A reading of Shakespeare’s sonnet
Sonnet 35 develops a theme, or strand, within the Sonnets which Shakespeare had begun in Sonnet 33, and then elaborated on in the previous sonnet. In this sonnet, we find out the reason the Fair Youth has cooled in his affection towards Shakespeare: his ‘trespass’ or transgression is a ‘sensual fault’, suggesting that the Fair Youth has had sex with another man (or a woman). Because it opens up a new aspect of the relationship outlined in the Sonnets as a whole, Sonnet 35 is worth analysing a little here.
No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessary needs must be,
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
To paraphrase the content and meaning of the sonnet first: Shakespeare addresses the Fair Youth and says that the young man shouldn’t feel bad about what he’s done any more. Nothing is perfect: even beautiful roses have thorns (actually they don’t: if we’re being pedantic, roses never have thorns, they have ‘prickles’), and lovely fountains contain dirt and mud; pretty flowers contain disease, or cankers (a word related etymologically to cancer). Indeed, Shakespeare acknowledges that even he is at fault, for comparing the Fair Youth’s sin to such beautiful images from nature, for in doing so he validates or excuses the young man’s sins, in a sense. It’s like being in a courtroom, where Shakespeare, who should be the one speaking against the Fair Youth, turns into the young man’s defence counsel or ‘advocate’. The result is like a ‘civil war’, whereby Shakespeare is torn apart inside, with part of him hating the Fair Youth for his transgression (whether it’s cheating by going to bed with someone else, or simply desiring or fancying another, we aren’t told), and part of him wanting to defend the young man, so besotted is he with him. Shakespeare concludes Sonnet 35 by likening himself to an accessory (or ‘accessary’ in his spelling) to the crime, by excusing the thief who has stolen from him.
The nod to the previous two sonnets in the poem’s third line – returning us to the image of the sun being obscured behind a cloud – is a nice way of suggesting a link between Sonnet 35 and the two sonnets that preceded it. Similarly, Shakespeare’s reference to his own actions as ‘Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss’ neatly recalls a line from the previous sonnet describing the Fair Youth: ‘For no man well of such a salve can speak’. Shakespeare and the Youth are in this together all right. But Sonnet 35 stands up on its own, too, with its use of a legal conceit (‘adverse party’, ‘advocate’, ‘lawful plea’, ‘accessary’) and its suggestion that love can be messy and lead to us holding complex, contradictory feelings towards the one we love.
But the legal flavour to the language towards the end of the sonnet and the natural imagery present at the beginning of the sonnet are nicely conjoined in that word ‘corrupting’, which seems both to look back to that ‘canker’ present in the bud and to prefigure the ‘thief’ and the corruption of the court case in the latter part of the poem. Once again, Shakespeare’s language repays close analysis and opens up new possibilities concerning our understanding of love – especially hopeless love, or love soon to be hopeless.