William Shakespeare – Sonnet 105
Let not my love be called idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,
Which three till now, never kept seat in one.
This curious sonnet treads once again the very thin line between arcane humour and outright blasphemy, which has already been seen in Sonnets 34 (Peter’s denial of Christ) and 52 (the Beatitudes), and it continues in 108, which has an irreverent parody of the ‘Our Father’. Here the theme is that of the Holy Trinity and the poet’s argument seems to be that his love is not idolatrous because it is a worship of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, which three he transmutes into fairness, kindness and truthfulness, all seen in his beloved. It is as if the poet is responding to an accusation, and defending himself against the charge of idolatrous worship which has been levelled against him. He uses the refutation that his worship of the beloved youth has the same character as the Christian worship of God in the Holy Trinity, and therefore it cannot be idolatrous. His love is not an idol, but a holy trinity of beauty, goodness and truth.
Commentators have on the whole found this sonnet dull and repetetive, lacking in any metaphor which might enliven it. I am more inclined to think that its life springs from the fact that it takes a rather perilous walk along a precipice. In the 16th. century to be on the wrong side of a religious divide could be a matter of life and death. Elizabeth herself was probably fairly tolerant, and could be pacified with a formula of words. But there were many religious fanatics who were ready to insist that ‘He who is not with me is against me’. Being a Catholic was obviously dangerous, and being seen as a non-believer risked the threat of denunciation from all sides. Either of these would be liable to the charge of being traitors since they could be portrayed as attempting to undermine the government’s declared policies. It is therefore quite difficult to decide how one should interpret this sonnet. Is it a piece of frivolous sophistry which supposedly frees the speaker from the accusation of idolatry? Or is it meant to be taken seriously, to the extent that we are to understand the poet as genuinely believing that his love of the youth is comparable to the Christian love of God, and therefore non-idolatrous? Or are we perhaps expected to interpret the poem as an allegory of some sort, of divine love, or of self-deception, or of human love?
The first two possibilities are inherently dangerous, since they lay the speaker open to the charge of blasphemy or sacrilege, which were imprisonable, and possibly even capital offences. The third possibility is very un-Shakespearian, but in any case would run the risk of being seen as very similar to the quasi-blasphemous pronouncements of the first two interpretations.
It is also possible, given Thorpe the publisher’s Catholic connections, that there is some cryptic message relating perhaps to doctrinal disputes buried in the sonnet. Or the love lauded here could be allegorically the love of the one true faith. (See the Introductory notes for further discussion of these points in relation to this and the other sonnets with religious references).
No doubt other interpretations are possible. HV for example stresses the links to neo-Platonic philosophy, and the fact that ‘Fair, kind and true’ could be the traditional Platonic triad, ‘The Beautiful, The Good, The True’ (HV.p.445). But no interpretation removes one entirely from the edge of the precipice, and the poem raises insoluble questions about a). Shakespeare’s attitude to organised religion; b). the social milieu in which he moved which might have allowed him to circulate poems like this one; c). the effect the inclusion of such poems in the sequence might have had on delaying the publication of the sonnets.
All Shakespeare’s uses of the word idolatrous, as well as his use of idol, are given at the bottom of the page. (See the note to Line 1). The discussion of the implications of the use of the words in this sonnet and the ideas implied continues below, adjacent to the examples quoted from the Plays.
The 1609 Quarto Version
LEt not my loue be cal’d Idolatrie,
Nor my beloved as an Idoll ſhow,
Since all alike my ſongs and praiſes be
To one,of one,ſtil ſuch,and euer ſo.
Kinde is my loue to day,to morrow kinde,
Still conſtant in a wondrous excellence,
Therefore my verſe to conſtancie confin’de,
One thing expreſſing,leaues out difference.
Faire,kinde,and true,is all my argument,
Faire,kinde,and true,varrying to other words,
And in this change is my inuention ſpent,
Three theams in one,which wondrous ſcope affords.
