Sonnet 24

Shakespeare Sonnet 24

Mine eye hath play’d the painter and hath ſteeld,
Thy beauties forme in table of my heart,
My body is the frame wherein ti’s held,                                 ’tis
And perſpectiue it is beſt Painters art.
For through the Painter muſt you ſee his skill,
To finde where your true Image pictur’d lies,
Which in my boſomes ſhop is hanging ſtil,
That hath his windowes glazed with thine eyes:
Now ſee what good-turnes eyes for eies haue done,
Mine eyes haue drawne thy ſhape, and thine for me
Are windowes to my breſt, where-through the Sun
Delights to peepe, to gaze therein on thee
Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art
They draw but what they ſee, know not the hart.

Sonnet 24, and to a lesser degree Sonnet 47, show Shakespeare taking as his topic the recently developed painters’ device known subsequently as a camera obscura but by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as a ‘perspective house.’ The principle, that a light shining through a small hole (in a window shutter) into a darkened room (camera obscura) will project images from outside onto the opposite wall or onto a piece of paper, had been know from antiquity. It was only in the mid 16th century, however, that Girolamo Cardano first proposed placing in the hole a lens that is convex on both sides (“orbem”).

If you want to see things occur in the street outside, when the sun is at its brightest place in the window a double convex lens of glass. Then, with the window shut you will see images carried over through the hole onto an opposite plane, although with the colours confused. So place a very white sheet of paper in the place where you see the image and you will obtain the desired result with amazement. 1

About the same time Giambattista della Porta, who was to become the device’s most prominent exponent, proposed the use of a concave mirror (‘one that unifies rather than dissipates an image’ [“speculum non quod disgregando dissipit sed colligendo uniat”]), held at a distance from the hole and reflecting back an image onto paper:

If you wish to see all things in colours, on the other side [of the hole] put a mirror, one that unifies rather than dissipates an image. Then by moving it forwards and backwards you will establish the proper size of the true image, its proper distance from the centre. If you examine it more carefully, you will see the faces, gestures, movements of men and know their clothes, the sky with clouds spread out, with its deep blue colour, and birds flying. 2

della Porta makes two further points: firstly he draws a parallel between his technique and the human eye claiming that it provides a solution to the vexed question of how sight occurs in the eyes, how an image is received through the pupil as an image through a window, and how something large comes to be reflected as something small. 3 Secondly, he argues, even someone ignorant of painting, using this method of a reflected image, can inscribe with a stylus the form of anything onto a laid-out table (“quisque picturae ignarus, rei alicuius effigiem stylo describere possit  . . in subiectam tabulam . . imagine repercussa”). 4

In the 1589 second edition of the Magiae Naturalis della Porta added a refinement to his concave mirror, a convex lens of spectacle glass placed before the hole, to obtain an upright image:

Set before the hole the convex lens of a spectacle glass so that the image rebounds onto a concave mirror. Distance the concave mirror from the centre so that the image it receives as inverted it will return back corrected, depending on the distance from the centre. So you will project onto a white paper above the hole images of things brought forward from outside clearly and sharply. 5

The instrument by which a large image could be projected onto a table or screen was almost immediately adopted by painters, among them Caravaggio painting in Rome in the 1590s and at the turn of the century it was combined with the rules of perspective, which were already well established, by Hans Vredeman de Vries in Holland. In his work, Perspective, Vredman defines “perspective” as, “the most famous art of sharp eyesight that looks at or looks through to things depicted on a wall, a table, or a canvas,” and provides a plate illustrating how lines of perspective enter and exit a small aperture. 6

della Porta was known in England: his De Furtivis, on secret writing, had been published in London in 1591 by Thomas Wolfe. He was in correspondence with the polymath, Robert Fludd, a contemporary of Shakespeare; in fact his principal interest in the device was not its use as a painter’s aid but its theatrical possibilities. He records in the 1589 edition of Magiae Naturalis how in the intervals between acts in comedies he often used it to project images of wild animals and explains at length in the 1558 edition and in a more condensed form in 1589 how a concave lens can be used to create images that seem to hang in the air, so that neither the object that is reflected nor the reflecting mirror can be seen (“nec visile[sic], nec speculum spectentur”). Only the spectres and illusions can be seen (“sed spectra, & praestigia videri possint”). The first example he cites of a hanging image is that of a drawn dagger (“stricto mucrone”), which someone might have in hand and lunge at the mirror only to find that he is confronted by another who lunges back at him and pierces his hand. (Macbeth could have been confronted by a similarly projected image of a dagger which escapes the hand’s clutch.) His other example is of a candle which when held out is seen to be alight in the air. 7

