William Shakespeare – Sonnets 93, 94, 97, 98, 105, 106

Sonnet 93 is probably the first I’ve read in which the poet openly accuses the beloved of betrayal, yet the betrayal does not find its open expression in the lover’s face or demeanour. He is physically incapable of showing anything than sweet love, even if his heart or thoughts are already with another lover. His beauty is like Eve’s apple, leading the poet astray, since it does not answer his real nature.

Sonnet 94 is quite difficult to understand and the critical texts I’ve consulted did not help much. It begins with the statement that those who have power to hurt and don’t do it, belie their outward appearance. I would think that refraining from hurting others is a good thing, but the poet seems to think otherwise. These people don’t do it because they “are themselves as stone”, they move others but themselves cannot be moved. In the third quatrain the poet switches to floral imagery: the sweetest flower, if infected with a disease, becomes worse than the basest weed. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”; the corrupt beauty is worse than honest evil. So I think the point is that people who are cold manipulators, don’t do themselves any evil thing but incite others to do them are like the rotten lilies, far worse than the ordinary evil-doers.

Sonnet  97 is about the absence from the beloved which took place in summer and late autumn, but to the poet it was like the bleakest December. In a very sophisticated metaphor he compares spring to a lover and nature to his mistress, impregnated by him. Now spring is dead and all the bounty of fields and gardens seems to the poet, in his depressed mood, like posthumous, fatherless children born by widows. Summer is where the beloved is; here, even the bird song is so gloomy that leaves turn pale, fearing the arrival of winter.

Sonnet 98 continues the topic of absence. The poet was away from the beloved in the spring and consequently all the flowers brought him no joy – they were just the images of him, reminding the poet through their beauty about the beauty of his lover. When he played with them, it was just like playing with the lover’s shadow.

Sonnet 105 plays with the notion of idolatry, echoing many prayers known to Shakespeare and his readers. The poem begins with “Let not my love be called idolatry”: it can’t be called such because unlike, say, ancient Philistines, he worships only one person, not many gods. But of course the unspoken thing is, as Shakespeare and his contemporaries knew, putting any man in place of God is idolatry. Catholics were often accused of idolatry by Protestants because they worshipped saints and the Virgin Mary. The poet worships his beloved because he is “fair, kind and true”, and these “three themes in one” (blasphemously referring to the doctrine of Trinity) are the only poetical subject he wants to explore. There has never been a person who could unite all these three things (Trinity again!) but the beloved.

Sonnet 106 is about the relationship Shakespeare has with literary traditions. He reads the old rhymes “in praise of ladies dead and lovely knights” and sees that these ancient poets could have described the beauty of his beloved. So all their descriptions of beautiful men and women are just prefigurations or prophesies about the beauty of the beloved, which they however could not describe, not actually seeing him physically. We in the present days, on the other hand, can see you with our eyes, but are tongues are too inadequate to describe you.


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