Truth and Decay in Shakespeare's Sonnets - Essay

William Shakespeare

Truth and Decay in Shakespeare's Sonnets

(Shakespearean Criticism)

James Dawes

For sweetest things turn sourest by their
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Howsoever it may pique the reader with its opacity,1sonnet 94 achieves a concussive conclusion through its evocation of a rarely used sense: the poem terminates in thick smell. Shakespeare evokes smell, briefly, in only nine of the 154 sonnets. Sight, a sense that the poet can control, is preferred. One can close one's eyes or turn one's head, one can manipulate and sculpt the visual world; but invisible smell assaults and surprises the body, delivering a shock commensurate only to the shock of seeing an ideal downrazed, or a faith forsworn. The jarring couplet of 94 alludes, of course, to the beloved's alleged moral turpitude.2 Infidelity is so pungent here because, as John Bernard argues, the young man is not merely a representation of an ideal Platonic form but the ideal itself, 'not the mere shadow but the very substance of the divine.'3 The young man is a figure for the very possibility of belief, and hence allegations of his moral failure threaten to shatter not only the speaker's heart, but also his capacity for faith. The speaker's cosmology is knitted into the very flesh of his beloved—but like the lily, skin rots.

The fallibility of the speaker's ideals and the 'wantonness' (96) of his beloved (the two, I argue, are the same) provide the sequence with one of its central fixations: constancy. Critics have taken various positions on the matter: John Bernard, for one, dismisses the young man's sins as 'mortal accidents.' Denying Shakespeare's sense of the perfidious mutability and slippage of language, as well as the speaker's parallel anxiety over the undependability of the young man, Bernard insists that Shakespeare's ironclad faith in 'the Logos, the Name of names by which the Godhead reveals itself to men' engenders a verse which is as 'unique and unchanging' as the object of its praise: hence what he calls the 'predictable sameness' of the sonnets.4 On the other hand, Lars Engle insists that the sonnets are the harbinger of the fragmented modern psyche. Shakespeare, he claims, is not only aware of but also comfortable with the economic flux and inconstancy of all forms and values.5 Aligning himself with Anne Ferry and Joel Fineman,6 Engle offers a comfortably 'antifoundationalist' Shakespeare, a Shakespeare modeled upon Wittgenstein, Rorty and Lacan.7 These are plausible but also, I believe, desiccated readings. By over-emphasizing the speaker's faith on the one hand, and by underestimating his desire for faith on the other, both groups of critics thereby deny the speaker's torment and doubt, his simultaneous need and inability to believe in the constancy of Love, the beloved, and the poetry which alone can represent them.

The 'monumentalizing' sonnets engage the dialectic of the speaker's faith most explicitly: 116 (the constancy of love), 55 (the constancy of poetry), and 105 (the constancy of the beloved). The disagreements among critics on these sonnets reproduces the interior dynamic of each poem: at any given moment the speaker may believe with desperate faith, or undercut himself with detached cynicism.8 Rather than adding to the daunting amount of criticism on these particular sonnets, however, I will investigate representations of constancy by tracing the development of specific word clusters and images throughout the sequence as a whole. I will read the sonnet sequence as a sequence—a move of faith for which I can provide no justification other than the agnostic's: my belief cannot be disproved even if it cannot be proved.9 Shakespeare, intuition tells me, was well aware of the potential for reverberation between the parts of his sequence; he was cognizant of the resonance certain phrases or ideas might accumulate throughout. The sequence as a whole, then, dramatizes the mind's endurance of love, its struggle over time between desire and disgust, between philosophical idealism and the dictates of the corporeal. By following the narrative of Shakespeare's clauses and the plot of his images, I hope to provide a theoretical framework for understanding both the compelling faith of the 'monumentalizing' sonnets and their critically revealed potential for self-consumption. I hope to provide a more complicated understanding of Shakespeare's notion of belief, and a deeper appreciation of his idea of constancy, which thrusts to the heavens as 'truth,' and crumbles into the earth as 'decay.'

'In all external grace you have some part, / But you like none, none you, for constant heart' (53). A close cousin to 105, sonnet 53 deploys the rhetoric of Platonic forms to commemorate the constancy of the beloved.

