In The Winter’s Tale, the first scene of act 5 seems brief and calm after the long and busy final scene of Act 4. Although little occurs in terms of forwarding the plot, this scene plays important characterological and thematic functions. Most importantly, it sets up an overarching theme of the play: that human actions occur within, and are subject to, a larger context: the heaven’s will, Time, “Great Creating Nature.”
The scene opens with Cleomenes urging Leontes, “forget your evil;/ … forgive yourself.” His language is theological in tone, with such words as “saint-like,” “penitence,” “trespass,” and “redeemed.” Cleomenes claims that “the heaves” have forgiven Leontes. His claim that Leontes has more than atoned for his sins should be suspect, however, if the audience recalls the brutality with which Leontes acted in the first three acts. For example, Leontes threatened to dash out the brains of an innocent baby, and finally had the baby cast out, presumably to die. One wonders if Cleomenes has an ulterior motive for this speech.
Leontes, responding, provides a clue: “heirless it hath made my kingdom.” Disagreement over whether the king should marry and produce an heir is the major plot point of this scene. The importance of heirs and the renewing of capacity of the next generation is also a thematic conversation in The Winter’s Tale, one that is further underlined in the passage with “bred his hopes out of,” “fail of issues,” and “shall not have an heir.”
Leontes disagrees that his penitence outweighs his “wrong,” saying that it “destroy’d the sweet’st companion.” Characterologically, this shows not only that Leontes appears genuinely repentant, but also that he has come to appreciate Hermione as a partner and equal, not merely an object to possess and to be jealous of. Leontes has grown as a person in the sixteen-year gap, and appears less misogynistic. In fact, he now willingly withstands the scoldings of Pauline, who as always, tells truth to power.
In fact, Pauline seems to act as the king’s conscience, not allowing him to forget his wrongs: “she you kill’d/ Would be unparalleled”. Paulina also idealizes Hermione, using hyperbole: “If, one by one, you wedded all the world… To make a perfect woman, [Hermione] / Would be unparallel’d.” This exaltation of Hermione serves a dramatic purpose, heightening the joy and wonder of the audience when, finally, Hermione returns to life.
Leontes’ response to Paulina also serves a dramatic function. “Kill’ed! She kill’d!” he exclaims, conveying how sharply he still feels the guild after all these years. This increases the audience’s sympathy for Leontes.
Cleomenes and Dion then begin to argue—in a courtly manner, of course—with Paulina about whether Leontes should wed. Cleomenes and Dion seem to represent the perspective of “the state,” which is seen partly in tier disinclination to say anything unpleasant to Leontes, and in Dion’s language: “his most sovereign name,” “royalty,” “majesty,” and, most tellingly, “you pity not the state.”
Dion speaks articulately about the need for an heir, using alliteration to emphasize “What dangers… / May drop upon his kingdom and devour ….” This danger would have seemed more real to Shakespeare’s time than to our own. Shakespeare also uses alliteration to emphasize the positive side of Leontes marrying: “to rejoice… for royalty’s repair… to bless the bed of majesty.”
Dion argues for the need for human action to safeguard the throne. Pauline counters, however, with the overarching providence of the gods: “the gods/ Will have fulfill’d their secret purposes.” In Christian terms, “The Lord moves in mysterious ways.” Pauline reminds us of the riddle of the oracle, that “Leontes shall not have an heir / Till his lost child be found,” and persuades Leontes not to oppose the gods’ will. Paulina states that the child being found “is as monstrous to our human r4eason” as it would be for her husband to be resurrected.
Yet Paulina does believe the oracle: “The crown will find an heir.” And the audience already knows that Perdita not only lives, but is en route to Sicilia. This knowledge strengthens the audience’s inclination to give weight to Paulina’s speech, which emphasizes a key theme of the play. Even though human reason cannot understand it, nor human agency forestall it, there is a greater “something: that contains the stories of our lives, which are but one part of a greater whole. It can be called, as in Paulina’s speech, the heaves’ wills, or as in Act 4, “Great Creating Nature,” but it is something greater than the individual characters, and futile for their actions to oppose. As Pauline concludes: “care not for issue; / The Crown will find an heir.”
