Sonnet 43

Shakespeare Sonnet 43

WHen moſt I winke then doe mine eyes beſt ſee,
For all the day they view things vnreſpected,
But when I ſleepe, in dreames they looke on thee,
And darkely bright, are bright in darke directed.
Then thou whoſe ſhaddow ſhaddowes doth make bright,
How would thy ſhadowes forme, forme happy ſhow,
To the cleere day with thy much cleerer light,
When to vn-ſeeing eyes thy ſhade ſhines ſo?
How would (I ſay) mine eyes be bleſſed made,
By looking on thee in the liuing day?
When in dead night their faire imperfect ſhade,                                 thy
Through heauy ſleepe on ſightleſſe eyes doth ſtay?
All dayes are nights to ſee till I ſee thee,
And nights bright daies when dreams do ſhew thee me,

Sonnet 43 develops the petrarchist conceit of the chiaroscuro, the precedent for which were Laura’s eyes that can in one moment make the night clear and the day obscure (“occhi, che ’n un punto / pò far chiara la notte, oscuro il giorno.” 1 Shakespeare brings to the convention a torturous working. In the opening line, “When most I winke then doe mine eyes best see,” the initial sense of “winke” is ‘to shut the eyes in a deep sleep,’ but, given the poet’s attempts in the previous sonnets to excuse the friend’s wrongs, the sense of ‘shut the eyes to faults’ is also present.  It is when asleep that the poet’s “eyes best see,” either when his eyes see most clearly or when their object is the most valued. During the day (“For all the day”) his eyes “view things vnrespected,” either ‘without focussing on them’ (re + spicere = to look upon) or ‘without according them value.’ His eyes are at their most perceptive at night when they behold the youth in dreams. Then they are both “darkely bright,” ‘informed with light but in the dark’ or ‘made radiant by the dark’ (the eyes of petrarchist mistresses are normally dark/bright) and “bright in darke directed,” focussed brightly and clearly in the dark.

The youth’s image in the phantasm or inner eye, his “shaddow,” illumines all other shadows (“shaddowes doth make bright”). The poet poses the convoluted question: how would the youth’s figure, which gives rise to the shadow (“thy shadowes forme”), create or present (“forme”) a pleasing appearance (“happy show”) to the clear day, when the youth’s form is already brighter than the day (“thy much cleerer light”) and would thus overshadow it, particularly since the youth’s shadow shines so brightly to eyes that are closed at night (“vn-seeing eyes”)?

The sestet expands the question, “How would (I say)”? How can the poet’s eyes become “blessed” by looking on the youth face to face and not darkly (“in the liuing day”), since his bright but less fully formed shadow (“faire imperfect shade”) enlightens “through heauy sleepe” eyes that cannot see (“sightlesse eyes”)? The couplet makes the paradox explicit: until the youth becomes present again, days are nights (“All dayes are nights to see till I see thee”), and nights are bright days, when dreams show the youth to him (“And nights bright daies when dreams do shew thee me”).


43.1. Petrarch 256.12-13.

43.2. See Spenser, Amoretti 87 and 88, for an extended treatment of the paradox between “darknesse of the night” and “clearest day” with its “shadowes vayne.”