Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sonnet 35 investigates the conflicting demands of erotic love (eros) and spiritual love (agape), a familiar Elizabethan theme. Friendship, because it is based on reason, was perceived as a higher order of love than that based on physical attraction, and although it might exist between members of the opposite sex, it was generally restricted to relationships within the same sex, since, for heterosexual men and women, that exclusiveness would preclude carnal attraction and preserve the love’s purity. One test of such a friendship, exploited by Shakespeare in both lyrics and plays, is the threat posed by sexual jealousy. Since a man’s will can be corrupted by desire, he could betray a friendship by engaging in a sexual liaison with his friend’s mistress, as seems to be the situation behind Sonnet 35 and related sonnets dealing with the temporary estrangement of the poet and the young man. That the friendship can survive the conflicting demands of eros and agape is evidence of its enduring strength.

The poem also reflects an idea prevalent in much of Shakespeare’s work, one that suggests a great generosity of spirit and ensures the poet’s lasting place among the world’s most humane and forgiving writers. Humankind is susceptible to sin, having, as Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet discloses, both “grace and rude will,” two opposing factions that correspond to reason and appetite. Susceptible to sin, humans will err and therefore must be forgiven. Capable of sin themselves, those victimized by it must be merciful, since, as Portia explains to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, mercy is an attribute of God himself and is a quality that transcends retributive justice. Humankind is thus enjoined to forgive the sinner while condemning the sin. As Hamlet tells Polonius in Hamlet, if people were given only their just desserts, none would “scape whipping.” It is this belief that is the ethical lodestone of the New Testament.

Sonnet 35 seems to reflect a testing of the poet’s belief in the necessary charity of the human spirit at a very personal level. The act of forgiving exacts its toll, primarily because the poet’s pride resists the humiliation attendant upon manufacturing such a tenuous excuse for his friend’s behavior. Shakespeare’s sonnet vividly captures a sense of the struggle between the poet’s wounded ego and his need, from love, to forgive his friend.