Faire,kinde,and true,haue often liu’d alone.
Which three till now,neuer kept ſeate in one.
1. Let not my love be called idolatry,
my love = my affection for you, my worship of you.
idolatry = worship of idols. The original biblical offence of idol worship relates probably to the worship of the golden calf and the prohibition of the second commandment ‘Thou shalt not have strange gods before me’. However in protestant England at the time, with its strong admixture of Puritanism, any devotion to statues, saints, the Virgin Mary, holy relics and symbols, could all be considered as belonging to some part of the spectrum of idolatry. Here, since the poet’s worship is for a mere mortal, it obviously is idolatrous.
There are five other uses of idolatry in Shakespeare. They are all listed below in addition to the seven uses of the word idol.2. Nor my beloved as an idol show,as an idol show = seem to be an idol, appear like an image that is worshipped.3. Since all alike my songs and praises besince – this can either be an explanation of why the poet’s behaviour might be construed as idolatrous, or as the start of a justification and defence against the charge of idolatry.
all alike = all similar; on all occasions.
my songs = my sonnets.4. To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
This is surely an echo of
Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum.
Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, is to You, God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory, forever and ever.
These are the words used at the Elevation of the host in the Tridentine Mass. I grant that the word match is not exact, but the rhythm and sense is very similar, and it seems to compel one to look at it as a sort of Trinitarian declaration. The usually quoted link to the Gloria Patri, which occurs in the Mass, is also relevant, especially as it names the three persons of the Trinity.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritu Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
However this does not seem to have quite the same verbal resonance as the words used at the Elevation, ‘per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso’. There are also probable links to the Athanasian Creed, which was used as an alternative to the Nicene Creed on certain Sundays, including Trinity Sunday.
The mystery of the Trinity is that the God of theology is three persons in one God, The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though three, they nevertheless are one everlastingly. Hence the emphasis in this line on the words to one, of one. In this case the one is the beloved youth. The songs and praises mentioned in the line above could be an echo of the ‘Gloria’ of the Gloria Patri, or of other Christian songs of praise, such as ‘Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will’. As SB points out, (p.337), idolatry was forbidden in various of the Homilies read out in the churches, and there is an echo of the Gloria Patri in the ‘Homily Against Idolatry’: “. . . images in temples and churches be indeed none other but idols, as unto the which idolatry hath been, is, and ever will be committed”.
still such = always unchanged, always such as you are now.5. Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,It is not clear why the poet emphasises kindness, which is only the second perfection of the triune listed below. Perhaps because fairness (beauty) he had already established as a sine qua non in many of the preceding sonnets. The constancy of the kindness is emphasised by having the word at the beginning and the end of the line. kind could also mean ‘of its kind’ indicating that the youth was always like his true self.6. Still constant in a wondrous excellence;still constant = always true, faithful etc.
in a wondrous excellence = in a way which is both excellent and wonderful.7. Therefore my verse to constancy confined,to constancy confined = restricted to the theme of constancy, or, compelled to be constant and unvarying. to confine – OED 4.b gives ‘to enclose or restrain within limits’, with the following example from Sh.:
Now let not Nature’s hand keep the wild flood confined. 2H4.I.1.154.8. One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
One thing expressing – i.e. the youth’s constancy. Or the one thing is perhaps the youth himself, now newly converted into a deity. His oneness is a manifestation of his constancy and his godliness.
leaves out difference = does not take account of any differences, does not recognise differences or anomalies. This is probably also a slightly parodied version of the doctrine of the Trinity, in which differences are not allowed in the three forms of the godhead. Much ink and mental gymnastics were expended by theologians in defining the true nature of the Trinity. In the Canon of the Tridentine Mass, the priest reads a preface, which for Trinity Sunday includes the following:
Quod enim de tua gloria, revelante te, credimus, hoc de filio tuo, hoc de Spiritu Sancto, sine differentia discretionis sentimus.
