A summary of Shakespeare’s 36th sonnet
‘Let me confess that we two must be twain.’ Things are beginning to fall apart here, and the honeymoon period between Shakespeare and the Fair Youth gives way to Sonnet 36, the first of what are sometimes called the ‘separation sonnets’. Analysing his relationship with the young man, Shakespeare comes to the conclusion that, whilst their love for each other makes them one, they must remain two separate people. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who made some rather odd choices when discussing Shakespeare’s Sonnets) thought this one of the finest in the whole sequence; whether we agree with him, it’s certainly worthy of closer analysis.
Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
‘We need to keep separate,’ Shakespeare says, in summary, in Sonnet 36, ‘because of the blemishes and faults on my side. Our love for each other makes us one, but the “spite” that lies between us (because of the wrong that you, the Fair Youth, have previously done) means that, although I still love you, I don’t quite delight in your company the way I used to.’ Then, in the sestet, or final six lines of Sonnet 36, Shakespeare says, ‘I think we should call it quits between us: I feel guilty and you’re better off not being associated with me, lest that my shame become attached to you. You shouldn’t acknowledge me in public either, because your good name might be tarnished or dishonoured by the association with me. But since we are one and the same in essence, your good name and good report is mine too (hence why I want to help you protect your reputation, since it benefits me too).’
That rather round-the-houses paraphrase or summary of the content of Sonnet 36 fails to solve a crucial question in relation to the poem. Why, if the fault was on the Fair Youth’s side, does Shakespeare feel guilt? Well, if their love for each other does make them ‘one’, then perhaps the Bard feels that he shares some of the Fair Youth’s guilt and blame for the young man’s former transgression. Perhaps he feels bad for the way he reacted to the discovery of the Fair Youth’s unfaithfulness. Or perhaps he (in a masochistic way) feels partly responsible for driving the Fair Youth into somebody else’s arms, however briefly. The fact of the matter is that, as with so much relating to the Sonnets, we can speculate but never know.
Some commentators on Sonnet 36 offer a very different analysis, however: to get round they see it as an example of Shakespeare ventriloqising the Fair Youth, so it is the young man speaking to Shakespeare here – and that explains the references to his guilt and shame. But this seems an odd thing for the Bard to do here, and, as outlined above, there are several plausible reasons why Shakespeare might choose to feel guilt over what’s happened between him and the Youth.
Sonnet 36 contains lots of play on the idea of two versus one, separation and indivisibility, mine and yours, thee and me. This is present in the clever opening line: ‘Let me confess that we two must be twain’. Why is it a confession to admit that two people must be … two? Because we take for granted that lovers should be joined so closely and intimately, to share so much of themselves with each other, as to be considered one. That first line looks like a platitude, but only because it’s overturning a cliché – the cliché of ‘2 becoming 1’ (to borrow from the Spice Girls).
Sonnet 36 paves the way for a sort of follow-up sonnet, Sonnet 39, which we’ll be analysing in a few weeks.