My comment: This answer has a strong grasp of the overarching themes of the play, and of the conflict that this particular scene foregrounds. It also has a clear idea of where Leontes’ character is at this point, and it sees this sceneas well in the context of what has come before. It doesn’t just assert these things either; it works carefully through the passage, pointing to Shakespeare’s language, to particular features, and, beyond simply paraphrasing the words it quotes, explains why this words are particularly appropriate choices for Shakespeare to have made at this point in the play. So it is strong in its overall claims about how the scene functions in the play, and it does a good job of showing how the particular choices Shakespeare has made for his characters’ speeches further the project of this particular segment of the play.
Could it be stronger? Yes, of course. It could have noticed even more choices, and might have explored some of the words it notices further. But this was as good an essay as any I read.
Below I've posted one exam from the 25 written on Lear. Like all of the papers I read, it has real strengths, just as it (like all the papers I read!) has ways it could be stronger.
Should you choose to go for the extra credit points available to those who respond to my comments on your midterms, begin by reading this essay, and critiquing it for yourself. You know what the criteria are--or can find them in Reading and Writing Shakespeare. (The criteria are defined on page 51, and the grid on page 57. Remember, too, that there is no presentation score on in-class work.) What scores would you give this paper? You don't have to write about this paper--though you may if it will help your response.
The Writing: 5 points extra credit for a substantive (but not more than 2-page) response to my comments, and to your having reread your paper with those comments in mind.
As with the last response, your paper can take different forms. One would be to define in as specific a way as you can what you would do to revise the paper again, were that an option. A second would be to extend my comments, focusing on other things you thought you did well, at least as much as things you could have done better. So if I praised your ability to locate appropriate language choices on Shakespeare's part, one part of a response might be describe where you thought you had done that well, as well as where you might have done it better.
Yet a third strategy would be to explain where you think I may have misunderstood or misread. Reading 30 complex and varied papers takes a great deal of concentration--and although I really do think I'm pretty good at, I don't always get it right--and maybe I didn't in your case. If that's true, then tell me about it. But just as you'll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you'll write a better response if you realize that whatever I actually wrote, at some level I'm very likely responding to a paper that isn't being as clear as you wanted it to be. So even if I'm getting it wrong, you'll need to explain better than you have so far just what I'm missing.
Due: Tuesday, December 5.
On King Lear, 3.4, 1-40.
In this passage, we find Lear balancing on the edge of sanity. The storm is raging, nature is in chaos, taking our characters and challenging their physical bodies, but more importantly, their spiritual minds. Kent has found a hovel to protect them from the wrath of the storm, but Lear is pushing on, challenging the decisions he has made, trying to find the bigger picture. Lear’s body is humbled by the power of nature/the storm, and his humanity is shaken by the rejection and mistreatment/betrayal inflicted by Goneril and Regan, but, here he seems to focus the chaos more upon himself.
Lear begins to confront, from all angles, why he is in this place. When facing the storm, facing the unstoppable force of nature, he is, at this turning point, pointing the finger at himself, finally thinking about his responsibility and the choices he has made. Lear focuses on the comfort of the people around him, beginning to open his eyes and, perhaps, his heart to the beginnings of his journey to redemption.
The scene begins with Kent finding the hovel, knowing that it is a place of safety. He continuously repeats the phrase, “Enter here.” He is offering Lear a path to safety, in a literal sense, but also a path to mental safety. Kent thus far has played a protecting role to Lear, and this repeated portion continues this theme. In these first lines, Kent expresses how the “tyranny of the open night’s too rough for nature to endure.” This line seems to play on two parts, the literal tempest, and the figurative challenge/divide of Lear’s humanity/self. And Lear, who has already begged Regan for shelter and has been rejected from a total of two homes to stay in, gives an unpredicted response: “Let me alone.” Lear is refocusing his perception to the literal and figurative problems at hand. But Lear takes this tempest, and uses it as a distinction; he replies to Kent: “Wilt break my heart?” In a literal way, Lear shuns the shelter as it will give more people to “break” him; he is choosing the physical damage of the weather/nature as opposed to the mental/spiritual pain he has suffered, yet, the tempest seems to play a larger spiritual role as Lear begins his speech.
