by Dennis Abrams (with a little help from Jeanne Badman)
What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you, but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring and foison of the year;
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
The poet appears to be delving into the realms of Neo-Platonic metaphysics. The theory is that most of our experience is merely a shadow of reality. True or real existence is that of ideals, or ideal substances and forms. Every ideal or form has its shadow in the material world, and it is with the shadows that our senses have contact. All material things derive their shape and existence from these forms and therefore have something of the ideal in them, but it is only a severely restricted and cramped version of the ideal. Only the spiritual mind can grasp the true essence of things.
Yet here the beloved seems to be almost the universal ideal which gives form to all substance, since whatever lovely thing one might think of that appears in the world, he outdistances them all and gives them light and informs them with himself.
The poet therefore marvels at this fact, and sees within the beloved all the beauties of the old world inspired and given life, as it were, by him alone. The conclusion is somewhat at variance with some of the other critical sonnets, such as 33-5, 40-2 etc. It may be that the reference is to the enduring quality of the ideal Platonic form, which is essentially eternal and unchanging. Or it may be that all in the past is now forgiven and seen in a roseate light, the poet forcing this conclusion upon himself in deference to overpowering love, and as a means of overcoming pain. For it is the tradition of sonneteering that all cruelties by the beloved must be forgiven by the lover.
Further difficulties of interpretation are discussed in the notes below.
See also the additional notes to Thorpe’s Dedication at the start of the Sonnets, and the Introductory Notes, which give an alternative interpretation of this sonnet.
The 1609 Quarto Version
WHat 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.
1. What is your substance, whereof are you made,
substance = essence, constituents, basic form. It corresponds in Neo-Platonic doctrine to the ideal or underlying form of things, from which individual instantiations arise in our world of sense data.
whereof = of what.
2. That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
strange = unknown, unconnected to you, unusual.
shadows – in the Platonic sense of unreal things that derive their existence from forms and substances. Also in the conventional sense of shadows cast by objects. strange shadows could also be ghosts or spirits.
tend – attend, as a servant attends a master, or a shepherd tends a flock OED(1) 3.b, 4.a. As in King Lear, where it is used in reference to Lear’s former servants.
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you? KL.II.4.260-2
However the meaning here is not obvious, and could include others, such as ‘to have a disposition to attain to’, OED (2) 2.a. Even possibly the geometric sense of ‘subtend’.
3. Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
every one – everything, each substance, each separate entity. The antecedent cannot be shadows, because it is too awkward to talk of shadows having their own individual shade. The reference is therefore most probably to substance in line 1, or to things in general. Each perfect Platonic form has its own shadowy image in the world of men. However this does not make sense in terms of Platonism, because every ideal form can have any number of ‘shades’ derived from it. Thus the form of ‘beauty’ would transmit part of itself into the manifold instantiations of actual beauty in the world. Likewise for the form of ’roundness’ or ‘sphericity’. It is not true to say that ‘sphericity’ has only one ‘shade’ or example of itself in the physical world. The poet is perhaps hovering between the Platonic meanings and the idea that everyone only casts one shadow, or that everyone only has one spirit.
4. And you but one, can every shadow lend.
but one = being but one, being the unique essence of all.
can every shadow lend = can give form and existence to every thing that is, can give a part of yourself, as a copy of the ideal. Again a somewhat difficult and quasi-philosophical idea which is based on Neo-Platonism. Beauty and goodness for example were ideas, forms, or ideals, which lent part of their substance to individual existences which possessed those qualities.
5. Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Describe Adonis – If one were to describe Adonis. The suggestion has greater immediacy because Shakespeare had in fact done just that, in his poem Venus and Adonis, which was dedicated to the Earl of Southampton.
the counterfeit = the copy, the description, the painted version.
6. Is poorly imitated after you;
Is but a poor imitation of you.
