Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
Sonnet 35, “No more be griev’d at that which thou hast done,” is written to a young man, the poet’s friend and nominal addressee or auditor of sonnets 1 through 126, by far the largest section of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence. The friend presumably is the “Mr. W. H.” of the inscribed dedication of Thomas Thorpe’s 1609 printing of the sonnets. This mysterious figure’s identity has never been incontrovertibly established, although the scholarly consensus has focused on two candidates: Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton (1573-1624), and William Herbert, third earl of Pembroke (1580-1630), both of whom were patrons of the poet-dramatist.
The true identity of the young man is of relative unimportance critically; in fact, some scholars have suggested that the youth might even be an idealized literary figure rather a real person. However, Sonnet 35 argues, as do some related sonnets, that the friendship is at times strained and certainly less than idyllic, giving it the semblance of an actual relationship. Although the young man’s looks bear the stamp of perfection, he is not without character flaws. This poem arises from some unidentified hurt inflicted on the poet by the friend, the source of a momentary estrangement that is dealt with in Sonnets 33 through 42.
In Sonnet 35, the friend is grief-stricken by his trespass, and the poet attempts to assuage his friend’s guilt through clever sophistry, reasoning that he himself must bear some of the responsibility for his friend’s offense. Because the friend’s transgression seems to involve sexual betrayal, a “sensual fault,” scholars have traditionally speculated that the friend may have seduced the poet’s mistress or been seduced by her, although a few commentators have concluded that the sexual suggestion is homoerotic.
If the wrong done the poet is moot, its effect is not. The friend is “grieved” by it. The poet argues, through parallel examples, that the faults of men have analogues in nature, even in the most beautiful of things: roses and buds, silver fountains, sun and moon. These images of nature’s perfection are no less subject to flaws than humans are. The rose stem bears wounding thorns, clouds and eclipses dim the beauty of moon and sun, canker worms devour sweet buds, and the water of the silver fountains may, at times, grow muddy. The poet then argues that he is also blameworthy, since he excuses his friend’s fault with his flawed comparisons and his faulty logic, which speciously justify his friend’s betrayal. He is thus corrupted by his need to excuse his friend’s faults.
Line 8, one of the most difficult of lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets, has frequently been emended to read “Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are,” with its implication that the friend’s transgression was not significant enough to require the poet’s reasoned defense, one that turns the wounded party into the wrongdoer’s chief advocate. The poet, drawn by the conflicting demands of “love and hate,” is put in the untenable position of defending the “sweet theefe” who has stolen his mistress’s affections, and he chastises himself as an “accessary” to the friend’s crime.
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