A commentary on Shakespeare’s 105th sonnet
‘Let not my love be called idolatry’, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 105, sees the Bard continue to meditate on the nature of his love for the Fair Youth. Here’s a reminder of Sonnet 105 before we proceed to a commentary on its language and meaning.
Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.
First, a quick paraphrase of the meaning of Sonnet 105: ‘Do not call my love of the Fair Youth idolatry, nor show that I view my beloved as an idol; all my songs, all my praise of him, are written for just one person: him, and it will always be thus. My beloved is kind today, and will remain so tomorrow, and will always be constant; and so my poetry, in having no choice but to reflect such constancy, always expresses this. My argument is that the Fair Youth is fair, kind, and true, and I only diverge from this in so far as I sometimes express the argument in slightly different words – and this small variation is as far as my poetic licence extends. But my poetry always treats these same three aspects – that my beloved is fair, kind, and true – and unites them under one banner, the Fair Youth, who inspires an impressive range of poems on such a theme. These three qualities, beauty, kindness, and fidelity, have never been found dwelling all together in one person before – until he came along.’
This poem risks the charge of blasphemy by comparing the Fair Youth to a god – and, more specifically, to the God, the Christian God. This is made clear in Shakespeare’s play on the trinity of ‘fair, kind, and true’, which suggests the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – which, in mainstream Christian doctrine, are three and yet also one, since they all exist together. This obviously finds a parallel in Sonnet 105, where the less holy trinity of beauty, kindness, and faithfulness all coexist in the person of the Fair Youth.
Don Paterson, in his engaging commentary on Sonnet 105 in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, points out that Shakespeare is using the word ‘idolatry’ in this poem with a specific sense in mind: namely, the accusation hurled at Catholics during the Elizabethan era. Whereas Protestantism strove to get rid of the idols and relics associated with Christian worship, Catholicism wished to preserve them, with lavish altarpieces, painted church walls, saints’ feast days, and the like. This is how we should read ‘idolatry’ and ‘idol’ in the context of this poem (perhaps we should also bear in mind the fact that Shakespeare is widely believed to have been a closet Catholic). So Christianity is not being contrasted just with non-Christian polytheism here, but contrasted with Catholicism’s ‘idolatry’ surrounding saints, worship of whom detracts from their devotion to the One God.
There’s a flicker of ambiguity hanging over the phrase ‘my love’ in l. 5: does it mean ‘my beloved’ or ‘my love for my beloved’? Given what Shakespeare goes on to say, it makes more sense to opt for the former, as we have done in the summary above, since Shakespeare appears to be saying, ‘Since my beloved is kind and will remain so, my poetry should reflect his constant kindness.’ Yet the other reading is tenable, we suppose.
If you found this analysis of Sonnet 105 useful, you can discover more about the Sonnets here.