Sonnet 23: As An Unperfect Actor

William Shakespeare

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 looks 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.

 

This is another Shakespeare that’s been adapted by Rufus Wainwright (also fuckin’ awesome) and one that sums up my entire feelings on love and the difficulty expressing it.

Willy does a nifty thing here, by breaking up his metaphors.  The opening image is of an actor who fails to stay in character because of his fear and lack of practice. I guess even in Shakespeare’s day, people felt pressured to act and behave in particular way and something as world altering as love, throws off all out easy habits and forces us into new roles. The same langue of theater is used a few lines down in “so, I for fear of trust, forget to say, the prefect ceremony of love’s rite.” I’m not sure if the fear of trust means this actor does not trust himself, will not be trusted by his would-be lover, or that this poet fear to trust the would-be lover with the confession of his passion.  Knowing Shakespeare, it could mean all three. He’s cool that way.

The second image from the third line, that fierce thing who’s own strength weakens his heart is so familiar to me. The image conjures an animal who’s lost control and in trying to express his passions does it too forcefully and destroys his own cause. That metaphor is picked up again in line 7 with “And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay, O’ercharg’d with the burden of my own love’s might.” This beast is burdened by the un-confessed love and decaying with that secret.

This interspersed metaphors serve to undercut the next section of the poem. The poet, in his writing, cannot keep his ideas straight, and yet he pleads for his books, his written words to express his love clearly.

At the final turning of the sonnet, he writes “Oh, learn to read what silent love hath writ: to hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.” The poet surrenders to his love, knowing that he cannot use his own voice or his own written words to express his devotion.  He has to appeal to the lover to learn a new way of understanding, to look beyond his muttering and his roaring to hear “love’s fine wit.”

 

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