Lear declares, in a dramatic reprisal to Kent, that the “contentious storm/invades us to the skin,” referring to the physical challenge of the weather, but Lear announces that “where the greater malady is fix’d,/ The lesser is scarce felt.” Meaning, that in the freezing wet “tyranny” of the storm/nature, he is distracted from the spiritual pain felt. Here, Shakespeare is combining my first observation of the symbolic connection of Kent’s offer of the safety of the hovel as having both a literal and figurative function, and bringing it into plain view, directly out of Lear’s mouth. Lear is now using words with combined images of nature with the spiritual battle in his mind—he uses water/temporal ideas to describe his state of humanity, such as “raging sea,” and more straightforwardly, he says there is a “tempest in my mind,” which is so powerful that it is inhibiting him from physical feeling: “…Doth from my senses take all feeling.” Lear is experiencing transcendence from the physical—what, in the play, he has valued most (as in 100 knights, division of land, and the verbal request of love from his daughters), and is above the physical, the only plain where he can challenge the person who has triggered these events—himself.
But, true transcendence has not occurred yet; his attention, from this focus, is again taken to his victimhood, he cries (most dramatically, I might add) “Filial ingratitude!” [With this] Lear’s speech begins to change tones. He is challenging himself, and then cries in anger, but quickly, he brings it back to the other focus by saying, “No, I will weep no more.” I argue that this line refers to him weeping for himself, removing himself from the role of victim, but he immediately twists back into his rage against his daughters, he produces evidence of their cruelty and reminds the audience, “In such a night to shut me out!” And yet, he then says, “Pour on; I will endure.” Although the angry tone of Lear is reaching stability, he is still bouncing between the literal blame of his daughter’s betrayal, and the spiritual battle of his own mind until, after this self struggle, he says, “That way madness lies; let me shun that!/ No more of that.”
This repetition, line by line, of the changing of focus, is maddening. It’s revolution—changing of thought, with, as yet, no end, is the language demonstrating the chaos in Lear’s mind—the mixing of external vs. internal blame, and the force of nature which is the tempest vs. the safety of the hovel, along with the trusting arms of Kent.
Kent repeats: “Enter,” unreactive to Lear’s rant. Kent is following the logical path, and Shakespeare makes this pattern to the audience clear, to emphasize the chaos of Lear’s tone. Kent repeats “Enter,” while Lear’s language is all over the map, bouncing between the physical and the spiritual.
Lear’s tone changes, once more, to a more caring and careful Lear. He tells Kent, “Go in thyself,” almost using the last of his power, and letting Kent step back from his protective nature. Lear repeats his beginning stance, but agrees to enter, insisting that the fool/boy enter first. Lear’s tone is allowing him to think for others, and therefore provides evidence to him, slowly, regaining a spiritual solidarity.
Lear then gives a line which, I argue, concentrates on the theme of the physical vs. spiritual. He says, “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” Lear is recognizing two factors which he is confronting—prayer, or the spiritual, and sleep, or the physical. Lear is recognizing, openly, the importance of the two, but the spiritual is first. This is bringing hope to Lear’s motives, perhaps this assertion prioritizes his chaos, and he is gaining his humanity.
Lear’s next chunk of lines focuses on this theme of humanity, as he ponders how others can face such “pitiless storm[s].” Here, Lear is recognizing the physical, as it relates to others. He has been refused shelter twice, and has most likely never had to face such elements, physical or spiritual, in the past, and is recognizing that this confrontation is felt by all, all who are in the storm, all “poor naked wretches… that bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” Lear is removed from the level of king, and is taken to the level of man, and he is welcoming this prospect.
Everything he has learned as king is not helping him, he has lost his well-being, and is open to “Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.” And now that he is at that level, he doesn’t beg for himself, but for all people in that state: “Shake the superflux to them/ and show the heavens more just.”
