[What follows is a record of the emails that have been sent to our Sonnets group. You can head to the Sonnets main page to sign up for future emails.]

Sonnet 41

Good morning, good morning.

Today we get a little more detail about what Shakespeare is referring to in Sonnet 40.

Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?
Ay me! but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forc’d to break a twofold truth,
     Hers, by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
     Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.

Here we get some of the clarification I presumed in my commentary to 40, which itself only refers to love and theft; this makes clear that Shakespeare feels himself doubly betrayed, by both his young man and a woman (who is making her first appearance, but who we might reasonably suppose is the subject of the Dark Lady sonnets at the end of the Sonnets – see especially 144 ).

Here’s a gloss:

Q1 I know I’m not always in your heart, and I get that you’re prone to straying – it’s only fitting, seeing as you’re so young, pretty & tempting

Q2 You’re gentle and beautiful, like a woman, and therefore attract a lot of attention; you needn’t even go out deliberately wooing, because the women come to you: and what man turns down a woman’s advances?

Q3 But why oh why did you have to sleep with my mistress?

C Your beauty has made the pair of you unfaithful to me

This is another sonnet that turns nicely at Q3. The octave tries to make excuses for the young man (a Shakespeareanism that by now feels sadly familiar), but then it gets unusually accusatory in the sestet (‘Ay me!’). Sure, he says, the young man is a desirable young thing in the prime of life; he’ll sleep around – but why, he desperately wants to know, did the young man have to seduce his mistress?

It’s a decided tangle. Shakespeare, a married man, rapidly approaching middle age if he isn’t there already, has fallen in love with a younger man of superior station; he’s meanwhile carrying on a bit of an extra-marital something with another woman – and she and the young man get together! Don Paterson (Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets), ever amusing, likes to emphasise that Shakespeare seems to have been a very peculiar person, and therefore is not at all a representative personality. The Sonnets frequently don’t depict experiences that are at all universal; and he notes, with reference to this particular poem: ‘Even in the event that you are a married man in love with your best mate, and have just discovered that he’s sleeping with your bit on the side, I doubt this poem will bring you much in the way of solace or elucidation. You need a therapist or a hit-man, not a poet.’

Interestingly, Shakespeare again refers to the young man in veiled feminine terms in lines 5-6: ‘Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won, / Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed.’ In Henry the Sixth, Part 1 (5.3), almost certainly produced years before these sonnets, Shakespeare had written: ‘She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed; / She is a woman, therefore to be won.’ The emphasis here, though, is not so much on the femininity of the young man (unlike Sonnet 20), but on his sheer attractiveness: he’s so kind and pretty, Shakespeare is saying, that potential lovers just come knocking, as suitors call on a desirable young woman.

One desperately wants to know the details of this affair, the whats and the whos. In my correspondence,* CT wrote last week wondering if the Sonnets had been dramatised as a soap opera or similar, and I’ve just today discovered that there is indeed a BBC film drama, A Waste of Shame, from 2005. (I have not yet managed to find a way to watch it.) William Boyd wrote the thing, and he has an interesting essay discussing his reasoning for settling on William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke, as the identity of the young man; and on a Southwark prostitute, possibly black or mulatto, as the Dark Lady.

(* Apologies – work and other commitments have kept me a poor correspondent, and while I read every email with pleasure, I am a tardy responder and my desired weekly correspondence round-up keeps failing to appear. Alas!)

I shan’t go into it today myself, although I commend Boyd’s essay to you (and, while I’m at it, also this extract from Don Paterson’s commentary). For my part I struggle to see the Dark Lady as a prostitute (I find the emotional tenor more possessive than that); but I will discuss the possible identification of Pembroke as the young man before too long, for there is a lot to be said for it.

More tomorrow!


Sonnet 42

Good morning, Sonneteers, good morning.

Today we have the last of this mini-sequence on betrayal:

That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I lov’d her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain.
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
     But here’s the joy: my friend and I are one:
     Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.