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since everyone 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

Many critics accept the straightforwardness of this convention, attributing to the speaker a votary's ingenuous faith, and an infatuate's hyperbolic ebullience. Of 53 Murray Krieger writes: 'the friend is the one final reality … the single Platonic perfection.'10 I believe, however, that Shakespeare has too complicated an awareness of the duplicity of man and language for such an un-selfconscious faith, for a faith blind to the possibilities of its own betrayal. Doubt does not begin, however, until the sonnet closes, until the reader breathes the very last words of the terminal couplet. According to Stephen Booth, 'for constant heart' may have been pronounced much the same as 'for constant art'11—that is, perpetual artifice, counterfeit honesty. If the sonnet is first read as a celebration of constancy, a rereading based upon this potential phonetic misprision would reveal the denotative duplicity of much of the imagery deployed throughout. Line 7, for example, reads thus when paraphrased: 'When one describes Helen's ideal beauty.' But the tortuous line can also suggest, as Booth notes, Helen's 'cosmetic deceit'12—a deceitfulness which affects our reading of the beloved's participation in 'external grace,' and more importantly, a deceitfulness in which the essence of the beloved is 'painted new.' Similarly, the 'counterfeit' of Adonis, like a crystal which casts new light with each perspectival change, may one moment signify a portrait, and the next a painted fraud—the word nimbly traverses the borders between representation and deceit, between fiction and fraud. If one emphasizes 'counterfeit' (two of its three syllables are stressed), then the sentence can indeed suggest that it is the very counterfeitness of the description which is 'imitated' after the beloved. And indeed, if portrait accumulates connotations of falseness upon rereading, then 'shadows' and 'shade,' which can signify both images and portraits, may as well. The 'strange shadows' prefigure the slanders which 'tend' to the beloved in sonnet 96, as well as the darkness cast against the beautiful sky by the crow in 70. By line 4 of sonnet 53, the beloved has become a merchant in such shadows: shadows which produce darkness, change form and obscure meaning—shadows which 'mask' (54) the canker embedded in the rose. 'What is your substance?' the speaker asks. 'Whereof are you made?' It is a plea for access to truth, for a glance behind the beloved's plenitude of masks, his bewitching 'millions.'

On one level then, sonnet 53 is a poem about blinding proliferation, about impossible multiplicities of form and meaning, and the slippage of an infinitely permutable language. The Platonic convention itself may have arisen in response to such anxiety. It sets limits to the possibility of metamorphosis, rooting polyform materiality in changeless origin: the ideal Form is the constant One at the same time that it generates the fluid Many. Appropriating this model, the speaker insists that the young man is constant, even as he participates in an unending flux of 'external grace.' With the re-reading I have posited, however, this paradox would prove untenable: the embodied Platonic ideal would prove inconstant, wilting before our very eyes like a flower sapped of its vitality.

A master of wordplay, Shakespeare surely must have anticipated this possibility—he must have known that words, like men, are mutable and inconstant, and that poems thus contain within themselves the possibility of their own destruction, like the canker roses which, in the very next sonnet, die sadly alone.13 In the end, the best that Shakespeare can do is to hold off the bloom of decay for as long as possible. This poem is meant to celebrate flexible constancy, the fluid repetition of a stable beauty. Shakespeare guarantees this by inhibiting the swerve of language, hemming in his words. The octave proceeds in units of two: lines 1 and 2 form a unit, as do 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and 7 and 8. Lines 9 to 12 form a unit of four, and the sonnet concludes, of course, with a couplet. I requote the poem for convenience:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since everyone 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

The six clausal units each proceed rhythmically: lines 1 and 2 come in three breaths (What is your substance,—whereof are you made,—That millions of strange shadows on you tend?); lines 3 and 4 each repeat, through the use of caesura, the triple breath (Since everyone hath,—every one,—one shade, / And you,—but one,—can every shadow lend). Lines 5 and 6 vary the rhythm slightly with two breaths (Describe Adonis,—and the counterfeit is poorly imitated after you), and 7 and 8 become the second beat of this new two-breath rhythm (On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,—And you in Grecian tires are painted new). Line 9 prepares for the return to the triple breath (Speak of the spring and foison of the year), which manifests itself in the unit of three lines which follows—a pattern reproduced in the couplet, whose unbroken first line introduces the three-breathed finale (But you like none,—none you,—for constant heart). Finally, included within each of these units of the poem are three moments of emphasis, three objects of attention (see previous emphases). The formal structure of the sonnet thus reproduces its content: it achieves constancy through repetition, and fluidity through rhythm, as if embodying the Form itself. By arranging the poem in this way—by breathing it thus—Shakespeare most effectively 'transfixes' his slippery words, locking them into place and thereby creating a truly 'constant art.'

