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.