A summary of Shakespeare’s 42nd sonnet
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 42 doesn’t exactly provide the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything – nor is it the finest sonnet in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. But it’s nevertheless interesting in the sequence because of the further light it sheds on the romantic drama unfolding between Shakespeare, the Fair Youth, and the Bard’s mistress (who, for those of you who’ve just come in at this point, has been sleeping with the Fair Youth, it would seem).
That thou hast her it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou know’st I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.
Sonnet 42 sees Shakespeare trying to console himself over the fact that the Fair Youth has been unfaithful to him with his mistress. The situation may not be familiar to us, but the feeling of being in love is one we can all identify with – especially when Shakespeare convinces himself that the Youth’s selfish actions are actually designed to flatter him.
We might paraphrase the content of Sonnet 42 as follows: ‘The fact that you’ve been with my mistress is not the most upsetting thing, even though I did love her very much. No: the worst thing is that she had you, and that’s the loss – my loss of you and your affection – that really hurts. So I forgive you two who, through making love with each other, offended me; you love her, because you know I love her, and she puts up with your affections because she knows I love you. So it’s for my sake that she endures having you, my friend, sleep with her (“approve her”). If I lose you, my loss is her gain (for she will gain you), and losing her means that you, my friend, have found her instead; the two of you find each other, and I lose you both, and you’re both doing this so that I might suffer. But I won’t despair, because you and I are one, my friend – and so actually, she loves only me, since you and I are the same!’
This is a neat bit of verbal jiggery-pokery, and the play on ‘lost’ and ‘found’ is a nice conceit – though the end of the poem becomes out-and-out conceited. But Shakespeare appears to be enacting a version of the lover’s complaint, and trying to console himself over the fact that the two people he loves have been untrue to him, so we can forgive him, just as he forgives those who trespass against him (that religious allusion was inspired by Shakespeare’s own use of the word ‘cross’ in this sonnet).
If you found this analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 42 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.