one of those addressed to the lovely boy, describes the poet's awkwardness; it is one of several sonnets to do so. This awkwardness is sometimes due to the speaker's social status, which is lower than that of the young man, and at other times is a result of a transgression committed by one of them. In Sonnet 23, however, the awkwardness is due to the strength of the speaker's love for the young man. His intense emotions prevent him from speaking with his accustomed eloquence, and he pleads with the young man to read "what silent love hath writ" (l. 13) in the more controlled medium of the poet's books.
Like most of Shakespeare's sonnets, Sonnet 23 is divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The first quatrain works by antithesis: The poet compares himself first to an actor, a person whose words and actions are carefully scripted, and then to "some fierce thing" (l. 3), a wordless being whose actions are driven by uncontrolled appetites. The "unperfect actor on the stage"—that is, an inexperienced or inept actor who "with his fear is put besides his part" (ll. 1-2)—is unable to speak the lines written for him. The "fierce thing replete with too much rage" may be a wild animal, but "thing" is a common Renaissance slang term for penis. This thing is strong, but his "strength's abundance weakens his own heart" (l. 4) and depletes what was once replete. Thus, the timid actor and the fierce thing arrive at the same speechless conclusion.
The poet then moves to the first person, explaining that his "fear of trust" causes him to "forget to say, / The perfect ceremony of loves [rite]" (ll. 5-6). Grammatically, it is not clear whether the speaker fears to trust himself or the young man, but like the actor or the fierce thing, he also forgets what to say, because he too is "unperfect" or "replete with too much rage." The "perfect ceremony," the right set of words that will complete "love's rite" and permit the union of the young man and the speaker, consists of words the speaker cannot remember when he is in the young man's presence. Like the fierce thing, the poet finds "in mine own love's strength [I] seem to decay" (l. 7), and that self-destruction is the result of his being "o'ercharg'd with burthen of mine own love's might" (l. 8). O'ercharg'd, like many images in the sonnets, has multiple meanings: commercial (the beloved is too costly); military (like a cannon replete with too much gunpowder); emotional (fearing that he has been entrusted with too much responsibility in the relationship). Burthen, now spelled burden, is similarly ambiguous, encompassing song (a refrain), pregnancy (a common Renaissance term for the fetus), and the weight imposed by love's power. The poet, like the actor and the fierce thing, is rendered speechless by a combination of fear and overwhelming desire.
The third quatrain offers a solution to this speech-lessness: The speaker pleads with the young man to "let my books be then the eloquence, / And dumb presagers of my speaking breast" (ll. 9-10), where "books" may refer to theatrical playbooks, the books of Shakespeare's erotic poetry already in print (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece), any collection of writings, or the book containing the sonnets themselves. The "dumb presagers"—with dumb meaning silent, not stupid—may refer back to the unperfect actor: Some Renaissance dramas were preceded by a "dumb show," a silent reenactment of the main action of the play to help audience members follow a complex plot, but a later sonnet, number 83, claims that the young man's beauty has caused the speaker to go dumb, and that the young man has misinterpreted the silence as the speaker's "sin" (l. 9). In Sonnet 23, the speaker explains that the "dumb presagers" "plead for love, and look for recompense, / More than that tongue that more hath more express'd" (ll. 11-12), telling the young man that the books will say what the speaker, terrified or in the throes of passion, is unable to express. As with o'ercharg'd, the word recompense has a commercial application: The narrator may be expecting a reward, financial or physical, for the eloquent pleas in his books.
The couplets that end Shakespeare's sonnets often change the meaning of what has gone before, or complicate it in some way. Here, however, the couplet intensifies the emotion as the speaker begs, "o, learn to read what silent love hath writ" (l. 13). Confessing that his writings convey his love silently, perhaps meaning secretly or privately, he then introduces a paradox: "To hear with eyes belongs to love's fine wit" (l. 14). Love's intensity allows one sense (sight) to do the work of another (hearing); Shakespeare may here refer to one of his early comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a most unperfect actor, Bottom the Weaver, awakens from what he thinks must have been a dream about a transgressive love affair with the Queen of Fairies and announces, "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was" (4.1.211-14). Bottom and his friends then perform a play to celebrate the three weddings that end Shakespeare's comedy, and their courtly audience, like the young man the sonnet's speaker addresses, must see beyond the halting and imperfect performances to the profound narrative of love and fidelity the company is trying to enact.
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