7. On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
(If you were to) paint or describe Helen’s face, using all the artifice at your command. Helen was the wife of Menelaus. She abandoned him and fled with Paris to Troy, thereby giving a motive for the start of the Trojan war. She was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world at the time, and in all recorded history. The story is mostly mythical and is linked in with the tale of the judgement of Paris. In return for selecting Aphrodite as the most beautiful of the three goddesses, (Athena and Hera being the other two), Paris was rewarded by having the world’s most beautiful woman as his bedfellow (although she was already married). The subsequent enmity between the three Olympian goddesses helped to stoke the fires of vengeance in the Trojan war cycle. Many poets wrote subsequently of Helen with various gradations of praise or blame. Shakespeare portrayed Helen in Troilus and Cressida, written after the sonnets (but published in the same year).
8. And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
tires = attires, dress. The use of painted here and art in the line above perhaps suggest that some of the beauty was artificial.
9. Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
foison = harvest, plenty, abundance. Compare
Earth’s increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty. Tem.IV.1.110-11.
10. The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
shadow – as above, lines 2 & 4. The Neo-Platonic doctrine is reasserted. The Spring is but the shadow (shade, instantiation) of your beauty.
11. The other as your bounty doth appear;
The foison of the year models its abundance on you.
12. And you in every blessed shape we know.
You are the universal perfection on which all subsequent copies are based.
blesséd shape – anything with qualities which we are inclined to praise; anything on which beauties of character appear to have been conferred. blesséd did not have the additional meaning it now has of a mild expletive, as in ‘What the blessed point is there in writing all this?’
13. In all external grace you have some part,
The contrast is drawn between external grace, such as physical beauty, and unseen, internal perfection, in this case a constant heart.
14. But you like none, none you, for constant heart.
constant heart – apart from the obvious meaning of a true and loyal heart, it could refer to an unchanging substance or essence, re-inforcing the idea that the beloved was the basic form or ideal which infused itself into all other ephemeral forms of beauty in the sensate world. It is however slightly perturbing that the youth who has strayed and treated the poet badly, even to the extent of stealing his mistress, should here be endowed with a quality which he does not seem to possess. The attribute of grace, which often is applied to a beloved, is also that of the ‘onlie-begotten’ of the gospels, and one suspects here a hidden religious meaning, since constancy and unchangeability were also attributes of the divine.
What are you made of that causes you to be reflected in millions of ways? Everyone else has only one shadow, but you, though you are only one person, are reflected in everything. Someone who attempts to paint Adonis ends up creating only a faint imitation of you; again, someone who attempted to paint Helen would end with a picture of you in Greek dress. If someone speaks of the springtime or the harvest time, then the former is a mere shadow of your beauty, the latter an equally faint shadow of your fruitfulness. We see you in every beautiful thing we see, but there is one way in which you are unlike anything else—in your constancy and fidelity.
Source and analysis
Following George Wyndham, John Bernard notes the neoplatonic underpinnings of the poem, which derive ultimately from Petrarch: the beloved’s transcendent beauty is variously diffused through the natural world, but is purer at its source. The reference to Adonis has led numerous scholars, among them Georg Gottfried Gervinus, to explore connections to Venus and Adonis; Gerald Massey notes that the twinned references to Adonis and Helen underscore the sense of the beloved’s androgyny, most famously delineated in Sonnet 20. Hermann Isaac notes that the first quatrain resembles a sonnet by Tasso. In support of his hypothesis that the person addressed in the sonnet was an actor, Oscar Wilde hypothesized that the poem’s “shadows” refer to the young man’s roles.
The poem is comparatively free of cruces. “Tires” (l. 8), which generally refers only to a head dress, has been glossed by editors from Edward Dowden to Sidney Lee as referring to the entire outfit. “Foison,” a relatively uncommon word even in Shakespeare’s time, is glossed by Edmond Malone as “abundance.”
The placement of the sonnet in the sequence has also caused some confusion. The last line, which is not evidently sarcastic, appears to contradict the tone of betrayal and reproach of many of its closest neighbors in the sequence as first presented.
