Sonnet 105

Shakespeare Sonnet 105

LEt not my loue be cal’d Idolatrie,
Nor my beloued as an Idoll ſhow,
Since all alike my ſongs and praiſes be
To one, of one, ſtil ſuch, and euer ſo.
Kinde is my loue to day, to morrow kinde,
Still conſtant in a wondrous excellence,
Therefore my verſe to conſtancie confin’de,
One thing expreſſing, leaues out difference.
Faire, kinde, and true, is all my argument,
Faire, kinde, and true, varrying to other words,
And in this change is my inuention ſpent,
Three theams in one, which wondrous ſcope affords.
Faire, kinde, and true, haue often liu’d alone.
Which three till now, neuer kept ſeate in one.

Sonnet 105 is built around a layman’s knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity. Standard understanding postulated that in one God there are three persons, in Richard Hooker’s words,

Our God is one, or rather verie Onenesse, and meere vnitie, hauing nothing but it selfe in it selfe, and not consisting (as all things do besides God) of many things. In which essential vnitie of God a Trinitie personall neuerthelesse subsisteth. 1

The doctrine was encapsulated in the hymn of praise, the Lesser Doxology, echoes of which can be found in the sonnet: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” The same doxology concluded the long Confession of Faith, the “Quicunque vult,” appointed by the Book of Common Prayer to be sung at Morning Prayer on the major feasts of the year, whose first half is an extended exposition of trinitarian detail and paradox. The Trinity’s three persons are based on the oneness of and differences between being (ens), truth (verum), and good (bonum). The first Person of the Trinity, the Father, is of being; the Second Person, the Son, is of truth (the Word or Verbum that became flesh so that two natures, the divine and the human, are joined in one Person); the Third Person, the Holy Ghost, is of love (bonum). The operations or progressions in the godhead are in the case of the Second Person, “the generation of the sonne” (per modum naturae) and in the case of the Third Person, “the proceeding of the Spirit” (per modum amoris). 2 As Philip Stubbes records: “God, is diuided into a trinitie of persons, the father, the sonne, and the holy spirit, distant onely in names and offices, but all one, and the same, in nature, in essence, substance.” 3 Shakespeare imitates the godhead’s three hypostases in the sonnet’s trinity of “Faire” (bonum), “kinde” (nature), and “true” (verum/Verbum).

The sonnet opens with two imprecations, “Let not my loue be cal’d Idolatrie,” and, “Nor my beloued as an Idoll show;” “show” can be read intransitively, ‘nor let my beloved be displayed as an idol,’ or transitively, ‘nor let me display my beloved as an idol.’ Entitling one’s beloved an “Idoll” was a petrarchist commonplace (compare Spenser, Amoretti 27.5, “That goodly Idoll”). Idolatry was regularly condemned in Elizabethan England. As well as denunciations from the pulpit, where Romish practices were excoriated as idolatrous, “An Homilie Against Peril of idolatrie” from the Elizabethan “Book of Homilies” or Certaine Sermons appointed by the Queenes Maiestie, to be declared and read, by all Parsons, Vicars, and Curats; euery Sunday and Holy day in their Churches was also read. Its denunciations were scripturally based, drawing on the Old Testament commandments, “Thou shalt haue none other Gods, in my sight,” and “Thou shalt make thee no grauen image, neyther any similitude” (Exod. 20.3-4; BB), and the New Testament injunctions, “Wherfore my deare beloued, flee from idolatrie” (1 Cor. 10.14; BB), and “Babes kepe your selues from idols” (1 John 5.21; BB). Idols were images of polytheistic false gods and diverted worship from the one, true God. The poet’s claim is that his love or its expression cannot be idolatry, because his “songs and praises” are totally (“all alike”) and singly addressed “To one, of one, stil such, and euer so.” They are directed toward the one person, speak of the one person, are always of that nature and will always be so.

The chiastic line, “Kinde is my loue to day, to morrow kinde,” recalls Hebrews, “Iesus Christe yesterday and to day, and the same for euer,” (Heb. 13.8; BB). The beloved is “kinde,” natural and generous; he is “still constant,” unchanging and never different in his “wondrous excellence.” The poet’s songs and praises evoke any number of psalmic echoes, “I wyll set foorth in wordes . . thy excellentnesse: and thy wonderous workes” (Ps. 145.5; BB), or “all the gods of the heathen they be but idoles: and it is God that made the heauens . . excellentnesse be in his sanctuarie” (Ps. 96.4-5; BB). Wilson defines such “constant trueth” as, “when we do beleeue that those things, which are, or haue bene, or hereafter are about to be, can not otherwise be, by any meanes possible.” 4 Since the sole object of the poet’s verse is a constant and since it expresses only one thing, the poet can claim that his verse “leaues out difference,” just as in the one God there are three persons “without any difference” of nature or kind. (The Book of Common Prayer’s Preface for Trinity Sunday acclaims a God, “which art one God, one Lord, not one onely person, but three persons in one substance. For that which we beleeue of the glorie of the father, the same we beleeue of the sonne, and of the holy ghost, without any difference.”)

The sestet three times repeats the trinitarian formula, “Faire, kinde, and true,” the anaphoral figure being typically used of the godhead. Each hypostasis is embodied in the one person of the youth. In their totality and oneness (“all”) they constitute the poet’s “argument,” which Wilson defines as part of the rhetorical category, “Disposition:” “Inuention helpeth to finde matter, and Disposition serueth to place arguments.” 5 But the poet’s one argument needs to be rendered into words, so allowing difference and change (“varying to other words”). In enunciating this “change” is the poet’s “inuention spent,” both used and used up. His invention is “Three theams in one.” A ‘theam’ is firstly the topic of a poem, secondly the principal melody of “songs and praises,” and thirdly the first person singular of a word, hence ‘three persons in one.’ The poet acknowledges that the three-in-one conceipt provides him with “wondrous scope” just as the object of his love was marked earlier by “wondrous excellence.”

The couplet has the three titles personified, as they are in the godhead. They have often been seen as dwelling separately (“liu’d alone”) but, until the youth, had never been found residing together as one. To ‘keep seat’ is to be in residence or stay. To affirm that in the youth’s oneness there resides the personification of three “theams,” the Trinitarian hypostases, is idolatrous, as is the implication that these three have only now been enfleshed in one person, as three not two natures.


105.1. Richard Hooker, Of The Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie (London: John Windet, 1593) 49.

105.2. Book of Common Prayer, “Quicunque Vult:” “The father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The sonne is of the father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten. The holy ghost is of the father & or the sonne: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceding.”

105.3. Philip Stubbes, A Christal Glas for christian women: wherein, they may see a most wonderfull and rare example, of a right vertuous life and Christian death (London: T. Orwin, 1592) B1v.

105.3. Wilson 34.

105.4. Wilson 163.

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