What happens next? His introduction to Poor Tom, someone
who has dived off the cliff, a man lost in chaos. A perfect continuing
theme and opportunity for Lear to continue his journey. This first step
[seen here]is his humbleness and expanded focus.
Shakespeare's Sonnets as Drama
Here are three papers written in response to the Sonnets as Drama assignment. They are not the only strong papers I received on this assignment, but they compare well to papers I've received on other occasions when I've made this assignment, and one is as good a paper as I've ever gotten for it. (I'd gladly add other essays to this selection--just send me a note saying you'd like yours to be included.)
The Tip of the Iceberg: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 95
It is proverbial that the proper response to sin is to hate the sin, but love the sinner. The speaker of Sonnet 95, while no doubt sympathetic to the sentiment, is struggling with its personal application. The entire sonnet is driven by the imagery of concealment, but in the end, what is most hidden is the speaker’s inability to overcome the personal hurt or anger he feels as a result of the beloved’s shameful indiscretions—sins that the speaker would like to address as violations of social convention, but which are, in actuality, wounds of a much more personal nature. Thus the sonnet encapsulates an argument that operates at two levels simultaneously. On the surface it functions as a warning to the friend that (1) his faults are not as hidden as he might suppose and (2) that his beauty will not always provide a veil behind which he can hide his moral blemishes. At the deeper level, however, a level not admitted to, either to avoid offending the beloved (thereby incurring further alienation) or because he has concealed it even from himself, the speaker proves that he is not merely concerned with the beloved’s social standing or good name, but is registering a personal complaint born of offense and consequent indignation.
Some would no doubt interpret the sonnet’s rhetorical situation merely as an older, wiser man’s warning to a dearly regarded younger friend not to abuse his profound beauty by using it as an excuse for profligacy. They might equally characterize it as a fraternal, slap-on-the-back reminder to exercise caution in sowing his wild oats, interpreting the couplet as a phallic pun designed to warn the young man of the dangers of abusing his sexual freedom (“this large privilege”  ) or of assuming that his youthful good looks will always be such that merely naming his name will “bless an ill report” (8). The couplet makes it clear that, minimally, the speaker intends to admonish the young man not to take his gifts for granted: “The hardest knife ill used doth lose his edge”(14). If the primary rhetorical intent of this sonnet is simply to issue a benevolent warning wrapped in the finery of exultant praise, this final metaphor suggests little more than that the friend may be taking a false security in the permanence of his youthful gifts, not realizing that a day is coming when he will no longer be able to carve out separate spheres between his private vice and his public virtue. In the meantime, however, his beauty and good name provide a veil to “cover every blot” and are so magnificent that they turn all things, even youthful vice, “to fair” (12).
And yet the speaker does not say that the young man’s beauties turn all things to fair, but “all things . . . that eyes can see" (12). Why this need for qualification? While clearly moved by the young man’s excellencies, the speaker is obviously concerned with and affected by the sin that has taken residence within—a residence that is described in the first quatrain as a canker in the rose, but which by the third quatrain has expanded to the breadth of a vice-filled mansion. The speaker, like the wagging tongues that “make lascivious comment on [the young man’s] sport” (6) may not be able to “dispraise but in a kind of praise” (7) but the praise, while no doubt sincere, is tempered by an undercurrent of hostility indicative of personal injury—an injury that like an iceberg, conceals most of its mass, and therefore its deadliness, beneath the surface.
What in fact elevates this sonnet from a mere warning dressed up in the Sunday suit of poesy to an understated accusation is the tension that exists between show and substance, appearance and reality, praise and dispraise. This dichotomy pervades the entire poem. That the young man is esteemed is obvious from the unrelenting escalation of praises piled one upon the other. But these lovely acclamations are not without their ugly stepsister, and this particular sibling is threatening the family’s good name by stepping out a little too often and a little too late. The vice at issue is sexual in nature. The person being spoken to is a young man in the “bud” of life (3) and a man of significant social standing and privilege (3, 8, 13) whose euphemistically-defined “sport” has invited “lascivious comment” from others. The speaker is careful, though, not to risk giving offense by speaking too directly, instead purposing to conceal his true feelings in three quatrains of exclamatory praise. This concealment is consistent with the sonnet’s overall theme of the negative embedded in the positive.
