Sonnet 23

Shakespeare Sonnet 23

AS an vnperfect actor on the ſtage,
Who with his feare is put beſides his part,
Or ſome fierce thing repleat with too much rage,
Whoſe ſtrengths abondance weakens his owne heart;
So I for feare of truſt, forget to ſay,
The perfect ceremony of loues right,
And in mine owne loues ſtrength ſeeme to decay,
Ore-charg’d with burthen of mine owne loues might:
O let my books be then the eloquence,
And domb preſagers of my ſpeaking breſt,
Who pleade for loue, and look for recompence,
More then that tonge that more hath more expreſt.
O learne to read what ſilent loue hath writ,
To heare wit eies belongs to loues fine wiht.                                    with  wit/whit

Sonnet 23 begins with a long, closely applied stage metaphor and concludes with a petrarchist commonplace. An “imperfect actor” is one of limited ability or one whose lines are not word-perfect. The reason is his “feare,” which causes him to be “put besides his part:” stage fright makes him freeze; “put” suggests ‘put out,’ or ‘disconcerted,’ while “besides his part,” with its echo of “besides himself,” implies not in control of his part. “Or” introduces a parallel alternate: “some fierce thing” is a wild creature or theatrical creation, who is so frenzied (“repleat with too much rage”), that his plentiful strength undercuts (“weakens”) his heart, both his physical heart and his courage. His passion prevents his words from being vocalized.

As the actor, so the poet is fearful, because there is not sufficient trust (“feare of trust”) for him to voice his feelings. Too fearful to speak and fearful also of the response, he is overcome and “forgets” to pronounce the “perfect ceremony of loues right;” “perfect” contrasts with the “vnperfect” actor who, like the poet, had the words but couldn’t enunciate them. A “ceremony” is an outward rite requiring spoken words, which, like vows in a marriage ceremony, are portents of what will be; “loues right” is that which belongs to love as a right, or is ‘love’s rite,’ the declaration of the vows of love. The poet, so strong in love, seems to find himself overtaxed, so that the strength of his love is enfeebled.

A common petrarchist plaint is that the poet, reduced to silence by the mistress, pleads that his verse do the talking. Daniel has Rosamond speak of the “Sweet silent rethorique of perswading eyes: / Dombe eloquence, whose power doth moue . . More then the words.” 1 Linche, speaking of “Loue” in Diella, exclaims, “such eloquence was neuer read in bookes,” 2 while Spenser resolves,

Yet I my hart with silence secretly
   will teach to speak, and my iust cause to plead:
   and eke mine eies with meeke humility,
   loue learned letters to her eyes to read.
Which her deep wit, that true harts thought can spel,
   wil soone conceiue, and learne to construe well. 3

Here the poet’s “books,” his ‘papers’ or ‘verse’ rather than printed publications, will be his “eloquence.” They will give unpronounced expression to his love as “dumb presagers,” silent ‘portents’ awaiting their being voiced by the poet’s “brest.” As ‘heralds,’ they will “pleade for loue” and seek “recompence,” or ask requital for a love that, unspoken, would be unrequited. (What is “ore-charg’d” must have “recompence.”) The recompence should be “More then that tonge that more hath more exprest,” a line that seems deliberately a tongue-twister, a kind of gabbling or stutter to which the imperfect poet/lover is reduced. Love, which speaks from the breast, is to be learned and read there: it is a love beyond words, “silent loue.” The final line is conventionally synaesthetic: “To heare wit[h] eies” belongs to the divining ability of love, which can construe well “fine wit.”


23.1. Daniel, (1592) I1v.

23.2. Linche B2v.

23.3. Spenser, Amoretti 43.9-12.