Alas, Shakespeare is again trying to console himself any way he can, but he’s not convincing anybody. Here’s how this one develops:

Q1 You have my mistress, but that’s not the worst of it (although I do love her dearly); she has possession of you, and that’s the bit I can’t stand

Q2 But I can forgive the both of you, because I know that the only reason you even like each other is because each of you knows I love the other

Q3 Losing each of you, you each gain each other

C But (ah ha!) since my friend and I are one, by loving my friend really she’s loving me alone!

In this one Shakespeare plays yet again with the logic of ‘a friend is a second self’, but in C it just sounds histrionic. There’s no way he believes his own conclusion, no matter how loudly he declares it to himself. C is in turn picking up on the logic of Q2, where he supposes his own love for each of them is at the root of their dalliance. It’s almost charming how he can make everything about him.

Another thing about C: is it odd that it ends with him reassuring himself that, by the logic of substitution, his mistress still loves him? He’s already said that the loss of her affections isn’t the worst bit. Perhaps the emotional climax of the sonnet takes place on line 13: the joy is that he’s just remembered that he and his friend are one, and so he cannot lose him; and then, tacked on the end, is the corollary that therefore he hasn’t lost his mistress either. Metrically, a line is said to have a ‘feminine’ ending if the last stress falls on the penultimate syllable (for example, line 2: ‘And yet it may be said I lov’d her dearly’); by analogy, this would give the whole poem a ‘feminine’ ending, which may be one of Shakespeare’s little meta jokes.

Now, what are we going to do with line 12, ‘And both for my sake lay on me this cross’? Katherine Duncan-Jones (in her Arden commentary) suggests Shakespeare’s bemoaning of having a cross laid on him in this sonnet is not in fact an allusion to Christ, as one might easily suppose, but rather to Simon of Cyrene, who gets roped into carrying Christ’s cross. How would one read the sonnet if the symbol is unpacked in this way?

In the Geneva Bible, Luke 23:26 (as Christ is being taken to his crucifixion), reads as follows: ‘And as they led him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus.’ The passivity of having a cross laid on one fits the allusion; but what does it mean? I wonder if it is most fruitfully read by contrast with another passage, Luke 9:23: ‘And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’ Add to this Matthew’s version of the same passage (10:38): ‘And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.’

The contrast shows this: unlike Christ’s injunction, Shakespeare has not taken up his cross himself; like Simon, he has had it laid on him (in this case, by the young man and his mistress). Yet he seems determined to bear it, and to follow after the young man – who, on this reading, appears to be something of a Christ for Shakespeare (who does think him perfect, after all), albeit one hardly on his way to crucifixion. By alluding to Simon of Cyrene, Shakespeare is saying: I, too, will bear the cross laid on me, and I will follow after you, because I am worthy of you. It’s an image of the self-denying, devoted love he has for the young man. It’s also an image of the extent of Shakespeare’s masochism and delusion.

That’s all highly speculative, but I find this line of thought more interesting than simply reading the cross as a symbol for Shakespeare-as-suffering-Christ, which is more outrageous but also more simple; or as a generic symbol for a man bearing his sufferings, which has even less depth.*

(*Looking back at my comments to Sonnet 34, and the possible emendation of ‘loss’ to ‘cross’ in its own line 12, I wonder whether these observations might also apply there.)

Tomorrow, and through the rest of this week, we’ll get some musings on absence.


Sonnet 43

Good morning, Sonneteers, and happy Wednesday.

Shakespeare is musing again on his beloved’s absence, and in a way that suggests the absence this time is physical rather than emotional:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form form happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so?
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
     All days are nights to see till I see thee,
     And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

For his sake, I’m glad Shakespeare’s no longer wracked by a sense of betrayal, but he doesn’t seem to be much happier. Perhaps they’ve reconciled, although my own feeling is that a genuine reconciliation would have prompted its own sonnet; more likely is that there’s been a partial reconciliation, achieved mostly through Shakespeare pushing down his hurt feelings and believing his own excuses for the young man. But now he, or Shakespeare, has gone travelling, or perhaps they just can’t see each other; whatever is the case, Shakespeare is certainly spending a lot of time lying awake in bed at night. He muses as follows:

Q1 My eyes see best when they’re closed: I spend all day looking at things I care nothing for, but when they close at night my eyes are brightly directed toward you

Q2 The image of you that visits me (your ‘shadow’) lights up the night, but how much better would a daytime glimpse of the real you (‘thy shadow’s form’) be?