This theme is first sounded in the opening quatrain with its image of the canker in the rose. We are not surprised by the conventional simile of one’s beauty being likened to a sweet and lovely rose. In fact, we are lulled by it into a comfortable complacency until we are hit with this jarring image of a putrid, ulcerous, pus-filled sore that corrupts, corrodes, or irritates what should be healthy tissue. The word “canker” packs a powerful punch in that it implicates not only the potential effect of the young man’s actions on his future reputation, but, more significantly, the emotional cost exacted from the speaker, its repetition of the harsh k sound corresponding to the revulsion that the older man feels in response to the moral pestilence with which his beloved has become infected. That we are meant to pay special attention to this first of many incongruities is suggested by the chiastic arrangement of the first two lines (sweet and lovely/shame; canker/rose) which serves to emphasize its significance.
This, however, is just the first of no fewer than four oxymoronic pairs in a mere 14 lines. In addition to the canker in the rose there is the spot within the bud (3), the sins enclosed by sweets (4), and the blot within the beauty (12). What is gained by this poetic habit of enclosure if not to warn the young man that the exterior shell of anything, once pulled back, exposes the substance beneath—the im(moral) glacier that rides beneath the surface? Still, the speaker, wanting to win his friend’s concession without jeopardizing the friendship, encloses censure within compliment, such that his friend might be softened by flattery and not made immediately aware that the poet’s battle plan is to dispraise by means of praise (7). There are several ways in which he crafts his argument to accomplish his hidden purposes.
The first concerns his pretext of being primarily concerned with the young man’s reputation and good name. That the beloved’s good name is at risk is signaled in part by the use of name three times in the octave, the first time as the final word in line 3 where it receives a natural emphasis, the second and third times in close proximity to one another in the final line of the octave. The speaker underscores the danger of squandering one’s good name by making it the first rhyme of the sonnet where it is aurally connected with “shame.” Shame presupposes a moral obligation that has been transgressed, and there is no question that the speaker is trying to warn his friend against forfeiting his good name by abusing his beauty in inappropriate sexual trysts.
But again, there is a deeper significance beneath the surface. Guilt differs from shame in that the former is internally motivated whereas the latter is externally ascribed by social convention. That the speaker chooses to open the sonnet with the concept of “shame” rather than guilt suggests that the young man does not live by an internalized code of ethics. The speaker, rather than accuse him directly of having no personal moral compass, attempts to soften the blow by reminding him that his beauty and good name are privileges that create a social duty, the transgression of which would be cause for shame. In doing so, he mitigates the intensity of the accusation by casting it in terms of social convention rather than personal culpability.
The second way in which he proffers an indirect accusation is by attributing personal agency to the young man’s vices such that they have chosen him and not vice versa, thus distancing the sin from the sinner and rendering him less responsible. At the same time, the vice, once comfortable within the confines of a single rose has sought roomier accommodations in the mansion of the young man’s being. Yes, there is something inherently stately about a mansion, but even the finest of manors, if occupied by vice, do not make for particularly valuable real estate. Once again the speaker’s intent appears to be a benevolently motivated warning, but let the tip of the iceberg melt just a little in response to the heat of praise and a submerged resentment becomes evident.
This resentment is signaled by the abundance of words with “il” and “v” sounds (lovely, tells, ill, vice, veil, cover, privilege) which create a subliminal subtext of evil. “Veil,” in fact, is an anagram for “evil,” and the word is further embedded (in keeping with the theme) within the couplet’s “privilege.” What could be more subtle and less threatening than this intentional manipulation of sound and sense?