For what we believe from your revelation concerning Your glory, that also we believe of Your Son and of the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction;9. Fair, kind, and true, is all my argument,
Fair kind and true – these correspond to the triad of the neo-Platonic ideals, or forms, the Beautiful, the Good and the True. But given the religious theme of the sonnet, the reference is more likely to be to the three in one of the Trinity, God the Father, the judge, who is fair, God the Son, the Redeemer, who is kind and forgiving, and God the Holy Ghost, who stands for knowledge and truth.
is all my argument = is the only theme I have. Compare:
O, know, sweet love, I always write of you,
And you and love are still my argument;10. Fair, kind, and true, varying to other words;
Fair kind and true – The repetition stresses the constancy and unvariability of his theme. However it does vary to the extent of being expressible in different words (though not here).11. And in this change is my invention spent,in this change = in this variation of words; change is also a term used in campanology. The bell ringers ‘change’ the sequence in which the bells are rung. It was also used of a round in dancing, or of a variation or modulation in music.
my invention = my poetic creativity.
spent = exhausted, disbursed.12. Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.Three themes in one = the three themes of ‘fair, kind and true’; the three gods of the trinity, who are one god.
wondrous scope – an echo of the wondrous excellence of line 6. wondrous scope affords = presents a wonderful opportunity and space (for my poetic imagination to occupy).13. Fair, kind, and true, have often lived alone,have often lived alone – i.e. each one has been found singly in different characters, but never combined, or in company with the other two.14. Which three till now, never kept seat in one.
till now – until this time, until they were all together in you.
kept seat had their abode, lived in. The expression ‘the seat of (the honourable such and such)’ meaning their country house, was until recently fairly common. Many 19th. century topographical books had illustrations with such captions. Changing times have rendered the expression almost obsolete. OED gives it as short for ‘country seat’ but here it is used more as a composite verb, ‘kept seat’, ‘to keep one’s abode at’ etc.
The reference however is more probably to do with some doctrinal issue as to the nature of the Holy Trinity.
See the Introductory Notes for further discussion of the relevance of this sonnet to Shakespeare’s religious stance.
Uses of the word idolatry are listed below. They all relate to a man’s love for a woman, or a woman’s love for a man (the MND and RJ examples).
Then thou, fair sun, which on my earth dost shine,
Exhalest this vapour-vow; in thee it is:
If broken then, it is no fault of mine:
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To lose an oath to win a paradise?
Ber. This is the liver-vein, which makes flesh a deity,
A green goose a goddess: pure, pure idolatry.
God amend us, God amend! we are much out o’ the way. LLL.IV.3.65-72.
Demetrius, I’ll avouch it to his head,
Made love to Nedar’s daughter, Helena,
And won her soul; and she, sweet lady, dotes,
Devoutly dotes, dotes in idolatry,
Upon this spotted and inconstant man. MND.I.1.106-110.
Jul. Do not swear at all;
Or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee. RJ.II.2.112-5.
Tro. What is aught, but as ’tis valued?
Hect. But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer: ’tis mad idolatry
To make the service greater than the god
And the will dotes that is attributive
To what infectiously itself affects,
Without some image of the affected merit. TC.II.2.52-60
What should it be that he respects in her
But I can make respective in myself,
If this fond Love were not a blinded god?
Come, shadow, come and take this shadow up,
For ’tis thy rival. O thou senseless form,
Thou shalt be worshipp’d, kiss’d, loved and adored!
And, were there sense in his idolatry,
My substance should be statue in thy stead.
I’ll use thee kindly for thy mistress’ sake,
That used me so; or else, by Jove I vow,
I should have scratch’d out your unseeing eyes
To make my master out of love with thee! TGV.IV.4.190-201
The word idol is used seven times in the Plays. In two examples from Troilus and Cressida and one in Twelfth Night it seems to be used in the general sense of an image worshipped instead of a god, or fallaciously as a god. In the other four cases it is used of a man worshipping a woman, or a woman a man. The example below is typical:
PROT. Enough; I read your fortune in your eye.
