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Shakespeare Sonnet 3

Updated on September 9, 2018
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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 3

As in sonnets 1 and 2, the speaker in Shakespeare Sonnet 3 pleads with the young man to marry and procreate in order to pass on his handsome features.

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Reading of Sonnet 3

Commentary

Shakespeare Sonnet #3 from the “Marriage Sonnets” concentrates on the young man’s image in the looking-glass.

First Quatrain: Check the Face in the Mirror

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb

In the first quatrain, the speaker demands that the young man carefully check his face in the mirror and tell himself, “the face thou viewest," that the time has come to produce offspring whose faces will resemble his own. The speaker insists that if the young man fails to produce another face like his own, he will be, in fact, swindling others of the beauty he possesses, including the mother of that new infant.

The speaker is appealing to the young man’s sympathy by insisting that the lad’s failure to reproduce children will “unbless some mother,” that is, he will prevent some mother from having the blessings of giving birth and experiencing the glory of offering to the world a new life.

Second Quatrain: Questions to Persuade

For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb,
Of his self-love to stop posterity?

As he often does, the speaker uses questions to try to persuade the young man that the speaker’s persistence that the young man procreate not only is quite reasonable but also is the only ethical and moral thing to do.

In this second quatrain, the speaker queries the young man if the latter believes it could possible that some young lady exists who is so well endowed that she would not be open to the chance of serving as the mother of the young lad’s comely offspring. The speaker then refers to the young man’s hesitance again, asking the young man if there could be any handsome man so selfish and self absorbed that he would prevent the next generation from seeking life.

Third Quatrain: Same Beauty as His Mother

Thou art thy mother's glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.

The speaker then pleads to the young man to consider his relationship to his own mother, reminding him that he possesses the same beauty of his own mother. And because his own mother had the good fortune to have given birth to this beautiful young man, she can be reminded her own youth just by looking at her handsome son.

Quite logical then it follows that after the young man has lived to be an old man, he will also be able to relive his own “April” or “prime” by simply glancing at the lovely face of his own beautiful offspring.

The Couplet: The Young Man's Appearance

But if thou live, remember'd not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

Throughout sonnet #3, the speaker has concentrated on the young man’s appearance, looking in a mirror. The speaker reminds the lad of his youthful image and the young man’s mother’s image when young that the lad now reflects. Focusing distinctively on image, the speaker hopes to move the young man through his ego.

And by thus shining his light brightly on image, the speaker wishes to impart a moral sense of duty in the young man. If the young man fails to procreate lovely offspring, the young man’s image will die with him. Appealing to the innate human desire for immortality, the speaker attempts to convince the young man that his immortality depends on producing images made after his own.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

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 (Traditionally classified as "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.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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