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Shakespeare Sonnet 23: "As an unperfect actor on the stage"

Updated on December 7, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Shakespeare Sonnet Titles

The Shakespeare Sonnet sequence does not feature titles for each sonnet; therefore, each sonnet's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 23

The speaker in Sonnet 23 has a strong wish to dramatize the love that resides within his being. He thus admonishes his readers to acquire the skill required for reading poetry with understanding and appreciation.

This poet/speaker places great importance on his art, for he remains certain that only his art is capable of expressing clearly and convincingly his true feelings. Because his physical tongue too often becomes paralyzed in attempting to express deep, strong emotion, he must rely on the word writ across the page to express that affection.

As an unperfect actor on the stage

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.
O! let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 23

Commentary

First Quatrain: An Actor With Stage Fright

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

In the first quatrain, the speaker asserts that he is like a fearful actor on a stage who has difficulty with his lines because of stage fright. But he also resembles "some fierce thing" that is weakened because of rage.

The speaker is portraying the timidity and emotion that prevent him from expressing the love that he feels. It is quite fitting that a playwright and theatre worker would use the "actor" to portray his feelings.

Second Quatrain: Fear Limits Ability to Move

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.

The speaker then asserts that for "fear of trust" he is unable to speak the necessary words for the "ceremony of love’s rite." He claims that the intensity of his love seems "to decay" under its own strength. The reader will easily recognize the speaker’s predicament.

When emotion is strong, it sometimes limits logical responses. Fear especially restricts the ability to act as one needs. The speaker frames his claim, noting that his strong love overcomes that love’s own power.

Third Quatrain: Begging for the Muse to Intercede

O! let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.

The speaker's humility in alleging that his has an inability to speak eloquently leads him to quip, ""books be then the eloquence / And dumb presagers of my speaking breast."

That which is in his deep heart weighs far more significantly than that which may be expressed by his tongue.

Readers have already observed that the muse sonnet's demonstrate the poet's vital talent in composing poems. Thus it remains not unusual for this speaker to address his talent asking it to assist him in overcoming his human flaws as he attempts to express his emotion.

Couplet: Begging Readers to Learn to Read

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

In the couplet, the speaker addresses his future readers, admonishing them to "learn to read what silent love hath writ: / To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit." By reading the speaker’s words, which portray a silent eloquence, the reader can enjoy his fine portrayals of love.

The speaker desires so much to express the love that is in his heart, and his command to readers that they become skillful in reading poetry once again dramatizes the importance this speaker places on his art and his certainty that his art will express his feelings, even if his physical tongue is overcome by his strong emotion.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare."

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy."

Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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