In honor of Shakespeare’s birthday coming up later this month and the fact that April is National Poetry Month, I thought I’d combine the two and talk about Shakespeare’s most famous poems. Shakespeare’s sonnets have this image of ultimate romanticism, often quoted by lovers or even in wedding vows. But if you look at some of them closely, you’ll realize that they are actually rather strange and perhaps not what we usually mean by romantic.
I’ve picked out three of my favorites to translate into plain English in order to show what they are really all about, and I’ve added some notes for context. Of course, the sonnets, like all poetry, are certainly up for interpretation, and I perhaps should have left the analysis to the English majors in the house. But you don’t have to take a class on Shakespeare to be thoroughly amused and entertained by his works, and I hope to show that there’s a little bit of something for everyone in the sonnets; they’re not just mushy gush.
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 uneared 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, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.
Sonnet Three is part of a series of sonnets (#1-17) that seem to be addressed to a beautiful young man, exhorting him to reproduce in order to pass on his good looks. I personally find these pieces more bizarre than romantic. I mean, what’s more flattering than being told, “You’re so pretty, you should hurry up and get pregnant (or impregnate, as the case may be)”? I think I would just find such a compliment plain disconcerting. Not to mention in modern times, we’re pretty sensitive to other people telling us what to do with our bodies, and it’s not romantic. Here’s my plain English version. (Okay, it’s not plain; it’s downright sassy.)
“Yo, dude! Have you looked in the mirror lately?
It’s time to start popping out babies with faces like yours
You’re getting old and we’ll need some fresh faces to replace you soon,
Honestly, it’s rather selfish of you not to procreate
Because, like, is there any woman out there
Who would turn you down? (they’ll let you plough their fields, if you know what I mean ;P )
Are you so stupid as to ensure the death of your line
With a selfish decision not to have kids?
You are good-looking just like yo’ mama
Or, at least, as good-looking as she was in her prime.
So if you have a kid, it’s like time travel
You can see your pretty face the way it is now, on your kid in a couple decades.
So if you’re determined to end up an inconsequential nobody
By remaining single and childless, everyone will forget about you in a few years.”
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
I found Sonnet Seventy-three numbered in a list of the top five more romantic sonnets, but it’s really rather morbid. It’s basically saying you’ll love me more when I’m older because I’ll be closer to death and you’ll know you won’t have much time with me left, so you’ll cherish it all the more. This is actually my favorite of Shakespeare’s sonnets because I love the way he employs three different sets of images to symbolize death–autumn, twilight, and the embers of a fire–in each of the three quatrains leading up to the final couplet.
“I’m now at that stage of life that’s like that time of year
where the leaves fall off the trees (a.k.a. autumn, a.k.a. almost winter, a.k.a. I’m gonna die soon)
Yadda yadda no leaves on the trees and it’s cold out
There are no birds singing, just emptiness and DOOM.
My state of life might also remind you of twilight (the time of day, not the book)
You know, that time that comes after sunset
That’s right before nighttime.
Night = death because sleeping is like being dead.
Metaphor #3: I’m like a glowing fire
That’s really just embers and ashes now
How ironic that the ashes smother the fire
Since they are what’s left of the wood that fed it.
So hopefully three metaphors later, you realize I’m dying and love me more
Since you know you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
In faith I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ’tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be:
Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
Unlike Sonnet Three which was about a young man, Sonnet One-hundred-forty-one is from a section of sonnets about the “dark lady.” This particular piece runs through the five senses, saying that she’s really not that attractive in any tangible way, he just for some inexplicable reason loves her anyway. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like being loved for my mind as well as my beauty as much as the next girl, but that’s a little different than being told, “you’re unpleasant to all of my senses (or at least not particularly pleasant) and I have no idea why I love you but I do.”
“Well, you’re not much of a looker,
When I look at you, I see lots of flaws.
But while my eyes think you’re hideous, my heart loves you;
It dotes on you in spite of what you look like.
I don’t really like the sound of your voice
And touching you doesn’t inspire much lust
Nor does tasting or smelling you, for that matter
The thought of feasting on you in a sexual manner doesn’t do anything for me:
But none of what my five senses tell me
Prevents me from loving you to the point of devotion
My body is rudderless and empty while my heart
Is a wretched slave to your proud heart:
The only good thing about this plague of loving you
Is that it is a penance for the sins I commit with you.”
You can check out all of Shakespeare’s sonnets here along with some commentary.
What do you think of my interpretations? Have you got a favorite Shakespeare sonnet? Or one that you find most strange? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!