The device was known in England. George Hakewill, a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, in his The Vanitie of the eie (1608) provides an account of his having “often” seen it working. Writing of “the reflexion of glasses, and the like,” he recounts

I will onlie set downe one conclusion, which my selfe haue seene often practised, to the great astonishment of such, as beholding it, vnderstoode not the reason of it. The practise is thus: take a study, or closet, where (by cloasing the woodden leaues) you may shut out all the light; then bore an hole, through the midst of one of the leaues to the bignes of a pease, and cover it with a peece of spectacle glasse, and when the sunne shines on the ground before the window, hold on the inside right before the hole (to the distance of 2. foote or thereabout) a sheete of white paper or a large peece of faire linnen; and you shall perfectlie discerne by the shaddowes; the shapes, and motions of men, & dogs, and horses, and birds, with the iust proportion of trees, and chimnies, and towers, which fal within the compasse of the sun neere the window. 8

Within 15 years of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1624 Francis Bacon writes of

Perspectiue-Houses, wher wee make Demonstrations of all Lights, and Radiations: And of all Colours: And out of Things vncoloured and Transparent, wee can represent vnto you all seuerall Colours; Not in Raine-Bowes, (as it is in Gemms, and Prismes,) but of themselues Single. 9

Sonnet 24 opens with the poet’s eye taking upon itself the role of painter; “play’d the painter” suggests also playing at being a painter. The eye has “steeld, / Thy beauties forme in table of my heart;” “steeld” intends ‘inscribed with a stylus,’ as in della Porta’s “stylo describere” (a reading of “stelled” or ‘fixed’ seems unlikely since all contemporary uses of “stelled” involve a military context). ‘To engrave on the table of the heart’ was a biblical trope as in Jer. 17.1, “written with a pen of yron (“stylo ferreo”) . . and grauen vpon the table of their heart (GV).” The form of the youth’s beauty reflected through the lens of the eye has been projected onto and scribed into the poet’s heart by the eye. Two senses of “table” operate here, a hard substance which is engraved and a flat surface on which a picture is painted (“in tabula depictus”). While the poet’s heart is a table on which the youth’s beauty is portrayed, his body is the “frame” in which the picture is “held:” either the frame holding the picture or the easel on which the “table” is held.

Line 4, “And perspectiue it is best Painters art” is condensed and, depending on the punctuation awarded and the function appointed to “perspectiue,” noun or adverb (‘perspectively’), allows of two readings. Either “perspectiue” is the actual art of delineating objects on a table, so that from only one point of view they look true; it is an art possessed by the best painter(s) or it is the best art of a painter. Or “perspectiue” refers to an optical instrument that uses a lens such as a telescope as in R2 2.2.16-20, where the eyes are compared to “perspectiues.” It was also used of the lens itself particularly one used in a perspective house as in the “chamber” with its key-hole lens in Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of Humour, 4.3, “to view ‘hem (as you’ld doe a piece of Perspectiue) in at a key-hole.” 10 The eye as a lens is thus the ‘best Painter’s art.’

It is “through the Painter,” through the poet’s eye, that the youth must discern the eye’s “skill” or ‘mastery.’ Looking through the poet’s eye he will find where his “true Image pictur’d lies” or is ‘laid out;’ “true” means ‘faithfully produced’ as well as ‘fitting exactly.’ The image is to be seen “in my bosomes shop hanging stil;” a “shop” was a space or studio in which a work of art was wrought, a workshop (Florio instructs his readers, if they wish to see fabulous images, to “goe to the Painters shop, or looking-glasse of Ammianus Marcellinus.”) 11 But “shop” was also used of the body’s parts: de la Primaudaye calls the heart, “the shop of all the vitall spirits,” and the lungs, “the forge and shoppe of respiration.” 12 Thus the youth must look through the “Painter,” the poet’s eye as a “perspectiue,” both to discern the eye’s painterly skill and to see portraited in the shop of the poet’s heart the picture of his true image laid down as on a table. The windows of the poet’s bosom, the poet’s eyes, are “glazed” by the beloved’s eyes: they gain their colours from his eyes, because in looking at his eyes they see reflected in them what is portraited in the poet’s breast. Thus both pairs of eyes are seen as doing each other a good turn (“Now see what good-turnes eyes for eies haue done”). The phrase ‘one good turn deserves another’ was proverbial, 13 but since eyes are turned in a particular direction, the notion of eyes glancing at each other is also suggested.