Finally, there is the aphoristic couplet that places in
near parallel positions the words “heart” and “hard,”
with the implicit accusation that the young man is not merely immature,
but hard-hearted. And why end the sonnet with the image of a knife with
its connotations of cutting, division, sharpness? Obviously it allows
for sexual innuendo. It also, as discussed above, suggests the young
man’s habit of successfully dividing his private sins from his
public persona. But there is a third possibility, one in keeping with
the idea of a submerged resentment, and that is that the knife refers
not to the young man himself, but to the speaker’s respect and
affection for him which, ill-used, will one day, like the young man’s
youth and beauty, lose its edge.
Shame, Blame and Ambiguity in “Sonnet 95”
A surface reading of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 95” shows the speaker rebuking a young man for using his beauty to conceal or get away with sin. Metrical emphases and self reflexion in the poem then work against this reading, as the poet seems to recant his accusations of scandalous behavior. A portrait emerges of a blameless beauty, gently admonished not to give in to temptation. Ambiguities within, however, leave open the possibility that this is an ironic portrait after all, that the youth’s portrayal in the first quatrain remains—or is fated to be—the true one. The readings combined show a highly complex but ultimately uncertain relationship between speaker and addressee.
Although the sonnet’s very first words praise the youth (“How sweet and lovely”), this first quatrain makes the strongest overt claims against him. This sweetness, it turns out, serves only to gaud his “shame.” This “shame” goes undefined save by simile: that of a “canker in a fragrant rose.” Though “canker” here denotes a caterpillar, it suggests additionally a symptom of venereal disease. Even without this reading, the worm and rosebud imagery remains sexually suggestive. This indicates—indirectly, delicately—that the root of the youth’s “shame” lies in sexual transgression, whose harm to his reputation (his “budding name”) his beauty deflects but for an ignoble “spot” or so.
“Sweet” when followed with the “fragrant rose” carries the sense of sweet-smelling. “Budding” and “sweets” continue the floral language, till the accumulation indirectly portrays the subject as a perfumed dandy. Perhaps, this suggests, the man addressed perfumes himself to hide the shame-scent of his many lovers? “Budding” though refers not just to the youth’s emerging reputation, but connotes pubescence or virginity, thus innocence and blamelessness—an idea repeated with the “veil” image in line eleven. As this is a strange implication if the poet accuses his subject of immorality, it announces the ambiguities to follow.
The quatrain’s conclusion levels the strongest charge against the youth: “in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose.” The word “enclose” prefigures the “mansion” metaphor to be explored in the third quatrain. This line as a whole though serves to indict the youth for his transgressions. The youth undertakes the action of “enclosing” his “sins”; the blame for them then lies entirely with him. This seemingly self-evident claim, that the fellow is responsible for his own sins, begins however to unravel in the succeeding lines.
The second quatrain provides another possibility for the “shame”: that it stems more from rumors and accusations of sin than from actual sin. “The tongue that tells the story” may be that of a gossip or character assassin, whose “lascivious comments” become more sporting than the fellow’s own “sport.” Why is the “tongue” singular, then, considering that gossip is generally a group activity? The “tongue” may belong to the one closest at hand: the poet himself, or his assumed character. For who but the present poet, after all, tells such tales?
Three pieces of evidence for this interpretation are to be found in this quatrain. First, the phrase “making lascivious comments” is rendered with two dactyls and a trochee, a strong clash with the surrounding iambs. This metric emphasis draws the reader’s extra attention here to keep this phrase in mind, for just such a comment awaits in the concluding couplet. Second, the phrase “dispraise but in a kind of praise” serves a dual purpose. The subject’s beauty elevates any slander to praise—an idea reemphasized with the next line’s “naming thy name blesses an ill report.” But this “dispraise/praise” pairing also refers to itself; that is, the word “dispraise” cannot be used without including the root word “praise.” By spotlighting the act of writing, the poet implicates himself as the source of the “ill report.” Third, “naming thy name” contains a negative self-referral: the poem does not actually name its subject. By his own formula, the poet then is not “blessing” his “ill-report.” The full force of his non-blessing comes with the final couplet; what directly follows further exculpates the youth.
