The Sonnets (2)

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Viola and Orsino

In the graphic, Duke Orsino speaks to Viola in male attire: male friendship and heterosexual love are combined and confused as Viola (a male actor) disguises herself as a youth (Twelfth Night 1.4).

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Love and the Young Man

What follows is not an attempt to put the sonnets into their "proper" order, but one way of many possible ways that would show you the range of feeling in the poems. The movement in the sonnets I have chosen is the natural one from the celebration of love to a degree of disillusionment and an exploration of the way love falls short of its ideals.

Ideal Love: sonnets 54, 20, and 21

From your reading of The Courtier you will be familiar with the association between truth and beauty. In Sonnet 54 the central conceit is of truth--moral beauty--surviving the death of physical beauty as the scent of the rose survives in its perfume; the means of distilling the beauty of the Young Man is poetry, the sonnet itself.

What do you make of the imagery of the poem, and the use of words like "wantonly" and "unwooed" in a poem to a "youth"?

The witty play on male and female in sonnet 20 is a more adventurous use of a similar convention. In the readings for Love's Labour's Lost you will see an example of a traditional Renaissance debate between the love of a man for his friend and his love for his mistress: in John Lyly's play Endimion, the character Eumenides must decide between his friendship for Endimion and his love for Semele -- and of course he chooses frienship first. In the Sonnets, this debate is transformed by the Poet into a justification for a love for the Young Man which is stronger than the love for any woman. He does seem to want to have it both ways (the Young Man has beauty, traditionally associated with women, together with constancy, traditionally associated with men), but he is prevented from a full (physical) enjoyment of the youth's beauty, as the bawdy puns in lines 11-13 make clear, because the Youth is not a woman.

Do you nonetheless find some degree of homoeroticism in these poems?

Sonnet 21 similarly plays with a convention, the poem of courtly love which fantastically exaggerated the loved one's beauty. You will find more examples of the way Shakespeare parodies the excesses of courtly love both in later sonnets and in the next play in this course, Love's Labour's Lost. [Note 1] You may notice that, although sonnet 21 is included in those which deal with the love of the Young Man, it avoids any specific pronouns which would define the sex of the loved one--note the careful use of "child" ("son" would scan) in line 11

Does this suggest that Shakespeare is deliberately making the poem a general statement about the nature of love?

Clouds: Sonnets 33, 34, and 35

These three sonnets make a mini-sequence, a drama in three acts: act I, the betrayal; act II, repentance; act III, forgiveness. The three sonnets share similar images of nature, particularly the sun as ideal beauty "stained" by the clouds which cover it.

How do you feel about the resolution of the quarrel in act III (sonnet 35)?

Is there a touch of bitterness left?

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Flowers and Weeds: sonnets 69 and 94

Look again at sonnet 54, with its contrast between exterior physical beauty, and internal moral beauty, figured by the rose and its perfume. Take that conceit, add a touch of disillusionment creeping into the relationship, and you have the argument of sonnet 69. Eye and heart are in opposition, the one deceived by outward appearance, the other expressing inward truth.

The contrast between rose and weed in sonnet 69 becomes an opposition between lilies and weeds in sonnet 94. The meaning of this sonnet is not easy to follow, and I am not at all sure that it is completely clear. But the power of the last line is such that the poem has stimulated much critical discussion. [Note 2]

The major difficulty in the sonnet is what seems a logical contradiction between line 2, which suggests a kind of hypocrite--someone who does not do what he seems to do (to "show")--and lines 5-6, which clearly state that the kind of person decribed in lines 1-4 is an ideal. The sestet in itself is clear: even if a flower lives "to itself" (is not plucked or distilled for perfume) it is sweet; but if a flower becomes diseased it becomes uglier than a weed. If someone who is beautiful (morally) becomes corrupted, the ugliness is far greater than the ordinary imperfection of humankind.

The first four lines are, nonetheless, a puzzle.

What kind of ideal is proposed?

Even if we disregard the second line of the sonnet, the ideal seems to be not altogether admirable:

Is an ideal person one who is "Unmoved, cold"?

Is it therefore an ideal presented ironically--the cold hypocrites the ones who are able to be "owners" of their faces, their surface appearances?

Or is line 2 to be read according to the second of the two suggestions in the footnotes, so that the ideal can be interpreted as a wholly controlled person whose beauty moves others but not himself?

I do not want myself to suggest that there is one "answer"--an interpretation of the poem which resolves all these problems. It is certainly possible that Shakespeare in one particular mood really thought that extreme control (restraint) was a necessary virtue. In any case we can say about the sonnet that the sestet presents a powerful image of beauty corrupted.

If you are curious, you may want to read sonnets 91-96 as well; though less certainly linked than the earlier mini-sequence, they all deal with the problem of false love, and the betrayal involved in the misuse of beauty.

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  1. The last line of this sonnet is close in sentiment to the remarks made by the Princess and Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost (2.1.15-16 and 4.3.238-240). [Back]
  2. Among others a long and subtle analysis by William Empson in his Essays on Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); the essay is also reprinted in the Signet pocket edition of the Sonnets, pp. 197-219. [Back]

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This page last updated April 20, 1997. Enquiries to Michael Best,
© Michael Best, The University of Victoria, and the Open University of B.C.