On the other hand, it is also possible that Shakespeare designed the poem to maximize the potential for semantic drift. The sonnet would thereby enact the process of decay which the sequence so consistently laments. Like the young man or the rose, the sonnet blossoms forth into beauty, into a ringing declaration of faith and love. But after the final words of the terminal couplet, after time with subsequent rereadings begins to pass, the poem begins to wither into cynicism and self-consuming irony. 53 is embedded, after all, between sonnets emphasizing betrayal, alienation, and the failures of love (40-42, 49, 54, 56-58). As Shakespeare writes:

Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crowned,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight.


Without wishing to close off this potential reading, I nonetheless believe it is more plausible to read 53 as the material manifestation of the speaker's kinetic faith. Its violent compression of constancy and mutability, certainty and doubt, bodies forth the speaker's complex attitude toward his language and his love. His is not an ingenuous faith, a faith blind to its own rational impossibility. Nor is it, on the other hand, a sham of faith, a cynical mockery of a lover's belief. The speaker does not fluctuate between these poles, nor does he come to rest in a nullifying middle ground; rather, he simultaneously believes and disbelieves, each moment. Indeed, his faith is fortified by his very doubt. The steely-eyed conviction which informs the couplet of 116, for example, is engendered by the subversion of his belief: it is his desperate defiance of a reality which proves that love does indeed decay. And the confident grandeur of 55, likewise, is a product of his inability to believe fully in his own words, to accept rationally their truth and permanence. But love insists, and the speaker thus surrenders to the irrationality of his faith with a proselyte's hopeless, hyperbolic energy. It is a faith which derives its energy from its desperation; it is a faith that is forever shoring itself up against its own decay.

Decay—the failure of constancy—is one of the sequence's central fixations. The speaker images decay in two primary ways: as corruption from within, best symbolized by the cankered rose, and as corruption from without, best symbolized by the assault of an external, frequently personified Time. The actuality of decay is not so interesting to Shakespeare, however, as the representation of decay: Shakespeare uses his persona to explore the difficulty of perceiving that which must not be perceived, of speaking that which must not be spoken (the smell that cannot be smelled, the thought that cannot be thought). In most relevant poems, the image which predominates is that of decay as an external force which assaults a separate and pure beauty (e.g., 11, 13, 15, 16, 23, 64, 65, 71, and 100). The speaker, apparently, hesitates before evoking the lurid imagery of corruption from within: it is easier to imagine decay as a contest between two clean bodies than as the noisome suppuration of flesh feasting upon itself.14 In 73 for example, the word 'decay' is never spoken, and self-consumption—'Consumed with that which it was nourished by'—is deferred until the climax, as if the speaker needs to muster up courage to speak its possibility. Even as the 'it' is spoken, however, it is denied: the perceptual experience of rot (the smell that cannot be smelled) is reconceived as a clean burning, and thereby made speakable, thereby made bearable. Indeed, the surprising reversal of the couplet, in which the dying speaker becomes the forsaken rather than the forsaker, the jilted lover rather than the decaying corpse, resonates with and hence reasserts the model of decay posited in the first two quatrains—namely, the assailant-victim model rather than the self-consuming model: love is ruined by the action of an external agent rather than a natural law of internal disintegration.

Internally generated corruption horrifies the speaker for metaphysical as well as corporeal reasons: if rot can generate itself from within beauty, from an invisible, interior source, then the trusted may prove false, and the ideal of purity itself might prove a mere illusion (the thought that cannot be thought). In 35, the speaker once again must gather momentum, accumulating images of extrinsic and identifiable imperfections—'Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud, / Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun'—before invoking the shocking images of rot from within, of invisible interior consumption—'And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.' Suddenly aware that he has gone too far, the speaker silences himself. Quatrain two begins gently, after a pause, with the calm language of aphorism ('All men make faults') and a rejection of what has been asserted in quatrain one ('and even I in this … Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are'). The speaker cannot deface his own Ideal; he cannot infect his beloved with the imagery of the cankered rose. In the final ten lines the speaker tries frantically to deflect his hasty words, finally absorbing the stain of his miasmic language by standing in for the young man as the figure of the self-consuming cankered rose: 'corrupting' himself (7), working ''gainst' himself (11), the speaker 'robs' (14) himself of his own vitality in a vicious, self-consuming 'civil war' (12).

