Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sonnet 37 - William Shakespeare

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by Fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts, do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed,
And by a part of all thy glory live.
   Look what is best, that best I wish in thee:
   This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

Sonnet 37 above has been lauded as one of Shakespeare’s key sonnets because of a possible strong religious inference. Refer to the following excellent Website where all the sonnets are analysed in detail line by line. Sonnet 37 is also discussed in great length in the introduction to the sonnets where the sonnet is linked to biblical texts including Psalm 37.
It is my purpose in this post to explore this sonnet from a personal religious perspective … with reference to some of the text and analysis from the above mentioned site ... courtesy of Oxquarry Books Ltd.
The following text is from the sonnet summary …
An interlude occurs, in which the poet takes stock and reflects on what the youth has given him. Though he himself is old and useless, the abundance of the youth's qualities feeds into his veins, like sap into a grafted tree. This transforms him and removes his lameness and his failures. The youth has everything that is desirable, and the great store of his qualities diffuses its glory around. The poet is contented, for he sees that his beloved has all that is best, all that he could wish for him, and he basks in this reflected glory, his decrepit status now entirely forgotten.
The key to my sonnet interpretation is in line 4 and the reference to thy.
Shakespeare  is making comparison between Father and child in the preceding lines but it is not clear on the nature of the thy … but all comfort worth and truth is involved … and from a religious point of view thy could be a reference to Christ. Especially as all truth is involved – an attribute associated with deity.
My line by line commentary below is based on this interpretation and references some of the Site commentary (shown in red) …
1. As a decrepit father takes delight
2. To see his active child do deeds of youth,
decrepit father  Shakespeare reflects on being like a father worn down by age who takes consolation in an active child (son).  The Father – Son relationship is critical in Christian philosophy.
3. So I, made lame by Fortune's dearest spite,
4. Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
made lame – This is a metaphor associated with his need for support … Christ’s first actions were to heal (the lame).
If  dearest spite = most severe malignancy … this could refer to the imperfection of man, the most severe of all malignancies … (the relationship is healed on the cross by active work of the son).
All comfort worth and truth … Shakespeare identifies with the son … a declaration of total support from Christ. In many of the sonnets the importance of the next generation is paramount (the son) in giving life to the preceding generation.
And from the Site commentary …Take all my comfort of = derive all my comfort from. 
worth and truth are qualities which link the beloved to Christ, particularly the words of St. John's Gospel,  And the same word became fleshe, and dwelt among vs ( and we sawe the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten sonne of the father) full of grace and trueth. John 1. 14 Bishop's Bible 1568.  The echo is not exact, but the youth is often praised for his grace, as e.g. in Sonnet 17.
5. For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
These are the traditional inheritance characteristics of the aristocrat.
6. Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Text from the site …
The superabundance of all these qualities, and the way they seem to burst out of the boundaries of expressing them, as out of a magician's hat, each one causing new wonderment, enhances the expectation of where it might lead. Are we to see a new monarch crowned, or a new era proclaimed? Surely they are enough to make the youth, or the beloved poet who sings his praises, immortal?
 For this discussion I am equating the youth to Christ
7. Entitled in thy parts, do crowned sit,
If the subject is in fact Christ then there is no question of entitlement.
8. I make my love engrafted to this store:
Text from the site …
I make my love engrafted to = I graft myself lovingly on to them. The Q spelling is ingrafted, possibly underlining the intimacy of the relationship. To this store = to the store and abundance of your qualities.
Grafting has vine religious connotations of personal association common in the New Testament.
9. So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Reference to Christ’s support for those most in need.
10. Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
Christ is like a shadow which is inseparable from the body though not always seen. This may be a stretch in thought but I do I like this wonderful imagery of Christ being always there for a person – and more in evidence when the sun is shining. To have Christ as a shadow is all that is needed given the nature of Christ.
And from the Site …
The imagery shifts from being engrafted, and bearing a title, to that of deriving sustenance from the beneficent shade offered by the youth. The meaning is approximately 'While your shadow and your influence pours on to me such abundance of well-being, such absolute reality of existence'. The sudden appearance of substance and shadow in this sonnet is odd, and I suspect that it may be an oblique reference to the doctrine of transubstantiation, playing on the idea of the beloved as the Christ figure.   There must be a link in thought also to sonnet 53.
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Shakespeare often used the substance/shadow dichotomy, which he seems to have been rather fond of. These are the instances of its use in the plays.
COUNTESS of A. Then have I substance too.
TALBOT No, no, I am but shadow of myself:
You are deceived, my substance is not here;
That Talbot is but shadow of himself?
These are his substance, sinews, arms and strength,
To your most gracious hands, that are the substance
Of that great shadow I did represent;
Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
.....Yet look how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.
That I have purchased at an infinite rate, and that hath taught me to say this:
'Love like a shadow flies when substance love pursues;
Pursuing that that flies, and flying what pursues'
. MW.II.2.206-9.
The usual direction of traffic is from substance to shadow. It is interesting that the reverse is shown, in that the shadow gives substance.  The implication is that Christ as a shadow has more power and substance than the body of a person. An emphasis given to the shadow (spiritual nature) .
11. That I in thy abundance am sufficed,
So that I have sufficient for myself from your abundant supply of excellence. Cf from Psalm 37
... the meeke spirited shall possesse the earth: and shalbe delighted in the abundance of peace Psalm 37:11
12. And by a part of all thy glory live.
A mere part of your glory is enough to give life and being to me.
13. Look what is best, that best I wish in thee:
Look what is best = whatever (in the world) is best. As in sonnet 9 - Look what an unthrift in the world doth spend ...
Christ deserves all that is best … his right.
14. This wish I have; then ten times happy me!
I am so happy when Christ continues to grow with all that is best (as the world repairs).


  1. Intriguing, but I feel this is pushing the interpretation a bit far. From my very limited knowledge although there are religious references in Shakespeare I gained the impression that a personal religion did not play a part in his life. If I'm right then this interpretation is giving a whole new view of him. Given the practice of the day why wouldn't thy have a capital T or is there evidence textually that it may have? this is not to deny that father/son references necessarily carry the Christian connotation. signed Janne but I don't know how to complete the URL stuff

  2. Janne ... thanks for your comment ... true that I have coloured my discussion with my personal view ... it does fit so well ... but we don't really know one way or the other whether he had a 'personal religion' of this nature ... and if he did whether he was willing to share it. If I find other works (words) that show such tendencies I will report acccordingly ... and maybe other 'knowledgeable Shakespeare' readers will add their comment too.