Sonnet 53

Shakespeare Sonnet 53

VVHat is your ſubstance, whereof are you made,
That millions of ſtrange ſhaddowes on you tend?
Since euery one, hath euery one, one ſhade,
And you but one, can euery ſhaddow lend:
Deſcribe Adonis and the counterfet,
Is poorely immitated after you,
On Hellens cheeke all art of beautie ſet,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speake of the ſpring, and foyzon of the yeare,
The one doth ſhaddow of your beautie ſhow,
The other as your bountie doth appeare,
And you in euery bleſſed ſhape we know.
In all externall grace you haue ſome part,
But you like none, none you for conſtant heart.

Sonnet 53 comes the closest of any of the first 126 sonnets to being a Platonic sonnet, although Shakespeare plays with the convention rather than accepts its principles. Fundamental to Platonism was the distinction between substance and shadow. Substance (’ουσια) was used generally of the true nature or essence of things; it was associated with ’ιδεαι, the ideal forms or patterns of which all created things were the imperfect representations or shadows (’εικων or ’ειδωλον). The ideal forms were eternal and unchanging, while their material and sense-perceptible shadows were transient. The youth, like many sonneteers’ mistresses, is the universal ‘Idea’ or substance, in which all other beings in nature have their source and of which they are shadows or images. His beauty is thus timeless and his substance ever-constant, the sonnet’s conclusion.

The sonnet opens by enquirying of the youth’s substance, “whereof are you made,” such that “millions,” an indeterminately large number, of “strange shaddowes on you tend?” The shadows are “strange,” both ‘foreign,’ the word’s original meaning, and ‘distorted’ or ‘atypical:’ the shadow-figures on the wall of Plato’s cave in The Republic were famously “strange” (’ατοπον ’εικóνα = strange shadows). 1 The shadows “tend” upon him as substance, ‘attend’ as they might in service, but also, as shadows do, lean and lead toward that which is their source. The reason for their tending is the general axiom that “euery one, hath euery one, one shade.” The repetition of “euery one” intensifies both ‘ones:’ ‘every one has, every one, one shadow’ or ‘every creature has one, and only one, shadow.’ Conversely the youth, while unique (“but one”), has a unique function: as “substance” he can make of every thing a shadow. All things are shadowy projections of his beauty.

As in Sonnet 20 the poet gives two examples, one male and one female. If one were to depict (“describe”) Adonis, beloved of Venus and archetype of male beauty, then the copy (“counterfet,” from contra + facere = made in contrast, without a necessary sense of forgery) would only be a pale imitation (“poorely immitated”) of the youth. In choosing Helen of Troy as his female exemplar of beauty Shakespeare is following Plato, who uses the distinction between the real and painted Helen to illustrate the difference between a substance and things less substantial, which

are shadows and pictures of truth, painted in light and shade, so that each merely highlights the other . . They are strived for in the same way that Stesichorus says the shadow of Helen (τò της ‘Ελενας ’ειδωλον­­­­­­­­­) was fought over at Troy, in ignorance of the truth. 2

If one were to represent beauty as Helen’s face (“Hellens cheeke”) using every painterly or cosmetic skill (“art”), it would merely adumbrate again in “Grecian tires,” in Grecian dress (attire) or in Grecian headdress (tire), the beauty embodied in the youth.

One might cite spring as an example of beauty, says the poet, yet its beauty shows forth as a mere “shaddow” of the youth’s; instance the year’s rich harvest (“foyson of the yeare”), yet its abundance (“bountie”) only manifests the generosity of its source, the youth. 3 Every shadow (“shape”) is blessed, because within it can be discerned the ideal figure of the youth. In the external world of shadows and in the external display of manners (“In externall grace”) the youth plays “some part,” but in the realm of the ideal he is unique and his substance, his heart, is ever-constant: he is like no other and no other is like him: “But you like none, none you for constant heart.”


53.1. Plato, The Republic 7.515a.

53.2. Plato, Republic 9.586b-c.

53.3. Compare Ant. 5.2.86-7, “For his Bounty, / There was no winter in’t. An Anthony [autumn?] it was, / That grew the more by reaping.”