The sequence as a whole reproduces this pattern of assertion and erasure: the speaker invokes the disruptive imagery of internal decay only to quickly extinguish it, to overwhelm it and subsume it into the totalizing image of decay as the assault of Time. The speaker's nervous stewardship over his own words evinces Shakespeare's belief in the palpability and viscerality of language, its almost material power. Words of true faith inscribe the young man into the rock of the earth, into the flesh of the unborn (55, 81). As if absorbing their power to endure, the beloved with such words will pace forth against death like a body resurrected. But the language of decay stains and infects; the very act of speaking corruption may itself corrupt. In 95, for example, decay infects the hand which writes it; rot eats through the speaker's words even as he inscribes them.

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!
That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.
O what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty's veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!
Take heed, dear heart, of this large
The hardest knife ill used doth lose his

In line 3, the rot of the canker spots the beauty of the budding rose; in line 6, this 'spot' of corruption begins to eat its way through the word 'sport.' In line 11, the spot has become a 'blot,' which then infects line 9 ('got'), line 7 ('Cannot') and poses like a hungry mouth at the beginning of lines 4 and 9 ('O'). Like the rose, the poem is consumed from within, by the very canker it names: it is left tired, blemished, and 'ill' (14).

Of course, when restricted to its surface context, the 'ill' of the couplet denotes only the 'misuse' ('ill' use) of a knife. However, it graphically doubles and therefore throws us back to the 'ill' of line 8, which signifies the sickening, staining effect of rumor upon reputation. It is the very subtlety of this associational trace, the very nearly unidentifiable 'spot' embedded in the final 'ill,' which most horrifies the speaker. Furrows in the brow are the gradual, steady, and immediately recognizable work of a wasting Time (e.g., 2, 12, 22, 60, 62, 63, 77, 104), but the rose's small external blot is a discontinuity, a sudden tear in the surface of beauty which may simply be an accident of environment, or, like the first dark teardrop of melanoma on fair skin, may be the first and last warning of a ravaging, internally fed cancer.

The speaker well knows, then, that the smallest of spots can lead to eventual ruin. He deploys the infectious images of interior decay more hesitantly, encodes them more subtly in the rest of the sequence. In 92, the speaker suspects that the young man is 'inconstant.' 'What's so blessed-fair that fears no blot?' he asks, not quite daring to speak the word of corruption, but nonetheless aware that the association will give force to his complaint. His criticism of false beauty in sonnet 68, likewise, gathers its intensity from an association with decay. Here the speaker criticizes the 'bastard signs of fair': cosmetics, wigs, and other 'ornament'—such pleasant surfaces often mask a repugnant interior. Indeed, wigs are the 'golden tresses of the dead, / The right of sepulchers.' These indignant verses criticize what is, essentially, an act of robbery; but they also jam together the images of cosmetics and tombs, of surface beauty and the meat of coffins. If cosmetics are the beauty of those the speaker castigates, and cosmetics are also 'the right of sepulchers,' then for these men and women of 'false art,' beauty is itself a form of decay. Cosmetics will show the blot of this startling association henceforth: make-up is the two-dimensional analog of the cankered rose.

Sonnet 68, of course, echoes the 'infection' of 67: together they invest a specific cluster of images with contagious energy: the beauty of the cheek, painting and ornament, theft from the tomb, and the imbrication of the dead and the living. This imagery is invoked most noticeably in relation to the rival poet, whose adaptability to fashion contrasts unfavorably with the more constant style of the speaker: 21 criticizes the 'painted beauty' and 'ornament' of the rival ('painted beauty,' as Booth points out, may be a painting, a poem, or a person whose beauty is 'cosmetically achieved'15); the 'compounds strange' of 76 recall the cosmetics of 68, just as 76's 'dressing old words new' recalls 68's 'robbing no old to dress his beauty new'; in 79 the rival 'robs' beauty from the young man's 'cheek,' and in 82 the speaker criticizes the rival's 'gross painting,' along with the deathly pale 'cheeks' which 'need blood'; 83 again criticizes the rival's 'painting,' and together with 86 emphasizes the exchange between the dead and the living ['when others would give life, and bring a tomb' (83), 'their tomb the womb' (86)].