The third quatrain inverts both the scale and the blame of the first. From a worm-rotted rose, the youth has now become a “mansion”: opulent, extravagant, and roomy enough for plenty of sins to take dwelling in peripheral places—wardrobes, servants’ quarters—where they can go unnoticed. The youth’s “vices” may dwell within him, but they “chose out” the poor fellow. They perform the action now, have agency independent of their host, and so let him off the hook for housing them.
The lad’s physical appeal—this time called “beauty’s veil”—again protects him from sin and consequences. “Veil” works well with the preceding “mansion” metaphor, suggesting curtains on a window. “Veil” also suggests a bride just before her presumed maidenhood expires, and so connects this line to the first quatrain’s “budding name” (an association furthered by a rhyming echo between quatrains, “blot” here for “spot” earlier). But a veil is also worn by a mourner, and may also suggest the winding sheet of a corpse. The word reflects in miniature the sonnet’s ambiguity, as it both reasserts the youth’s innocence and serves as a warning, a prelude to the admonitory couplet.
The poem then seems to impart a supernatural quality to the youth’s beauty. Through it, “all things turn to fair that eyes can see!”: not only the youth or his shame, but “all things.” Metric evaluation again supports this analysis. The line begins with an iamb followed by a spondee, yielding three consecutive stresses on “all things turn”—a sharp contrast with the preceding line’s orthodox iambic pentameter. Such strong emphasis calls for a correspondingly broad reading: that of the youth as thaumaturge or illusionist. The distinction is crucial to the poem’s ambiguity. If an illusionist (for only those qualities “that eyes can see” are affected), the youth is re-indicted, this time called not merely a sinner but a manipulator. But how can such a character bear a name that “blesses”? If a miracle worker, he’s better entitled to the blessing his name gives in line eight, but now becomes unsuited to the ugliness of the “canker” and “spot” above—and to the couplet still to come.
This couplet forms an ostensible warning: that should the youth pursue the sins he’s accused of or may have committed, the beauty that protects him—his “large privilege”—will fade, just as a knife, if employed to cut bricks instead of bread, say, will “lose his edge.” This paternalistic aphorism is tempered by the tenderness he allows in calling his subject “dear heart.” One curious usage calls this reading into question: why “the hardest knife,” rather than the sharpest knife, as might be expected? The youth may be “privileged” in more than his ability to conceal sin, his “large privilege” perhaps referencing his generous male endowment. If so, the choice of “hardest” follows naturally. The couplet then becomes quite a “lascivious comment” indeed, saying that should the youth continue his carnal outrages, he may be bedeviled with impotence or venereal disease. This confirms the first quatrain’s charges, revealing an entirely ironic reading of the foregoing implications of blamelessness, and certainly of any suggestion of holiness!
Persistent and entangled ambiguities pervade this sonnet, twinning accusation to exoneration, ribaldry to affection. The poet’s admiration, envy, and perhaps lust come through, and with them a bitter tenderness, altogether heartfelt and ironic at once. Such readings do not necessarily exclude each other. Instead they serve to portray a doubtlessly complex relationship in economical terms, those suited to a cryptic, rigidly-structured fourteen-line love poem.
Sonnet 120: A Man More Sinned Against Than Sinning?
Ostensibly an apology, William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 120 features a speaker intent on portraying himself as the victim. He attempts to distract his listener from his recent fault against her by continually reminding her of how badly she hurt him in the past. To redeem their relationship, he must work through and finally renounce his claim that, like King Lear, he is “a man more sinned against than sinning” (King Lear III.ii.59-60).
The prevailing tone of the sonnet is not one of apology, but of accusation. Key words in the sonnet emphasize the pain of having been hurt by, presumably, a lover: Among them are “sorrow” (lines 2 and 10), “hell” (6), “suffered” (8), and “wounded” (12). And who has suffered and been wounded? Not the sonnet’s addressee, the injured party of the current dispute, but the speaker: “that sorrow which I then did feel” (2), he says, and “how once I suffered” (10). Any pain felt by the addressee of the sonnet is either imagined by comparison with the speaker’s - “if you were by my unkindness shaken, / As I by yours” (5-6, emphasis added); or shared: “our night of woe” (9).
