Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sonnet 105 by William Shakespeare

Today, a sonnet in which Shakespeare claims that his love is not idolatry, although he promptly claims to worship a three-in-one love, rather than the Holy Trinity. Cheeky, no?

Sonnet 105
by William Shakespeare

Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my belovèd as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love today, tomorrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse, to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
'Fair, kind, and true' is all my argument,
'Fair, kind, and true,' varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
  'Fair, kind, and true,' have often lived alone,
  Which three till now never kept seat in one.

Form: Shakespearean sonnet, of course, which means it's written in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM) and with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

Discussion: Shakespeare begins the sonnet by disclaiming idolatry - the worship of pagan idols or polytheistic gods - but makes clear that he is engaging in idolatry of a different sort, as he establishes the Fair Youth as a godlike figure - one that he essentially worships through his verse, and a tripartite god at that: "Fair, kind, and true" is not only established as a trinity, but is repeated itself thrice during the poem, and he makes plain in the final couplet that they form a sort of trinity of characteristics never before united in one being.

In the first quatrain (or first four lines, if you prefer), Shakespeare says: Don't call my love idolatry or depict the Fair Youth as an idol: all my songs and praises are to only one person, so it doesn't count as idolatry. The third and fourth lines in particular sound to me like a parody of hymn lyrics or phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, but an hour of online searching and reference to my Folger Shakespeare Sonnets hasn't helped me sort out if that's so. Still "Since all alike my songs and praise be/To one, of one, still such, and ever so" sounds close to language used in the Church of England at the time, while being slanted to suit Shakespeare's purposes.

In the second quatrain, Shakespeare describes his beloved as kind, saying that he's constantly kind. His argument in the second two lines of the quatrain runs that since his poems are confined to the Fair Youth, who is constant (now invoking the additional meaning of "faithful"), he expresses only one thing, not many. The phrase "leaves out difference" serves the double purpose of explaining that he only writes about one thing (the Fair Youth) and also that he doesn't write about discord or argument (an alternate meaning of the word "difference").

In the third quatrain we find the volta, or turn. (Dance afficianados may enjoy knowing that the term volta was also a dance move in Shakespeare's time, in which the male dancer picked the female up and turned with her - there have been some rather sexy depictions of it in movies about Elizabeth I. But I digress.) In the third quatrain, he makes explicit what he says about the Fair Youth: "Fair, kind, and true" is his claim; this is his theme, he claims, when he speaks of the Fair Youth, and all of his sonnets are various ways of saying this same thing. (Let us put aside that if one reads all the sonnets about the Fair Youth, "kind" and "true" essentially go out the window now and again.) What he essentially argues in the last two lines of this quatrain is "I spend all my time and invention figuring out different ways of saying the same thing" - a true statement in many instances, as we see multiple sonnets on almost any point he wishes to make about the Fair Youth. In the final line, he makes plain that he is engaging in a form of idolatry when he references "Three themes in one" - a form of trinity meant to echo the Holy Trinity ("God in three persons, blessed Trinity").

In the final rhymed couplet, he repeats the words "fair," "kind," and "true" for the third time, thereby echoing a lot of the repetitions within the Common Book of Prayer ("God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit", or even repentances of the "Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy" vein). He says that the three characteristics or themes that he attributes to the Fair Youth have often lived apart, but have never all combined into the same being before. The inference to be drawn is that the Fair Youth is godlike in some way, although Shakespeare quite carefully doesn't actually go there - he would not have wanted to go to prison for heresy, you see.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the prayer that I think you are looking for is:
Glory be to the Father
and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit (Ghost)
As it was in the beginning
Is now and ever shall be
World without end