If the speaker attempts to stain the rival poet's work by associating it with interior rot, he runs the risk of likewise infecting his own poetry. As with 95, so with the sequence as a whole: after all, what's so blessed fair (what young man, what sonnet, what sequence?) that fears no blot? Anne Ferry writes that the friend's falseness destroys the speaker's ideals and his poetry: his love makes him a liar. The speaker's warnings to the young man may thus reveal something of his own anxieties: 'After my death, dear love, forget me quite /… lest your true love may seem false in this, / That you for love speak well of me untrue' (72). If the speaker's sonnets memorialize an essentially 'fraudulent world,' then his sequence can achieve integrity only by entering into a 'parodic' relationship with itself.16 By thus giving the lie to its own proclaimed eternizing powers and constancy (as Ferry claims), the sequence enacts the very self-consumption and decay which it criticizes: it eats itself up like the cankered rose.

Even Bernard speaks of the 'falsity of his art.'17 The 'lie' of the speaker's poetry, which Bernard cites from 115, is of course only a trope which allows the speaker to praise his beloved in ever more hyperbolic terms. However, when this 'lie' is read against 106, the implications are potentially disturbing. If the speaker can appropriate the verse of an 'antique pen,' if he can rob the 'dead,' using their beauty to dress new his beloved, then certainly the same can be done with his own poetry. Thus, not only is his poetry tainted by its implicit association with the grave-robbing censured in 68, but also it is logically possible that the young man himself can be typologized, hierarchically subordinated to the beauties of later generations, just as easily as those 'fairest wights' memorialized in 'old rhyme.' The sequence would then seem to hold within itself the possibility of its own subversion, its own hungry canker.

But this last rhetorical gesture, of course, fails, and in its failure reveals the limitations of the models of decay thus far presented. Embedding within itself the pattern of its own abnegation, the sequence would seem to prefigure its own demise, to mime self-consumption; but on the other hand, by implicitly predicting that it will be consumed and discarded by later writers, the sequence posits itself as a victim-to-be of external action rather than of internal logic. The easy slippage between these possibilities, between the external and the internal, between foreknowledge and complicity, decomposes the model of decay thus far presented.

A closer look at 95 will clarify the issue. The sonnet begins by comparing the young man to the cankered rose, but quickly modulates the invaded rose out of its degenerative materiality into an assortment of 'sins' and 'vices.' Alluding to the New Testament story of Legion, a man possessed by devils, Shakespeare writes: 'O what a mansion have those vices got / Which for their habitation chose out thee.' Here, at the beginning of the third quatrain, the speaker replaces the model of the cankered rose with the model of a body possessed by demons, and in so doing finally displaces the canker, removes it from the body it inhabits and destroys: the fire of 73 may indeed feed upon itself, but the canker is as foreign to the rose as spirit is to matter. Internal decay is distinguished from self-consumption.

The speaker, however, relies upon the easy confusion of the two even as he emphasizes their difference. To the imperfect human eye the cankered rose does indeed appear to eat itself: filth and decay seem part of its very nature. But as the speaker here emphasizes, it is human vision which is inherently flawed—not the cankered rose. Thus even if to the entire world the young man appears wanton (96) or lascivious (95), even if the speaker himself cannot wish away the visible moral decay of his beloved, Faith will not be shaken. At the apogee of horror, when the speaker has imagined his love as a lurid self-cannibalizing shame, the model of self-consumption dissolves and the speaker realizes with a faith strengthened by doubt overcome that beauty is forever pure, vices are always external, and decay is athwart rather than of beauty, like ravaging Time against a poor, sweet flower. As the logic of the canker rose shows, the speaker can deny his eyes, and maintain his Ideal.

The speaker's model of faith-shattering decay enacts its own displacement, and thereby most powerfully reaffirms the constancy of the beloved: the more withering the power of the canker rose metaphor, the more powerful the speaker's faith. However, the blindness of this faith raises troubling questions about belief, agency, and representation. Does the centrality of the act of faith occlude its referent? And does belief in an ideal (Poetry, Love, or a Beloved) marginalize the importance of the real (poetry, love, or a beloved)? The sequence asks but does not answer.

As the troubles accumulate, the rot continues. The speaker hence must do more than negate his doubt—he must justify his belief. He must contend with the reality of decay, whatever its sources, and offer an alternative to the ease and inevitability of decrepitude. The dichotomy between external and internal decay roughly corresponds to the opposition between the decay of sweet tissue ('sweet issue,' 13) and the decay of spirit, between the assault of Time upon the fragile body, and the interior, moral waste of the 'loathesome canker' (35). If reproduction is the primary means of defying the decay of flesh (1-17), then the spiritual analog of reproduction is the cultivation of spiritual constancy. The poet offers a model of such constancy with his 'true plain words' (82). Truth, in the end, is the only effective talisman against decay (e.g., 123).