A dominant motif within the first two stanzas of Sonnet 53 is the contrast between shadow and substance. According to G.L. Kittridge, in Sonnets of Shakespeare , “Shadow, often in Shakespeare is contrasted with substance to express the particular sort of unreality while ‘substance’ expresses the reality.” The shadow is that which cannot be expressed in a concrete manner while substance is that which is tangible. Kittridge goes into more detail about the use of shadow and couplet within the initial couplet. “Shadow is the silhouette formed by a body that intercepts the sun’s rays; a picture, reflection, or symbol. “Tend” means attend, follow as a servant, and is strictly appropriate to ‘shadow’ only in the first sense, though shadows is used here in the second… All men have one shadow each in the first sense; you being only one can yet cast many shadows, in the second sense, for everything good or beautiful is either a representation of you or a symbol of your merits,” (Sonnets, 142).This definition helps elaborate on Shakespeare’s extended metaphor and wordplay, explaining that shadow is that which is not palpable as well as the reflection of the young man in all that is real. Jonathan Bate, in his work, The Genius of Shakespeare, analyzes the classical allusions within the poem. He writes, “In Sonnet 53, the youth becomes Adonis, retaining a controlling classical myth beneath the surface,’ (Genius, 48). In addition, Bate writes about how the poem could be interpreted in a way reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A MidSummer Night’s Dream, “In A MidSummer Night’s Dream, Theseus says that lunatics, lovers, and poets are of imagination all compact- their mental states lead to kinds of transformed vision whereby they see the world differently from how one sees it when in a ‘rational’ state of mind,” (Bate,51). This quote draws upon the theme of Shakespeare’s attempt to materialize intangible emotions such as love or an aesthetic appreciation for beauty. Shakespearean scholar Joel Fineman offers a criticism of Shakespeare’s sonnets in a broader context that is evident in Sonnet 53. Fineman writes, “from Aristotle on the conventional understanding of rhetoric of praise as all the rhetoricians uniformly say, enargically, ‘heightens its effect,” (Fineman). In this sense, the praise of the young man is meant to highlight his features and bring them to a literal understanding.
The first line of the third quatrain extends the conceit of the Platonic theory, the idea that the perceptions of reality are merely reflections of the essential reality of forms. Platonic theory suggests that our perceptions are derived from this world of forms in the same way shadows are derived from the objects that are lit. The metaphor of shadow was often employed to help explain the illusory quality of perception and the reality of forms, both by Renaissance Platonists and by Plato himself in his book, Symposium. In the sonnet, spring can only offers shades of the beauty of the youth. The youth is presented as the ideal Beauty, the form, from which all other beautiful things come. This idea is summarized in line thirteen of the sonnet: “In all external grace you have some part.” This line finds the youth to be the exclusive source of all beautiful things, expanding his “domain” even further than the first quatrains in which the youth is said to be the source of the legendary figures of Adonis and Helen.
Scholars though have disagreements about the end for which the Platonic theory is used. In “the usual interpretation of an elliptical construction,” the ending couplet expresses further praise for the youth, seeming to say that while all things beautiful are shades of the youth, the youth like nothing else, is distinguished by a constant, faithful heart. Considering the sonnets expressing betrayal in Sonnets 40-42, this sonnet extolling the youth’s constancy seems absurd for some scholars and is problematic. Seymour-Smith suggests that the last line should be interpreted: “you feel affection for no one, and no one admires you for the virtue of constancy”. Duncan Jones agrees and suggests that the word “but” at the beginning of the closing line radically changes all that has gone before and marks a turn to a more critical perspective.
One interpretation of the sonnet by Hilton Landry interprets the last line in a slightly different light. He proposes that Sonnet 53 is part of a tentative group stretching from Sonnet 43 to Sonnet 58 which have in common the speaker’s separation from the youth. Sonnet 53 in itself makes no mention of absence from the youth, but connects to this larger group via similar themes and word choices. Landry points out that seven other poems, sonnets 27, 37, 43, 61, 98, 99, and 113, connect separation with images of shadows. He notes that it is only when the speaker is absent from his friend that he begins to speak of shadows and images. Separation, Landry says, causes the poet’s imagination to begin, “to find, or rather project, many images of the friend’s beauty in his surroundings”.