The eyes of the poet have “drawne” the youth’s “shape” in the poet’s heart,  although by himself the poet cannot see that image within himself. But the young man by peering through the poet’s eyes as into a ‘perspective house’ can see his image hanging there. The poet’s only recourse is to look into the youth’s eyes and see reflected there what is contained in his heart. The idea of the ‘perspective house’ is confirmed by the sun whose light is necessary, so that through the perspective of the eyes (“windowes”) the youth’s image can be projected and which “Delights to peepe,” through them as through a hole. The subject of “gaze” is either the sun peeping through the eyes to gaze on the youth or the poet’s eyes for whom the youth’s eyes “Are windowes to my brest . . to gaze therein on thee.”

The couplet, however, reverses the direction of the sonnet and takes up what was implicit in the eyes ‘acting as a painter’ (“hath play’d the painter”): the role of the eyes in the sonnet has been a theatrical rather than a painterly one. Eyes, the poet claims, in fact lack “this cunning,” this ‘function’ or ‘skill’ as “perspectiue,” and thus cannot bring “grace” or ‘proportion’ to their art. They “draw” (both ‘portrait’ and ‘attract’) what they see physically, but are unknowing of what lies in the heart.


24.1. Giroloamo Cardano, De Subtilitate (Paris: Michaelis Fezandas, 1550) 426, “Quod si libeat spectare ea, quae in via fiunt, Sole splendente in fenestra orbem e vitro collocabis, inde occlusa fenestra videbis imagines per foramen translatas in opposito plano sed tum obscuris coloribus, subiicies igitur candidissimam chartam eo loco quo images vides, & intentam rem miratione assequeris.”

24.2. Giambattista della Porta, Magiae Naturalis, sive de Miraculis Rerum Naturalium. Libri IIII (Neapoli: Apud Matthiam Cancer, 1558) lib. 4, cap. 2, “vti omnia cum suis coloribus videre si quæritur: E regione speculum apponito, non quod disgregando dissipet, sed colligendo vniat, tam accedendo remouendoque, quousque ad suam veræ imaginis quantitatem cognoueris, debita centri appropinquatione, & si attentius perpenderis inspectator, vultus, gestus, motus, hominumque cognosces vestes, coelum nubibus dispersum, cyaneo colore, & volantes volucres.”

24.3. della Porta (1558) lib. 4, cap. 2, “quo fiat in oculis visus loco, ac intromittendi dirimitur quæstio sic agitata: . . intromittitur enim idolum per pupillam fenestræ instar, vicemque obtinet speculi parua magnæ spheræ portio.”

24.4. della Porta (1558) lib. 4, cap. 2.

24.5. Giambattista della Porta, Magiae naturalis libri XX. Ab ipso authore expurgati, & superaucti, 2nd ed. (Neapoli: Apud H. Saluianum, 1589) 266, “Opponito foramini specillum e conuexis fabricatum, inde in speculum concauum imago resiliat. Distet speculum concauum a centro, nam imagines, quas obuersas recipit, rectas reddet, ob centri distantiam. Sic supra foramen, & papyrum albam iaculabit imagines rerum obiectarum, tam clare, & perspicue.”

24.6. See Iohannes Vredeman Frisio, Perspective (Henricus Hondius: Lugduni Batavorum, 1604) Front. “Celeberrima ars inspicientis aut transpicientis oculorum aciei, in pariete, tabula aut tela depicta.” ‘Transpicio’ is a very rare word, found in Lactantius when defining how the mind sees through the eyes: ‘that sense, which is called the mind, looks through those membranes to things which are external’ (“per eas membranas sensus ille, qui dicitur mens, ea quae sunt foris transpicit” (Lactantius, De Opificio Dei 8.0037A).

24.7. della Porta (1589) 267, “in comediarum actibus interponere solemus, ceruos, apros, rhinocerotes, elephantes, leones, & alia quae volueris animalia effinges;” della Porta (1558) lib. 4, cap. 18; della Porta (1589) 264, “possible non est, quin mireris, nam si quis speculum stricto mucrone inuaserit, videbitur ab altero inuadi, & manus perfodi, si candelam ostendas, videbitur in aere accensa candela.”

24.8. Hakewill 54-55.

24.9. Francis Bacon, New Atlantis. A Worke vnfinished in Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie. In Ten Centuries (London: J[ohn] H[aviland], 1626) 39-40.

24.10. Ben Jonson, The Comical Satyre of Euery Man Out Of His Humour (London: William Holme, 1600) L2v.

24.11. John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (London: Arnold Hatfield, 1598) a6v.

 24.12. de la Primaudaye, Academie (1594) 218 & 222.


24.13. John Heywood, A Dialogue Conteining the Nomber in Effeet [sic] of all the prouerbs in the Englishe tounge, compact in a matter concernynge two maner of mariages (London: Thomas Powell, 1556) Ciiiv, “one good tourue [sic] askth an other.”

Comments are closed.