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A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 3: ‘Look in thy glass’

A critical reading of a Shakespeare sonnet

Sonnet 3 in Shakespeare’s sonnet continues the Bard’s attempts to persuade the Fair Youth to marry and sire an heir. This time, Shakespeare uses the image of the Youth’s reflection in a mirror to make his point: ‘Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest …’ What follows is, as with so many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, an argument, or analysis of the situation, set out in fourteen iambic pentameter lines. Below is our analysis of Sonnet 3, along with a summary of the poem’s argument.

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

A brief summary of Sonnet 3 first. Shakespeare tells the Fair Youth to look in the mirror and tell his own reflection that he should marry and have a child, so as to ‘form another’ copy of his own face (through his child inheriting its parent’s looks). If you don’t get a son now, Shakespeare urges, you will be cheating the world of what it expects – that men should marry and leave offspring – and in addition you will be cheating a woman, who could have been the mother of your children, of the chance to bear your child. If not quite ‘cursing’ or condemning this hypothetical woman, you will certainly be depriving her of the thing that Elizabethan society considers a ‘blessing’ for a wife: the chance to become a mother.

Shakespeare goes on to argue that there isn’t a woman in the world, no matter how beautiful, who would pass up the Shakespeare3chance to be the Youth’s wife, and the mother of his child. And, similarly, which man is so foolish that he will prevent posterity (by not having any children), because his self-love overpowers his desire to love others?

The Bard tells the Fair Youth that he, the Youth, reflects his mother’s looks, and when she looks at her son she recalls her own youth, when she was beautiful and in her prime. And just like her, the Youth in turn can glimpse his own youthful beauty years from now, when he is old and wrinkled, by gazing on his own child.

But if you don’t do this, and choose to live alone and die single, Shakespeare concludes, then your looks die with you and won’t live on through being passed on to your children. This, in summary, is what Shakespeare argues in this sonnet.

‘Look in thy glass’, Sonnet 3 begins, and Shakespeare’s poem repeats this glassy imagery several times: not only is the Youth enjoined to look into his looking-glass or mirror, but he is described as his ‘mother’s glass’, a literal embodiment of her reflection; and then, swapping mirrors for transparent glass, the Fair Youth is assured that, if he does have a child, ‘through windows of thine age’ he will see his own youth embodied in his son or daughter.

Another aspect of Sonnet 3 that’s worthy of analysis or comment is the second quatrain:

For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?

The rhymes here neatly keep in balance the two competing or opposing ideas – to have children or not to have children, to die alone or to relive through your offspring – with ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’ placed in direct contrast to each other (one life-giving, the other the repose of the dead, one protecting us before our arrival into the world, the other receiving us after our death) and ‘husbandry’ and ‘posterity’ reinforcing the need to have children in order to live on, with ‘husbandry’ carrying a nice double meaning, referring to the tilling of land (and spreading of seed – the seed that is the start of new life) but also, of course, the state of being a husband to one’s wife.

This brief analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 3 is hardly exhaustive, but we like the neat way in which the Bard sets forth his argument. Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our analysis of his fourth sonnet, or skip ahead to the classic Sonnet 20.

Discover more about the Bard with these recommended books about Shakespeare, pick up some tips about close reading here, and learn some English literature essay-writing tips here.

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Posted on September 12, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Jeanie Buckingham

    He must have been some Youth.

    How can you be sure it is a particular youth and not youth in general?

    >

  2. It is a neat way of proposing this argument. However, I’d like to see a mirrored version- one in which it is the woman’s choice to stay with the father of her child, and that this opportunity to give his penis worth and raise a child can justify that the youth is even alive.

  3. It seemed a little more than ‘brief analysis’ too me. The scintillating miracle of The Bard is engulfing a huge concept with a tiny phrase. My memory is poor but some bits cannot be forgotten.
    ‘ The lovely April of her prime ‘ Thy golden time ‘ With all poetry, for me, odd beautiful combinations stick effortlessly in my mind. How great actors memorize Hamlet baffles me.

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