Q3 Even your imperfect image, which visits me in dreams, is a delight – how much better in the living day!

C All days are as dark night until I see you; nights, meanwhile, are like bright days when you see me in your dreams

What we have is a contrast between three different states of being. The first is a state we might call boredom or disengagement or depression (lines 1-2): we live, we breathe; we move around, do things, interact with the world – but our heart isn’t in it. We spend all of our time on things that simply don’t matter to us. The second is the flight from that reality, into dreams, fantasies, imaginings (lines 3-4). Shakespeare is caught oscillating between these two states, one represented by day (boredom), the other by night (fantasy), succeeding each other as night and day do. It’s a horrible place to be, disliking one’s life, tormented by fantasies of what it lacks. But he is fantasising something further: what would it be like for real life to have the intensity of a dream? This is the third state of being (occupying all of Q2 and Q3), which we might call ‘blessedness’ (taking the word from line 9). Blessedness is a state in which one’s cares, the way one lives, and one’s fantasies are all aligned, overcoming the schism presented in Q1.

The couplet returns us to Shakespeare’s suffering state, and then line 14 takes an unexpected turn, one that can be easily missed. Shakespeare doesn’t say ‘show me thee’, as the momentum of the poem would lead us to expect – he says ‘show thee me’. We might be tempted to take it as poetic licence: he means ‘show me thee’, but doesn’t want to rhyme ‘thee’ with ‘thee’; he also achieves a nice effect with ‘see thee’/’thee me’. However, surely ‘thee see’/’me thee’ would also have worked? He also has form on this: he’s had sleepless nights before, and C echoes the couplet of 27: ‘Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind, / For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.’ So I’m inclined to see the word order as meaningful and deliberate: Shakespeare is irresistibly attracted to the idea that it’s not just him suffering from sleepless nights. He’d like to believe that the young man also suffers from this day/night schism.

We’ll have more on the pain of the beloved’s absence tomorrow.


Sonnet 44

Sonneteers, good morning:

Today, we get the first of two sonnets in which Shakespeare wishes he could move with the speed of thought, and leave his flesh behind.

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,
Injurious distance should not stop my way;
For then, despite of space, I would be brought,
From limits far remote, where thou dost stay.
No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth remov’d from thee;
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land,
As soon as think the place where he would be.
But, ah, thought kills me, that I am not thought,
To leap large lengths of miles when thou art gone,
But that, so much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan;
     Receiving nought by elements so slow
     But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

If only, he says, I were composed only of thought – I’d leave my body behind, and race straight to where you are. Alas, Shakespeare is flesh and blood like the rest of us, and so he must plod along. The structure:

Q1 If my flesh were thought, distance would mean nothing – I’d cross the distance to you in a flash

Q2 Even if I were on the farthest reach of earth, distance would be as nothing

Q3 And yet I’m not thought; I’m composed of heavier elements (earth and water) in stead; I must await time’s leisure

C These heavy elements of the body bring me nothing but grief

It’s a remarkably straightforward sonnet. The octave simply muses on the way thought overcomes distance; the sestet muses on the melancholy that comes from being a body. Two things are worth noting, both of which have to do with Shakespeare’s subordination of that bodily to the mental.

First, his treatment of space and time. The body, being bound by physical limitations, exists in a particular place, and it moves at a slow pace that binds it more closely to time. The mind, being able to traverse immense distances in a thought, is not so limited to place; being able to range so quickly, it is not so strictly bound to time (l. 12). Shakespeare is here invoking the faculty of imagination, for it is imagination that gives us the power to (so to speak) take leave of our senses, which are so much intertwined with our bodily being; imagination also gives us the capacity to be in elsewhere (albeit in what can be a sadly limited capacity) without the need for time to travel. We might contrast this with his invocation of the other mental faculty he likes to play with, that of memory (see especially Sonnet 30). In both cases (imagination and memory), it is striking that he doesn’t formulate things in terms of his imagination conjuring a representation of what he sees, i.e. terms that would seem most natural to us; rather, he formulates it in terms of a shadow of the thing he thinks about (esp. the young man) visiting him, or his mind visiting the thing. There is a metaphysics here to ponder.

