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Essay/Term paper: Shakespeare's sonnet 53

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's Sonnet 53

Whether we realize it or not, we often give overlook the faults in the people who are dear to us. We focus on their good qualities and ignore the bad. This practice is not unique to our culture nor is it unique to our era. Shakespeare in his sonnet numbered 53, compares all beauty to his friend, and criticizes for trying to be as good as his friend. He does this by seemingly comparing his friend to things of beauty when in reality he is suggesting that his friend is the ideal and the beautiful things are merely copies or reflections of the friend.

In choosing the words to describe the person in this sonnet, Shakespeare grabs hold of "what is loveliest in the world at large,"1 In the first two lines, Shakespeare asks what his friend is made of: "What is your substance, whereof are you made, /That millions of strange shadows on you tend?"2 Here he is asking how it is that shadows not produced by the person can be seen on him. He continues to elaborate on this question with the suggestion of his friend's indistinctness "as though he were a versatile actor whose true self were never disclosed."3 He writes: "Since every one hath, every one, one shade, /And you, but one, can every shadow lend."4 The friend does not have a single shadow

as others do but in spite of being a single person, reflects the image of everything that is beautiful. The poet plays with words when he writes "every one hath, every one, one shade."5 He is not emphasizing the word "one" but is using it to suggest the complexity of his subject and to imply that "one is, or may be, more and other than one"6 because this is how the friend seems to him.

The next two lines of the sonnet tell how the revered Adonis is merely a poorly constructed replica of the friend. "Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit/Is poorly imitated after you."7 The beauty of Adonis can only mirror qualities that are truly seen in the friend of the poet. The use of the word counterfeit in Elizabethan poetry was often used not only to imply imitation but deceitful intentions as well.8 So not only is Adonis a poor copy of the poet's friend but his beuaty is nothing more than a counterfeit of the original.

Adonis is not the only reflection of the friend's beauty; other legendary figures of beauty find their "counterpart[s] in the young man."9 Shakespeare continues in comparing all beauty to his friend in lines seven and eight where he writes, "On Helen's cheek all art beauty set, /And you in Grecian tires painted new."10 The beauty of Grecian clothing, such as may have been worn

by Helen of Troy, is also said to be a copy of the subject of the sonnet.

Besides comparing the ideal human form and beautiful clothing to the friend, Shakespeare compares springtime and harvest and everything beautiful to him. Lines nine, ten, eleven and twelve read,

"Speak of the spring, and foison of the year:

The one doth shadow of your beauty show,

The other as your bounty doth appear."11

Here Shakespeare suggests that spring, however lovely, is not as beautiful as his friend, and that the harvest is nothing more than the overflow of his beauty. Line eleven encompasses all other things of beauty and says that they can only be fully observed in the friend.

The sonnet ends with the lines, "In all external grace you have some part, /But you like none, none you, for constant heart."12 Here he is saying that everything possessing beauty is in someway related to his friend. Although these things are related to the friend, they differ from him because of his constant heart.

To recap and conclude, the friend whom "we have known as the pattern of all things lovely,"13 is said to be the pattern of beauty within Adonis and Helen, in Grecian attire, within springtime and harvest as well as in everything of beauty.

Although all of these things contain his likeness, his constant heart remains his own. By comparing all things beautiful to the

friend, Shakespeare is not only paying him a compliment but is also criticizing all other beauty for being a counterfeit. The person described in this sonnet may have been beautiful, but being human, he must have had faults. Sonnet 53 shows how we often overlook the faults in the people we love.


1 James Winny, The Master-Mistress: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968) 130.

2 William Shakespeare, Sonnet 53 The Sonnets (Waltham, Massachusetts: Blaisdell, 1968) 55.

3 Winny 130.

4 Shakespeare 55.

5 Shakespeare 55.

6 Shakespeare 55.

7 Shakespeare 55.

8 Winny 132.

9 Winny 131.

10 Shakespeare 55.

11 Shakespeare 55.

12 Shakespeare 55.

13 G. Wilson Knight, The Mutual Flame: on Shakespeare's Sonnets and The Phoenix and the Turtle (London: Methuen, 1955) 118.


Alpers, Paul J. ed. Elizabethan Poetry: Modern Essays in

Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1967.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Mutual Flame: on Shakespeare's Sonnets and

The Phoenix and the Turtle. London: Methuen, 1955.

Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 53 The Sonnets. Waltham,

MA: Blaisdell, 1968.

Winny, James. The Master-Mistress: A Study of Shakespeare's

Sonnets. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968.


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