesn’t deviate far from the third sonnet of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (composed in the 1580s):

Let dainty wits cry on the sisters nine,
     That, bravely mask’d, their fancies may be told;
Or, Pindar’s apes, flaunt they in phrases fine,
     Enam’ling with pied flowers their thoughts of gold.
Or else let them in statelier glory shine,
     Ennobling newfound tropes with problems old;
Or with strange similes enrich each line,
     Of herbs or beasts which Ind or Afric hold.
For me, in sooth, no Muse but one I know;
Phrases and problems from my reach do grow,
     And strange things cost too dear for my poor sprites.
How then? even thus: in Stella’s face I read
What love and beauty be; then all my deed
     But copying is, what in her Nature writes.

There is a lot that is similar here: the pleading of one’s own poor talent; the denigration of the nine Muses, and the poets who call on them; and finally the declaration that the beloved is a superior muse in any case. But there is one significant divergence: Sidney suggests that all he’s doing is copying, while Shakespeare is more cringing, I think – the suggestion seems to be that even though the young man is the greatest of all muses, Shakespeare’s is still a meagre effort. Against Sidney’s modest claim to be copying what nature writes, we can set Sonnet 16’s ‘barren rhyme’ and ‘painted counterfeit’. If Shakespeare’s sonnet ended at Q3, it would be the more triumphant of the two; but the recursion to his own poetic impotence in C brings it crashing down.

It all speaks to what we’ve noted before: the intensity with which Shakespeare feels, and his related doubts about the power of words to capture meanings that always overflow them. We’ve had this on a number of occasions, most notably Sonnets 23 and 26. In talking down his own talent I take him as serious: I doubt that he really thinks anyone else is better (he mocks his rivals, too), but he can feel the inadequacy of even his best efforts relative to the enormity he wants to express. It’s all ‘too excellent for every vulgar paper to rehearse’. He knows he’s good; he worries he’s not good enough.

Tomorrow, we return to his anguish over his beloved.


Sonnet 39

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Shakespeare is back on track, and whatever separation was bothering him before is bothering him again.

O, how thy worth with manners may I sing,
When thou art all the better part of me?
What can mine own praise to mine own self bring,
And what is’t but mine own when I praise thee?
Even for this, let us divided live,
And our dear love lose name of single one,
That by this separation I may give
That due to thee which thou deserv’st alone.
O absence, what a torment wouldst thou prove,
Were it not thy sour leisure gave sweet leave
To entertain the time with thoughts of love,
Which time and thoughts so sweetly dost deceive,
     And that thou teachest how to make one twain
     By praising him here who doth hence remain.

Interestingly, the addressee changes at line 9: the sonnet begins by addressing the young man, but then shifts its address to absence, giving us quite a telling turn. The structure:

Q1 If we’re one person (united in love), then how can I praise you without that just being self-praise (which is unseemly)?

Q2 Seeing as I desperately want to praise you, we’d better separate ourselves: I’ll surrender my closeness to you, so that my praise is acceptable again

Q3 Separation from my love would be such a torment, except that it gives me time and space to entertain thoughts of my beloved

C Separation has taught me how to make two from one (and I see two different ways one might read this – more below)

That turn at the beginning of Q3 sheds a lot of light on Q1 and Q2. One wonders the first time through: what is the point of this slightly odd logical game? He’s playing again with ‘A friend is a second self’, toying with its logic facetiously, pretending that all praise of one’s beloved (who is united with oneself) is a form of self-praise. (It’s a joke, but not totally wrong: there is something slightly self-satisfied about someone who spends too much time talking about how great their spouse is, their achievements, etc.) But Q3 reveals it to be a bitter musing: Shakespeare’s beloved is absent, and the game he’s playing is a feeble attempt at making that removal seem OK. ‘It’s better this way,’ he’s saying; ‘my praise of you was getting a bit much.’

The whole sestet (Q3 + C) is worth close attention. Where the octave (Q1 + Q2) is about praise, the sestet is about memory and the imagination. Q3 picks up on a theme from Sonnets 29 and 30 in particular, in which Shakespeare mused on the way in which those faculties of memory and imagination make the beloved part of oneself. In both of those sonnets, the memory of the beloved is like a balm, offering comfort even when the beloved is absent. Q3 rehearses much the same idea, but goes on to suggest that the absence of the beloved (while painful) might even be a good thing. Imagination can seem much more vivid and real than real life; paradoxically, the thought of someone when they are absent is much closer to us (being part of us) than is their reality, which is by necessity always further away.

