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Shakespeare Sonnet 36: "Let me confess that we two must be twain"

Updated on November 15, 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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare," pen-name for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The real "Shakespeare," pen-name for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 36

Again, the poet-speaker in Sonnet 36 is talking to his sonnet, as he dramatizes the dual nature of unity and separation. The speaker is expressing his own unique view regarding those two phenomena that he has gained through experience.

Sonnet 36

Let me confess that we two must be twain
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which, though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so; I love thee in such sort
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

Shakespeare Sonnet 36


First Quatrain: “Let me confess that we two must be twain”

In the first quatrain of Sonnet 36, the speaker/poet, addressing his poem, confirms that although he and his poem are essentially individual beings, they share a common goal, “our undivided loves are one.”

And though both the speaker/poet and the poem are united in their quests, the speaker admits that any error that occurs in his poem-inspired art is his alone and does not belong to his poem.

Such a confession reminds the reader of the artist who thanks his assistants by giving them much credit for the ultimate production of the art but still claims that if there is anything wrong the art, it is the artist’s flaw and not the assistants.

Second Quatrain: “In our two loves there is but one respect”

The second quatrain again dramatizes the closeness and unity of the poet and the poem. Despite the fact that they covet a common goal, their individual beings remain an obstacle with which the artist must ever contend.

The poet and the poem may never completely merge, but they may share the same “sweet hours” that they acquire “from love’s delight.” The poet, during his creative hours, may sometimes be deceived into believing that the poem will always complement his creative nature, even as the dark times return repeatedly to emphasize their separation.

Third Quatrain: “I may not evermore acknowledge thee”

The speaker says that perhaps he will not credit his poem for his poetry, because his failure, if he fails, would then attach to the poem, and the speaker/poet avers that there is no honor in blaming anyone but himself for his failures.

And the speaker then opines that the poem will not announce its relationship to his work, unless it does so in its own name.

The speaker is, obviously, citing a situation that is impossible, but he, nevertheless, avers that his own inspiration in the form of an imaginative poem can do no other than agree.

The Couplet: “But do not so; I love thee in such sort”

Finally, the speaker tells the poem not to be concerned. The poem need not do anything other than inspire the speaker/poet.

The speaker/poet will continue to honor and love the poem because as he asserted in the beginning, they are, in fact, one and indivisible in matters of the heart, and whatever the speaker accomplishes, so does the poem: “mine is thy good report.”

A Publishing Error?

In sonnet 96, the reader will find that the couplet—"But do not so; I love thee in such sort / As thou being mine, mine is thy good report"—is identical to the couplet of sonnet 36—a mysterious event which will be addressed in the commentary about Sonnet 96.

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."

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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