With some wonderful imagery of landscape and nature, this sonnet projects the capricious Fate of men onto a picture of the sun’s influence over the earth. Shakespeare uses an allegory quite typical of his history plays in likening a man to the sun, and the language of the poem certainly contains echoes of that dramatic verse. Like a prism acting on a ray of light the final couplet reveals and scatters many potential meanings lying hidden in the preceding lines, with a daring pun on ‘heaven’s sun’ that probes at the nature of divine Providence.The golden light within which the landscape of the poem’s quatrain is characterized contributes to the motif of coinage and valuation that forms an undercurrent in the sonnet. The word ‘sovereign’ has a significant double meaning in that it combines ideas of kingship with ideas of financial worth. The ‘golden face’ of the sun might again refer to coinage, while the image of streams flowing with gold implies fantastical wealth as well as the contingent means of getting it, through ‘alchemy’. These suggestions point to the speaker’s concern with the financial rewards of good luck. An important connection is made through ‘sovereign’ with the notion of monarchy or authority – heavenly or earthly – imbuing life and objects with value. The poem suspends two opposing attitudes to this bond between the ruler and the realm. As the sun initiates and sustains life, so the poem might be read as affirming heaven’s generosity to bestow good fortune and value. Equally the image of ‘alchemy‘ in the streams might be a complaint against the fickleness of fate and the arbitrary distribution of wealth.
The allegory of the sun representing a monarch’s rise and fall is one seen in many Shakespearean History plays. The third quatrain of this sonnet could indeed have been straight from Richard II, where an egotistical but self-loathing speaker similarly laments the passing of his glory. The phrase ‘triumphant splendour on my brow’ particularly captures the tone of a military hero. The way the first few lines survey a kingdom’s assets and landscapes might also suggest their being viewed through the eyes of a monarch. One can therefore read the speaker as seeing an allegory for himself in the sun, but lines 11-12 seem to distance the metaphor and place the speaker in the position of a subject. The clouding over represented in the poem would then signify a loss of favour with the monarch, the period of sunshine standing for the experience of being court favorite.
It is only in the final couplet that the rest of the poem is coloured retrospectively with a religious dimension. Shakespeare’s much used ‘sun/son’ pun scatters myriad meanings and attitudes out in the final lines of the sonnet. ‘Heaven’s sun’ must to a certain extent consciously signify Jesus, adding a third level of comparison to the central metaphor. We must consider both how earthly rulers compare with fate, and how these ‘Suns of the world’ relate to God’s own Son. Taking the penultimate line at face value, the couplet might reflect that earthly rulers ought to be forgiven their caprice since heavenly favour is distributed similarly unequally. This reading takes the first part of the poem as an affirmation of God as the ultimate origin of life, and consequently a justification of the divine prerogative in distributing wealth. This reading is not without its subtleties; implicit in the word ‘staineth’ are the blood stains of Calvary, and the implication that earthly ‘disgrace’ is easier to bear in the knowledge that even ‘Heaven’s sun’ suffered. Yet taking line 13 in a tone of knowing irony, perhaps justified by the histrionic construction ‘no whit distaineth’, gives quite an opposite reading of the final line as an expression of subtly subversive doubt. This reading characterizes the sonnet as a disenchanted view of the arbitrariness of fortune, both earthly and divinely bestowed. After all it is difficult to read the word ‘staineth’ without some hint of its negative connotation as ‘sin’. Here it might be a muted reproach to a distant God, expressing frustration at the speed at which spiritual blessing can recede and leave a person isolated, just as cloud can shield and hide the sun.
An essentially playful treatment of the changing fortunes of men, this sonnet nonetheless voices deep feelings and issues that played heavily on the Elizabethan conscience. The extent to which a ruler has absolute power over the lives of their subjects, and the way in which impossible wealth is chanced upon and easily squandered, are all woven deep into the fabric of the sonnet. A definite overarching attitude to the issues the poem raises is, in typical Shakespearean fashion, elusive. The probing final couplet illuminates the potential in opposing positions and plays them off against each other deftly.