In fact, woe is the only thing shared by the speaker and his addressee in a poem replete with personal pronouns. Together the words me, my, mine and I occur thirteen times in these fourteen lines, while variations of you and your appear ten times. This speech is not about how the speaker’s actions have affected his partner, but rather about keeping score. Who has sinned the most in this relationship, and who has been sinned against?
Taking this tone from the sonnet as a whole and analyzing it quatrain by quatrain lends the sonnet a different feel than an initial reading, when it might appear a heartfelt and straightforward apology.
The very first accusatory line recalls the earlier sin of the listener: “that you were once unkind” (emphasis added). We don’t know what the unkindness may have been, but “unkind” seems relatively mild. “Befriend” suggests to be in one’s favor or to take one’s side, echoing the theme of the speaker versus his audience. To admit he should bow under transgression (3) is a normal thing to say in the course of an apology, but “unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel” is a strange addition. Why add such a disclaimer? The use of subjunctive suggests that the speaker’s nerves are not – even metaphorically – made of cold, hard, inanimate metal. In fact, we soon learn that the speaker’s nerves are capable of being “shaken” (5). Who could the speaker be implying is cold and hard, if not his audience?
In the second quatrain, the speaker seems to become carried
away by emotion, remembering his suffering. Certainly he is carried
away in his meter. Every other line in this quatrain and the next (lines
5, 7, 9, and 11) contains eleven syllables rather than a carefully measured
ten. The extra, unstressed syllable of these irregular lines causes
the speaker to run on into the next line. While on the surface admitting
his fault, he is carried away with hyperbole, reminding his audience
that she put him through “hell” (6). In another hyperbole,
he ironically calls himself a “tyrant” for not taking the
time “to weigh how once I suffered in your crime” (8). (Two
forceful spondees – I suffered, your crime - emphasize that the
listener sinned, while the speaker was sinned against.) Clearly, however,
he has taken the time. The entire sonnet constitutes a litany of his
sufferings at the hand of his addressee. Who is he accusing, then, of
tyranny, of arbitrary cruelty? His audience, who, in his perception,
wronged him with no concern for his feelings. The speaker admits to
his own “unkindness” (5), but this unkindness pales in comparison
with his partner’s, which has now degenerated into a “crime”
The quatrain that follows begins with the interjection “O,” signaling a change of thought or intensified emotion, and ends with an emphatic exclamation point. The first line of this quatrain is also very irregular in meter, containing two trochee substitutions and a dactyl. Perhaps accusing his partner of a “crime” has awakened the speaker to his exaggerated sense of injury. Perhaps at this moment he fully realizes that if his audience previously committed a crime against him, so too has he committed a crime against her. Or perhaps he is reacting guiltily to a tearful response from his audience – there are, after all, two characters in this scene, though only one speaker. He now refers to “our night of woe” (9), acknowledging that both suffered during the dark time of her earlier transgression. Likewise, “wounded bosoms” is plural, not singular (12). The speaker also acknowledges that his audience was quicker than he to proffer a “humble salve,” perhaps an apology (11-12).
The pain these two have suffered, however - expressed in physical terms, they have been hammered (4), shaken (5), and hit hard (10) – cannot be assuaged by a mere salve. Their sins can only be redeemed, or ransomed.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, ransom can mean “to obtain the release of by paying a certain price.” To the speaker, betrayal and atonement are commodities. An apology is tendered (11). The addressee’s earlier fault, or trespass, “becomes a fee” (13). The two characters’ transgressions, the speaker concedes, cancel each other out, and the score is now even: “Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me” (14). A secondary meaning of ransom, however, is theological: “to deliver from sin and its consequences” (American Heritage Dictionary). The speaker’s earlier choice of the words “transgression” and “trespass,” both of which have theological implications, suggests that Shakespeare intended both meanings of “ransom.” On the surface of the final couplet, the speaker is tidily wrapping up his “tit for tat” argument. The subtext, however, suggests a New Testament-style redemption, forgiveness of sins for both speaker and listener. The next words of this drama could well be Lear’s: “Pray you now, forget and forgive” (King Lear, IV.vii.84-85).