Second, his preference of the mental over the physical might have a lot to do with the sad fact that the social mores (and laws) of the time would have meant he’d had to sublimate his more physical desires for the young man. He had sadly lamented this in Sonnet 20: ‘But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure, / Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their [i.e. women’s] treasure.’ In other words, because the young man is a man (and not a woman) despite his infinite charms, Shakespeare has had to distinguish between the young man’s love (which Shakespeare claims for himself), and that love’s ‘use’ (i.e. sex, which Shakespeare surrenders in favour of the lucky ladies). This severing is what gives the Sonnets their emotional energy. And we see it here in Shakespeare’s denigration of the flesh, which is so slow and stolid and nothing but a source of ‘heavy tears’ (l. 14).

Admittedly, as we’ll see tomorrow, he’s not that optimistic about his mind’s power to bring him joy, either.


Sonnet 45

Happy Friday, Sonneteers!

Today, we pick up where we left off yesterday:

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.
For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppress’d with melancholy;
Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers return’d from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:
     This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
     I send them back again, and straight grow sad.

Evidently, Sonnets 44 and 45 form a pair.* The final lines of 44 invoked Shakespeare’s body’s composition by water and earth; he now follows that up with two mental elements, air/thought and fire/desire. These light elements, unlike the body’s heavy ones, are not so earth-bound, and can make the trip to his beloved. Yet that, too, doesn’t cheer him up.

(*By the by, Paul Kelly performs them together in his rendition in Seven Sonnets & a Song. It’s a pleasure, and I recommend a listen: there’s something about the Sonnets‘ performance as song that is distinct from reading them quietly to oneself, or even reading them aloud. It adds to one’s sense of the multitudes they contain.)

A gloss:

Q1 Wherever I am, my thought and my desire, composed of air and fire, are always with you

Q2 Half of my being always being with you, I am sunk in melancholy

Q3 But then my thoughts and desire return to tell me that things are well with you…

C And I am cheered… for a minute. Then they return to you again, and I am sad

We recall the melancholy he discussed in Sonnet 43, when he described the world he inhabited, absent his beloved, as full of ‘things unrespected’. Now we see why: his fire is elsewhere. His life, being divided, easily falls into depression.

One wonders what Shakespeare is referring to in Q3: his thought and his desire return with messages? How so? The most straightforward way of taking it is as his receiving a letter or similar message: suddenly his thoughts can return to what is before him (the message), and he is temporarily whole again; he replies, and then he is stuck waiting anxiously for another message, and his fire and air have departed again. Q3 and C together thus form a compelling portrait of the anxious lover, sustained only by the short-lived thrill of a written communication, each response followed by the agony of awaiting a fresh reply; what they yearn for is the presence of the beloved.

A quick note on my biographical reading (prompted by a good question from JP). There are three main ways one might read the Sonnets. First, as standalone lyrics. This must be the most common way of encountering them, and given that many of them do indeed stand up beautifully on their own, it make sense. However, it ignores that many of them are baffling if viewed on their own; and it loses the richness they develop in their course. Thus the second approach: to read them as a (veiled) narrative with continuous characters. When reading them as narrative, many commentators prefer to avoid conflating the dramatic character thus created with Shakespeare himself, instead referring to the speaker of the Sonnets by some kind of alternative name (such as ‘the speaker’). After all, this is Shakespeare the master dramatist we’re talking about, and one shouldn’t presume that anything he writes is in his own voice. There is merit in this, since it is always worth remembering that sonnets are a carefully crafted art form, not direct access to the poet’s thoughts and feelings – there is artifice here; and the sequence as a whole appears also to have been shaped by Shakespeare’s hand (although this is contested). But I don’t find that amount of caution rewarding, and hence my preference for the third way, which is a biographical reading. There is more fun to be had in speculating about Shakespeare the man, despite these caveats; plus, the whole sequence is so peculiar and so far outside of the bounds of established genres that it is hard to believe it didn’t have its roots in real experience, no matter how much that experience was later polished, refined or adjusted.

Have lovely weekends, and we’ll press on next week!