For the speaker, the True manifests itself variously, as veracity, fidelity, and constancy: respectively, truth of proposition (I speak the truth when I say I love you), truth of representation (my poetry depicts the truth of my beloved), and truth of essence (my beloved appears beautiful because his nature is and always will be beautiful). Upon this latter form of truth—constancy—all other forms depend: the truth of essence is the essence of truth, for there is nothing true which does not overcome the caprice of environment, which does not endure. Veracity and fidelity are, so to speak, only symptoms of truth: by speaking true and by representing his beloved in 'true plain words,' for example, the speaker reveals his constancy, the truth of his love.

Unfortunately, the communicative epiphenomena of truth, veracity and fidelity, are problematic concepts at best. In the sonnets dedicated to the young man, the speaker's visual relationship with such truth is contorted: propositional and representational truth are always veiled, always misperceived (e.g., 17, 72, 110, 113, 114, 21, 24, and 62). The effect is insidious. Like an inverted canker rose, truth decays from the outside in: the uncertainty of the signs of truth infects the certainty of truth itself. In other words, if we cannot conclusively identify those things which are ultimately the only visible signs of essential truth, then what of the truths which sustain us? If truth cannot be known, does it exist? Is it a usable concept? For the speaker, such questions always translate back into the body of the beloved: if the young man is both the sign and the essence of truth, and, like all signs of truth, the young man is open to misreadings, then is his truth identifiable, or perpetually fluxing? Is constancy itself unreliable?

The speaker's desperate desire to believe in a truth which he cannot fully see generates great anxiety. In 82 'true,' which here signifies veracity and fidelity as well as constancy, is rhymed both with 'hue' and 'new' (embedded within 'anew'), and is thereby associated with the 'gross painting' of cheeks which 'need blood'—with ornament, cosmetics, and decay. The speaker's inability to distinguish fully between the 'hue' and the 'true,' between cosmetic beauty and true beauty, between the canker and the pure rose, is ultimately the inability to distinguish between the nausea of decay, and the truth which alone can defy it. The coincidence between the two is striking. Like decay, truth is invisible, an essence that must be inferred from a collection of slippery signs. But unlike decay, which finally reveals itself positively as rot, truth can never be known (e.g., 92, 93). Constancy achieves certainty only through its own negation: a truth sustained is always only a potential, but a faith forsworn is a certainty.

The negative character of truth generates in the speaker an enervating doubt, but nevertheless does not obviate his belief. Rather than abandoning truth the speaker mourns its misperception, offering it a faith which is as desperate as it is strong. In 105 the speaker repeats 'fair, kind, and true' like an anthem, or an incantation: if he says it enough, perhaps it will come true. The aggressive couplet of 125 best expresses the quality of the speaker's faith: 'Hence, thou suborned informer! A true soul / When most impeached stands least in thy control.'

This desperately defiant tone is completely absent from the Dark Lady sequence. Indeed, truth as a concept is frequently effaced, stated only through its negation: sonnets 127, 130, 142, and 152 engage the issue of truth only through reference to the 'false,' and in 131 a logically expected true is expressed instead as 'not false' ('And to be sure that is not false I swear / A thousand groans but thinking on thy face'). The speaker has no doubt, no anxiety—he knows that the Dark Lady lies, that the 'truth' he sees is false. Truth is not veiled or distorted, but simply wrong, deliciously and terribly wrong. Because the constantly, visibly false approximates an identifiable truth, the speaker, finally, can revel in certainty (e.g., 137, 138, 147, 148, 150, 152).

Therefore my verse to constancy confined
One thing expressing, leaves out difference


If the speaker cannot have dependable truth, then he will choose dependable lies.

Significantly, the speaker's fixation with death and decay vanishes in the Dark Lady sequence—indeed, it vanishes because of the Dark Lady sequence. There is nothing at stake in her physical or moral decay, no cosmological crisis. The speaker has moved from an economy of constancy and eternal memorialization to an economy of lust and momentary gratification. It is a progression as natural as the progression from youth to age, strength to weakness, motion to rest. The indeterminacy of the young man, the passionate conflict of belief and disbelief, has simply exhausted the speaker. He now prefers the woman who will each day send him into the storm, rather than the young man who might one day surprise him thus. He prefers the ease of disbelief and cynicism to the terror of an Ideal, the realization of pain rather than the lingering threat. With the dark lady the speaker suffers the frustration and shame of lust, and the anguish of spiteful cruelties; and he must struggle for her, hold desperately to her, lest he lose even this last, crude pleasure. But in this torment he has found a certain grim exhilaration—the exhilaration of a man who no longer has much to lose.


