A summary of Shakespeare’s 53rd sonnet
‘What is your substance, whereof are you made, / That millions of strange shadows on you tend?’ Sonnet 53 is pored over and analysed by Cyril Graham in Oscar Wilde’s brilliant short story ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’ (1889), about a man who thinks he’s discovered the identity of the mysterious dedicatee of the 1609 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Believing ‘Mr W. H.’ to be a boy-actor named Willie Hughes, Wilde’s protagonist cites this sonnet as part of his internal evidence: the ‘strange shadows’ are the various roles played by the actor on the Elizabethan stage. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence such an actor as Willie Hughes ever existed. Nevertheless, this makes Sonnet 53 immediately interesting – but as closer analysis reveals, we don’t need any high-flown theories or interpretations to find this sonnet of interest.
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
First, a brief paraphrase of Sonnet 53: ‘What is your real essence, the material of which you are made, that millions of strange images and illusions surround you? This is baffling, since everyone, each person, has one shadow, and you, although you’re only one person, can accommodate every one of these millions of shadows. Describe Adonis, the beautiful youth of classical mythology, and the portrait you create is a poor imitation of your beauty. Paint the best portrait of Helen of Troy (whose beauty caused the Trojan War of Greek myth), and it’s merely a Greek rendering of you and your beauty. Speak of the spring or the rich harvest (“foison”), and the spring is a mere echo of your beauty, and the harvest just calls to mind your bountiful beauty; we recognise you in every beautiful thing. You are present in every artistic depiction of beauty, but none can match you for constancy of heart.’
Sonnet 53 is often analysed in terms of Renaissance Neoplatonism, the belief that everything is divided into a ‘substance’ and a ‘shadow’: in short, nothing we perceive is actually reality, because the physical and literal substance of everything is subsumed beneath seemings and ‘shadows’ which hide a thing’s true reality from us. (This isn’t quite the Elizabethan version of ‘perhaps we all live in the Matrix’, but it is a rough approximation.) Stephen Booth, in his Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), summarises the relationship between Shakespeare’s Sonnet 53 and Neoplatonism much more effectively, when he writes: ‘Shakespeare here takes the Platonic idea of beauty and works his own paradoxes upon it; the poem is a hyperbolic compliment in which the beloved, an instance of embodied beauty, is said to be the form, the idea, the substance from which all other particular beautiful things derive.’
One wonders whether the beautiful archetypes which Shakespeare mentions in this sonnet – Adonis and Helen of Troy – are meant to tell us something about Shakespeare’s attitude to the Fair Youth. True, they are arguably the two most readily recognisable short-hands for ‘beauty’ in the classical world; but then why choose one male and one female? To show that the Fair Youth’s beauty sets the tone for all human beauty, perhaps. But one can see why Wilde, in ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’, draws on this sonnet and on Sonnet 20, with its opening line ‘A woman’s face, with nature’s own hand painted’. There’s a certain androgyny implicit in Shakespeare’s depiction of the Fair Youth in Sonnet 53: Adonis is associated with fertility and spring (his blood supposedly watered the earth every year, allowing crops to flourish; this neatly links the second quatrain of Shakespeare’s sonnet to the third quatrain, with its talk of spring but also harvest), while Helen of Troy casts the Fair Youth as a cross-dresser, much like the boy-actors in Elizabethan playhouses (again, whilst we aren’t convinced by the interpretation of Sonnet 53 put forward in Wilde’s story, the argument is nevertheless interesting, though lacking any external evidence). But the main point to take from this is that Shakespeare, back to complimenting the Fair Youth, heaps abundant praise on his beauty by drawing comparisons between his natural grace and the poor imitations of beauty that art can provide.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 53 useful, you can discover more of Shakespeare’s best sonnets with ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’, ‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought’, and ‘Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing’.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.
That’s it: we’ve now analysed the first 53 sonnets in Shakespeare’s 154-sonnet sequence. We think everyone gets the idea. But we’re a little bored. Not with Shakespeare, of course (!), but with finding something new to say about the sonnet form in each case, and adding something worthwhile to existing discussions of the Sonnets. So from now on, we’re only going to blog about those sonnets which catch our eye and strike us as particularly interesting. Our commentary on those sonnets will continue next Monday…