In light of the poem’s situation within the group of sonnets expressing separation from the youth and the feelings of betrayal seen in Sonnet 35 and 40-42, Landry argues that the speaker in the last line praises the youth’s fidelity not because he is confident of the youth’s constancy but because he fitfully hopes that the youth will have a constant heart. Putting it another way, the speaker hopes that by praising the youth for his constancy the youth will become more constant while the pair is separated. This style of cautious advice finds parallels in Renaissance rhetoric. Francis Bacon in his essay, “Of Praise,” explains a particular method of addressing kings and great persons with civility in which, “by telling men what they are, they represent to them what they should be”. In addition, C.S. Lewis notes that an established feature of praise verse in the Renaissance was that it, “hid advice as flattery and recommended virtues by feigning that they already existed”.
Helen Vendler, writing in, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is in agreement with Landry that the closing line is largely propitiatory though she arrives at this conclusion without including Sonnet 53 within a group of separation sonnets. She notes that the youth having, “millions of adorers…hover about him together with his millions of seductive shadows,” and an androgynous beauty, as comparable to Adonis as Helen, that doubles the number of potential admirers puts the youth in a particularly dangerous situation to give in to temptation.
And finally, from Helen Vendler:
“The question of the first line – ‘What is your sub-stance?’ is answered in the last line: a ‘con-stant heart. This illogical paradox – ‘Though you cast millions of shadows, you do so because you have a faithful heart’ – is the ‘scientific’ explanation for the anomalous powers possessed by the beloved. The punning on –stant enables the passage from substance to constant, making the philosophical suggestion that ethics, rather than metaphysics, is the guarantee of formal stability.
On the other hand, although the poem appears at first to be about those anomalous powers, it turns out in fact to be about the perceiver of those powers. That is, the poem is about the speaker more than the beloved. Although the poem gives active agency to the young man – ‘you can lend every shadow’ – it passes to a generalized mental hypothesis [Let anyone] Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit/Is poorly imitated after you – and ends with the active agency of the perceiver – ‘We know you in every blessed shape.’ And the very last statement is a remark by the speaker about how he perceives other people: ‘none [are] like you for constant heart.’
Probably the easiest way to perceive the motive underlying this structure is to track the implied state of the speaker. As I see it, the closing line is propitiatory – the speaker hopes, by uttering praise of a putative ‘constant heart,’ to bring about the very fidelity he praises but which he fears is not to be found in the young man. The captivating variety in the appearances of the beloved suggests that millions of adorers may hover about him together with his millions of seductive shadows. The beloved has an androgynous beauty that is suitable to a portrait of Helen as to a portrait of Adonis, thus doubling the potential number of his admirers.
In the series of neutral hypotheses of representation – describe Adonis, set out on Helen’s cheek, speak of spring and harvest – we recognize things that Shakespeare (or Marlowe) has already done. The writer-in-love writes a poem about Adonis, and behold, the fictive Adonis turns out to look exactly like the actual beloved; the playwright adorns his portrait of Helen, and behold, Helen uncannily resembles the beloved; the speaker looks at spring flowers and will say to his beloved, They were but sweet, but figures of delight,/Drawn after you, you pattern of all those; he speaks of harvest, and it becomes the beloved’s bounty. In short, in every act of literary representation – mythical (Adonis), literary-historical (Helen), or natural (spring and harvest) – one has ended up, willy-nilly, representing the beloved.”
It’s time, once again, for your thoughts and some discussion on Sonnet 53. The Sonnets are a nice counterpoint to the plays and deserve just as much attention.
Take a breath, get ready, and look for an introduction on January 25 – we will begin King Richard the Third.