1 Thomas P. Roche, for example, calls it the 'most perplexing of all the sonnets … a paradigm devoid of meaning' (Shakespeare and the Sonnet Sequence, in English Poetry and Prose, 1540-1674, vol. 2, ed. Christopher Ricks, New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1981, p. 87). For a concise bibliography of work done on 94, see Anthony Easthope, 'Same Text, Different Readings: Shakespeare's Sonnet 94,' Critical Quarterly, vol. 28, nos. 1 & 2.

2 As W. G. Ingram and Theodore Redpath explain, one can read this allusion in any number of ways: for example, as an ironic dismissal of such slanders against the young man, or perhaps as a none-too-subtly veiled warning against the probability of such behavior. Shakespeare's Sonnets (London, 1967), 214. See also

3 John D. Bernard, "To Constancie Confin'd': The Poetics of Shakespeare's Sonnets,' PMLA, January 1979, 94(1), p. 83.

4 Bernard, 84; 88; 81. The conflation of author and speaker is Bernard's. 'As the friend is one so is the poet's style, and so the poet himself in his metaphysical posture. The series of equations is virtually endless: you = love = I = words' (82). Contrast Bernard's insistence upon the oneness of Shakespeare's words with Howard Felperin: 'What with its demonumentalization of fixed or 'natural' meaning, Shakespeare's wordplay would seem to be the ultimate 'figure of disorder'.' Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 188.

5 Lars Engle, 'Afloat in Thick Deeps: Shakespeare's Sonnets on Certainty,' 833.

6 Fineman, for example, claims that Shakespeare anticipates both Derrida and Freud. Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 46-48.

7 Engle, 833.

8 For Lars Engle, sonnet 116 reveals that love is 'contingent,' while for Murray Krieger it displays the 'eternal fixity of love.' E. S. Bates claims that sonnet 55 reveals Shakespeare's deep faith in 'the permanence of poetry'—but Stephen Booth points out that even as the speaker asserts the immortality of poetry he reminds us of the 'flimsiness and vulnerability of anything written on paper.' Of 105 Bernard writes that the beloved reproduces the 'ultimate Christian mystery of the three persons of the Godhead in one 'seate',' while Booth reads the sonnet as a 'playful experiment in perversity.' Engle, 840; Murray Krieger, A Window to Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 148; E. S. Bates, The Sonnets of Shakespeare, ed. Raymond Macdonald Alden (New York: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1916), 141; Stephen Booth, Shakespeare 's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 229, 336; Bernard, 85.

9 Katherine Duncan-Jones, for one, argues for the 'integrity' of the 1609 Quarto. 'Was the 1609 ShakeSpeares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?' The Review of English Studies, May 1983, vol. XXXIV, no. 134, pp. 154-155.

10 Krieger, 176-177. Bernard writes that Shakespeare's friend is the material embodiment of eternal and 'divine beauty' (80-81), and Germaine Greer insists that 'Shakespeare's persona continues to project the ideal of diamond-hard constancy.' Shakespeare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 114.

11 Booth, 226.

12 Booth, 225.

13 For a list of works which attribute to Shakespeare a distrust of language, see Margreta De Grazia, 'Shakespeare's View of Language: An Historical Perspective,' Shakespeare Quarterly, Summer 1978, vol. 29, no. 3, p. 374. De Grazia insists, however, that this assumption is fallacious: it was not until the seventeenth century, she writes, that writers began to distrust language (379). In any case, De Grazia admits that Shakespeare was in all likelihood experimenting with the imperfections of language through the imperfections of his speaker (383).

14 The speaker, of course, aggressively employs images of self-consumption in the first seventeen sonnets. However, he is not representing decay so much as he is attempting to denigrate the young man's abstinence by associating it with the lurid imagery of cannibalism and self-consumption.

15 Booth, 166.

16 Anne Ferry, All in War with Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 59, 50.

17 Bernard, 85.

Source: "Truth and Decay in Shakespeare's Sonnets," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 47, April, 1995, pp. 43-53.