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Shakespeare Sonnet 23: "As an unperfect actor on the stage"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 23: "As an unperfect actor on the stage"

From the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the second thematic group—“The Muse Sonnets”—continues with the speaker musing on his various attitudes regarding his writing. He also cogitates on a multitudes of uses to which he can put his writing, but his primary focus remains the pursuit of beauty and truth, as he maintains the importance of love in human reality. He wishes above all that his writings remain pure and unsullied. Thus, the speaker in Sonnet 23 has a strong wish to dramatize the love that resides within his being. He, therefore, admonishes his readers to acquire the skill required for reading poetry with understanding and appreciation.

This poet/speaker places great importance on his art, for he remains certain that only his art is capable of expressing clearly and convincingly his true feelings. Because his physical tongue too often becomes paralyzed in attempting to express deep, strong emotion, he must rely on the word writ across the page to express that affection.

As an unperfect actor on the stage

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.
O! let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Reading of Sonnet 23

Commentary

The speaker employs a theatre metaphor to explore his feelings and to offer advice to future generations regarding their sensibilities relative to fine art appreciation.

First Quatrain: An Actor With Stage Fright

As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;

In the first quatrain, the speaker asserts that he is like a fearful actor on a stage who has difficulty with his lines because of stage fright, but he also resembles "some fierce thing" that is weakened because of rage. He, as an actor in his own drama, is portraying the timidity and emotion that prevent him from expressing the love that he feels. It is quite fitting that a playwright and theatre worker would use the "actor" to portray his feelings.

That the Shakespeare canon is most noted for the plays contained therein, it remains consistent that the speaker of the sonnets would often show a flare for the theatric, employing the stage, actors, and other theatre related terms in those sonnets, in which he is the main actor on his own created stage.

Second Quatrain: Fear Limits Ability to Move

So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharg’d with burden of mine own love’s might.

The speaker then asserts that for "fear of trust" he is unable to speak the necessary words for the "ceremony of love’s rite." He claims that the intensity of his love seems "to decay" under its own strength. The reader will easily recognize the speaker’s predicament. When emotion is strong, it sometimes limits logical responses. Fear especially restricts the ability to act as one needs. The speaker frames his claim, noting that his strong love overcomes that love’s own power.

The desire to eliminate fear and frenzied emotion from one’s heart and mind is recognized as a major part of the human condition. The many medicinal remedies such tranquilizers attest to that recognition. So do methods for producing calmness such as yoga and other physical and mental exercises. The human mind remains abuzz with activity, which is quite natural and even useful and necessary, but an over-abundance of stimulation along with lack of relaxation bring on the opposite of natural progress.

Third Quatrain: Begging for the Muse to Intercede

O! let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.

The speaker's humility in alleging that he has an inability to speak eloquently leads him to remark that the ability of the written word to speak may seem silent even as they reveal what is in his heart. He is emphasizing the fact that in his deep heart his emotion weighs far more significantly than that which may be expressed by his tongue.

Readers have already observed that “The Muse Sonnets” demonstrate the poet's vital talent in composing poems; thus, it remains not unusual for this speaker to address his talent asking it to assist him in overcoming his human flaws as he attempts to express his emotion. Looking to one’s own God-given gifts must remain a part of each individual’s striving for equanimity and even on to perfection. This speaker has long recognized that profound thinking is key to bringing him in touch with his inner world.

The Couplet: Begging Readers to Learn to Read

O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

In the couplet, the speaker addresses his future readers, admonishing them to educate their senses in order to discern what great poetry and other fine literature can offer. He emphasizes his belief that love offers the best path to understanding. His use of the concept of synesthesia in the phrase, "To hear with eyes," produces the paradoxical nudge that engages his readers to learn to understand and to appreciate that fine qualities lead to the ability to live life on a higher plane, where pure joy replaces the profane and vulgar.

By reading the speaker’s words, which portray a silent eloquence, the reader can enjoy his fine portrayals of love. The speaker desires so much to express the love that is in his heart, and his command to readers that they become skillful in reading poetry once again dramatizes the importance this speaker places on his art and his certainty that his art will express his feelings, even if his physical tongue is overcome by his strong emotion.

The De Vere Society

The De Vere Society

Shakespeare Identified Lecture, Mike A'Dair And William J. Ray

Questions & Answers

Question: Would you give me the prosodic scansion of "Sonnet 20" by Shakespeare?

Answer: Here is a site that offers scansions of the sonnets: http://prescannedshakespeare.aruffo.com/sonnets/so...

Question: What is the structure of Shakespeare's sonnet 20?

Answer: Sonnet 20 is an English (Elizabethan or Shakespearean) sonnet with the traditional rime scheme, ABABCDCDEFEFGG.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error at https://owlcation.com/humanities/Rhyme-vs-Rime-An-... . "

Question: Is there a tone throughout Shakespeare's "Sonnet 20" or does it vary?

Answer: The tone of this sonnet is bright and confident.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes