As an unperfect actor on the stage,
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
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."
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- Booth, Stephen (1977). Shakespeare's Sonnets. Yale University Press, New Haven.
- Dowden, Edward (1881). Shakespeare's Sonnets. London.
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- 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.
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