Was this the idol that you worship so?
VAL. Even she; and is she not a heavenly saint?
PROT. No; but she is an earthly paragon.
VAL. Call her divine.
PROT. I will not flatter her. TGV.II.4.139-43.
The other examples of the use of idol are set out below.
Pol. [Reads]‘To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most
beautified Ophelia,’– Ham.II.2.109-110.
……………………………….shall the proud lord
That bastes his arrogance with his own seam
And never suffers matter of the world
Enter his thoughts, save such as do revolve
And ruminate himself, shall he be worshipp’d
Of that we hold an idol more than he?
No, this thrice worthy and right valiant lord
Must not so stale his palm, nobly acquired;
Nor, by my will, assubjugate his merit,
As amply titled as Achilles is,
By going to Achilles: TC.II.3.179-89.
ACH.How now, thou core of envy!
Thou crusty batch of nature, what’s the news?
THER. Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol of idiot worshippers, here’s a letter for thee.
ACH. From whence, fragment?
THER. Why, thou full dish of fool, from Troy.
PAT. Who keeps the tent now? TC.V.1.5-10
And to his image, which methought did promise
Most venerable worth, did I devotion.
1st Off. What’s that to us? The time goes by: away!
ANT. But O how vile an idol proves this god
Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame.
In nature there’s no blemish but the mind;
None can be call’d deform’d but the unkind:
Virtue is beauty, but the beauteous evil
Are empty trunks o’erflourish’d by the devil. TN.III.4.346-54.
For since the substance of your perfect self
Is else devoted, I am but a shadow;
And to your shadow will I make true love.
JULIA [Aside] If ’twere a substance, you would, sure, deceive it,
And make it but a shadow, as I am.
SILVIA I am very loath to be your idol, sir;
But since your falsehood shall become you well
To worship shadows and adore false shapes,
Send to me in the morning and I’ll send it:
And so, good rest. TGV.IV.2.119-28
Give me one kiss, I’ll give it thee again,
And one for interest, if thou wilt have twain.
‘Fie, lifeless picture, cold and senseless stone,
Well-painted idol, image dun and dead,
Statue contenting but the eye alone,
Thing like a man, but of no woman bred!
Thou art no man, though of a man’s complexion,
For men will kiss even by their own direction.’ VA.
From the uses of idolatrous and idol given above and to the right, it is fairly clear that Shakespeare understands the words in their most common sense of ‘the worship of an image or an object in place of God’ (idolatry) and ‘an object so worshipped’ (idol). But his most frequent use of the terms is in connection with a loving relationship, where one partner worships another. The connection with polytheism which some commentators cite is not at all obvious, or even necessary. Polytheism and idolatry are not synonymous, and Shakespeare does not view them as such, either in this sonnet or elsewhere. What is indisputable however in relation to this sonnet is Shakespeare’s obvious familiarity with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, perhaps as a result of learning with which he was imbued from an early age, perhaps as a result of later reading. (I suspect the former is more probable. All grammar school pupils would have a grounding in theology, and his later reading, as far as we can judge, seems to have been decidedly secular.) Such knowledge does not imply adherence specifically to either Catholicism or Protestantism, since the doctrine was common to both religions. The Reformation however did appear to strike out against idol worship in the old religion, as it perceived it, and it fiercely stripped many a church of its statues and images, deeming them to be symbols of idolatrous worship. The theme of idolatry was therefore much more in the public consciousness than it is today, and the determined statement, ‘Let not my love be called idolatry‘, rather like a deposition in a court of law, could be expected to have far greater resonance than it has nowadays. There is no point in suggesting modern equivalents, since it is ahistoric to transport experiences and prejudices from one age to another. But one should remember that, in the time of James 1, just as much as in that of Elizabeth, doctrinal questions were also political ones, and a belief in devils or idols or spirits, or lack of such belief, could be taken as a pointer to one’s true sympathies, and even as a determining factor in one’s loyalty to the crown.