William Shakespeare – Sonnet 23


This sonnet employs a mixture of theatrical, financial and religious imagery to convey a complex feeling the speaker towards his lover. It stretches between the bashful embarrassment of the first two lines and the implicit threatening of the speaker looking ‘for recompense’. The sonnet’s basic meaning, that love is better communicated in verse than face to face, is just the canvas onto which these nuances of tone and attitude are painted.

The first two images used by the speaker are striking for their difference in mood – the first a simple shyness, the second a more complex blend of ferocity and tameness. The simile of the actor is naturally a favorite of Shakespeare’s, drawing from the much used Elizabethan idea of ‘theatrum mundi’, ‘All the world’s a stage’ etc. The simple likeness between the nervous actor forgetting his lines and the nervous suitor unable to find the right words therefore carries with it all the associations of the life as a play’ idea. This emphasizes the transience of life and humanity’s constant dissembling and is interested in ritual and ceremony. It conveys to the reader the fact that we ought to mistrust the eloquent rival suitor of line 12, just as we would in a play, and also promotes a kind of carpe diem attitude which clearly has a pertinence for the maiden being addressed. The essence of the simile – shyness in the speaker – is, however, simple in comparison with the image that follows. It is startling in its vagueness, ‘some fierce thing’ suggests an animal but clearly the intention is not to give us a clear mental picture. The point of contact between vehicle and tenor is the magnitude of feeling, but how strange that the emotion described here is not love but ‘rage’. As if the speaker was wary of sounding pitiable in the ‘actor’ simile, he here tries to assert a ferocity that rings hollow in its generality and lack of logic – why should ‘strength’s abundance’ weaken ‘his own heart’?

The ‘ceremony of love’ is both undermined and affirmed in the poem – where a contradictory attitude towards courtship itself is analogous to the speaker’s complex love for the maiden. The idea of ritual is closely linked to the theatrical imagery of lines 1 and 2, and therefore carries forward the idea of theatrum mundi which emphasizes the gap between superficial ceremony and genuine humanity. However, there is also a religious significance to the idea of ceremony which acts against the theatrical to affirm the role of ritual. The final couplet of the poem reveals that the speaker’s intention is not to invalidate ceremonial courtship but to reposition it from the physical to the visual: ‘silent love hath writ’ suggests a kind of scripture in poetry with love as the deity, and ‘hear with eyes’ sounds like the Biblical paradoxes beloved of Donne.

The seeming ugliness of the mixed metaphor in lines 7 and 8 implies a darker element within the speaker’s feeling. The incongruous images of ‘decay’,’burden’ and ‘might’ can all be accounted for individually. ‘Decay’ acts as a suppressed carpe diem motif, reminding the addressed lover that time is passing. The paradoxical ‘burden’ of ‘might’, when might would surely assist with a burden, is perhaps a continuation of the hollow assertion of strength in lines 3 and 4. The overall effect of the mixed metaphor, however, is to seem fragmentary and jagged. This signals an equally contradictory, equally ugly side to the speaker’s love, shown in the financial imagery of the poem. The pun on ‘rite’ in line 6 introduces the idea of ‘right’ or inheritance, suggesting the feeling of being owed something by the maiden the speaker is addressing. This is continued in ‘recompense’, implying through the image of commerce a lower, corrupted form of passion that works in opposition to the high, courtly ceremony operating explicitly in the poem. The speaker’s slight on his rival suitor, in whom the three ‘mores’s comically and subtly have us imagine a boorish, dull tone of voice, might suggest a reason for this darker current. Deep in the poem or in the imagined speaker’s mind, there is a subconscious, misogynistic ‘rage’ at the idea of the woman having two suitors, that gives rise to these suggestions of commoditized love with inevitable associations of prostitution.

The far dominant current of meaning in this sonnet presents a bashful, slightly comical speaker, light-heartedly dismissing his failures as a suitor by invoking the immortality of poetry and wittily ridiculing his rival. However, there is a small suggestion that his love isn’t as innocent as laudable as it seems, but rather based in a misogynistic notion of commoditized femininity.

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