A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23: ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage’

A reading of a Shakespeare sonnet

‘As an unperfect actor on the stage’, the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23, introduces one of Shakespeare’s favourite analogies – the theatrical metaphor – into the Sonnets. But the rest of the poem uses a range of comparisons and images. In this post we’re going to offer some notes towards an analysis of Sonnet 23 and the language and meaning of the poem.

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

A puzzling sonnet, this, though the first line, ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage’, makes it sound as though it’s going to be an example of the extender metaphor or conceit, as with the previous sonnet. Not so. It’s all the more puzzling because it sees Shakespeare confessing to being lost for words, and unable to say something eloquent – not exactly something you’d expect of the sweet Swan of Avon.

In summary, Sonnet 23 is about how Shakespeare, in the presence of the Fair Youth, is unable to speak properly or make his feelings plain: he becomes tongue-tied, ‘weak in the presence of beauty’ (to borrow from a latter-day poet, Shakespeare3Alison Moyet). In the first two lines, he’s like an actor who, suffering from stage fright, forgets his lines while on stage; in the next two lines, the opposite analogy is used, and he likens himself to a fearsome (rather than fearful) creature, like a wild beast whose anger prevents it from achieving anything.

The next four lines, lines 5-8, essentially say that this is exactly how it is with Shakespeare and his love for the Fair Youth: he cannot say the right things when in the Youth’s company, because his love is too strong, too real, too overpowering. This is a similar take on the problem encountered in several of the earlier sonnets – namely the difficulty of depicting one’s love or admiration truly using language – but here it’s different because it’s more heartfelt, and in the interim the Bard has fallen for the young man.

In lines 9-12, Shakespeare urges the Youth to look not to what the poet says, but to how he looks when he is in the young man’s presence. His actions – or his looks – speak louder than words, and more eloquently convey how he really feels. His looks are ‘presagers’ – omens or signs – of his ‘speaking breast’, his heart which knows the truth about his love. His looks say it all: how he longs for his love to be returned (‘recompense’). The twelfth line poses a problem in terms of interpretive analysis, given the awkward repetition of ‘more’ – though such repetition is deliberate, of course, because it suggests that being a smooth-talking lover professing one’s love is all well and good, and often the poet’s tongue has made such professions (‘more often than not, this tongue has expressed more’ might be a rough paraphrase of this line); but on this occasion, the tongue cannot adequately convey how the poet is really feeling.

In the final couplet, Shakespeare entreats the young man to learn to read the signs of the poet’s ‘silent love’: to read in his looks rather than his words the fact that he truly harbours affection for him.

Is this an early version of the love that dare not speak its name? Does Shakespeare’s silence arise from the fact that the love he harbours in his breast is love for another man? Unlikely, given the different attitudes the Elizabethans had to homosexuality (then not even a word), and it’s more probable simply that Shakespeare is seeking to express the fact that his love is so powerful that it renders him tongue-tied, though the truth is plain to read in his face.

How do you interpret Sonnet 23? Is Shakespeare’s nod to ‘an imperfect actor on the stage’ a knowing wink to the reader (who may well have known of Shakespeare’s own acting career on the London stage), suggesting that these Sonnets are, despite the depth of feeling they often describe, merely an act? It’s a difficult issue to decide after so much time has passed, but this is partly what makes the Sonnets such fun to analyse.

Continue to explore Shakespeare’s Sonnets with our short introduction to Sonnet 24.

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