Sonnet 23

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Sonnet 23

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 burthen 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.

–William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 23 is one of the sequence addressed to a well-born young man. It is of special interest because of its use of a metaphor drawn from acting, a figure that has led to much attention for what the poem might reveal about Shakespeare's attitude towards his profession.

Source and analysis[edit]

Hermann Isaac notes parallels to the central dilemma of the poem ranging from Petrarch, the Renaissance locus for love-conceits, through Wyatt and Edmund Spenser, to Walter Raleigh and Samuel Daniel. The reference to acting has struck some critics as relevant to the author's biography. George Steevens, an advocate of early composition, argued that Shakespeare might have derived the image from watching performances of traveling troupes in Stratford; Malone suggested that the image implies familiarity with acting, not spectating. However, the image is not unique to Shakespeare and need not be taken as personal.

"For fear of trust" has drawn different, though not necessarily contradictory, glosses. Nicolaus Delius has it "from want of self-confidence," with which Edward Dowden substantially agrees; Thomas Tyler adds "for fear that I shall not be trusted," and Beeching agrees that "the trust is active."

"Dumb presagers" is sometimes seen as a continuation of the acting metaphor; a dumb show often preceded each act of Elizabethan plays. Fleay suggests a more specific indebtedness to Daniel's Complaint of Rosamond, 19.

The principal interpretive issue relates to "books" in line 9. George Sewell and Edward Capell, among others, supported emendation to "looks," principally because the syntactical connection with "presagers" seems to require a word in line 9 that can evoke future time. Both words fit into the trope of the lover struck dumb by his love, and hoping to use his books (or looks) to make himself understood. Editors from Malone to Booth and William Kerrigan have defended the quarto reading, and most modern editors generally retain "books."




  • Alden, Raymond (1916). The Sonnets of Shakespeare, with Variorum Reading and Commentary. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.
  • Baldwin, T. W. (1950). On the Literary Genetics of Shakspeare's Sonnets. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
  • Booth, Stephen (1977). Shakespeare's Sonnets. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  • Dowden, Edward (1881). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London.
  • Evans, G. Blakemore, Anthony Hecht, (1996). Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Hubler, Edwin (1952). The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Schoenfeldt, Michael (2007). The Sonnets: The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry. Patrick Cheney, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Tyler, Thomas (1989). Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London D. Nutt.
  • Vendler, Helen (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

External links[edit]