And it’s this last point that I think C picks up on. One way of reading C’s ‘make one twain’ is in the terms of Q2, as the separation of one lover from the other. But Q3 suggests another way of reading it: the young man is being divided into two parts: one the real young man from whom Shakespeare is separated; the other the young man as he exists in Shakespeare’s mind, upsetting his sleep (as in Sonnets 27 and 28), or offering him comfort (Sonnets 29 and 30). These two possible senses of ‘twain’ give the final line two different possible meanings, which I think it carries simultaneously: something like ‘I am here, praising he who is elsewhere’ and ‘praising that part of him that is here, while the rest of him remains hence’. Indeed, ‘praising’ is ambiguous, potentially meaning both ‘writing sonnets of praise about’ and ‘thinking lovingly about’.

Tomorrow, Shakespeare takes another turn for the worse. Oh dear.


Sonnet 40

Sonneteers, good morning.

Today, we have fresh turmoil.

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then, if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty:
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
     Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
     Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

This sonnet kicks off a mini-sequence about a stolen love, which will be expanded upon in Sonnets 41 and 42. Essentially, the young man appears to have run off with Shakespeare’s mistress. Whether this theft is related to the earlier event that was distressing him last week (particularly in 33 through 35) I don’t know, although I’m inclined to see this as some new upset. The young man had previously done something that hurt him, but then he seemed to blame the young man’s entourage, and it seemed to have to do with spurning. Now, the young man has stolen something Shakespeare thought was his. Here’s a gloss:

Q1 Take all my loves from me – have you gained anything? You had everything of me anyway. Certainly you haven’t gained anything you might call true love

Q2 (this is too hard, see below)

Q3 Yet I forgive you for this theft, even though you’re stealing from a man with little to steal; and yet, being hurt by one’s love like this hurts so much more than anything an enemy might do

C Even your vices look like virtues, and your lasciviousness looks like grace; injure me unto death, if you must – but I will never hate you

I’m too baffled by Q2’s ambiguity to attempt a single gloss. Let’s look closely:

5 The essential meaning seems to be: the young man has received/taken something. One will arrive at this regardless of how one unpacks the referents of the two instances of ‘my love’, which might variously mean ‘my love [for you]’, ‘[you,] my love’ or ‘my love[-object, i.e. mistress]’. This triple ambiguity might be significant – see comments to lines 7-8.

6 Shakespeare can’t blame him for using what he has taken (or, maybe: he can’t blame the young man for abusing Shakespeare’s love for him… surely that’s excessively masochistic even for Shakespeare? – but then again read line 14).

7-8 These form a single unit of sense, so we’ll do them together. And they are hard.* I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest a bi-sexual reading: Shakespeare has just spent several sonnets playing a game riffing on unity-in-love. He’s here extending that to cover his mistress, and saying, ‘You’re refusing me, but doing her; but she and I are one; you’re deceiving yourself if you don’t see the contradiction in tasting of what thyself refusest, and that self-deception is blameworthy.’ But we note how passive the grammar is on that last point: it’s not I will blame you but you will be objectively worthy of blame. Shakespeare, of course, forgives him, as we see in the next line.

(* The constraints of time have meant I’ve only consulted a couple of commentaries on the issue, but while both are suggestive, neither satisfied. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden) suggests ‘what thyself refusest’ refers to the young man’s reluctance to marry, and notes that Shakespeare often uses ‘taste’ to refer to sex, meaning the lines should be read something like ‘You’re blameworthy if you sleep with my mistress, yet refuse to marry’, but I can’t see how self-deception fits in. David West’s commentary falls at the same hurdle: he thinks ‘self-deception’ isn’t quite what Shakespeare means, and that ‘inconsistency’ is the more accurate charge. Maybe so; but surely Shakespeare can be trusted to choose the right word?)

On a lighter note, Sir Max Beerbohm once drew a delightfully mean-spirited sketch titled ‘William Shakespeare writing a sonnet’:

Look for more developments tomorrow.