The Naked Poet: Revelations in the Shakespeare Sonnets

William Shakespeare's Sonnets 33 and 34 are two sonnets that tell a continuous tale of disgrace. Both sonnets describe the same episode of rejection the poet suffers from his lover and are concerned with similar imagery and themes. However, while Sonnet 33 concentrates on superficialities and laments the lover's humiliating situation, Sonnet 34 takes a decidedly bitter turn and intimately portrays the poet's feelings of rejection. The two sonnets are alike in theme, metaphors, allusions, and characterization of the poet. Sonnet 34, however, becomes noticeably more introspective: the sonnet focuses on the poet's inner dissatisfaction rather than love's outward splendor; the theme of medicine, transformation of the human body, replaces the theme of alchemy, transformation of the inanimate. In addition, the poet renews and adds to the allusions to the Passion of Christ in Sonnet 34 to further underline his feelings of humiliation and equate his lover's crime to universal sin.

The two sonnets, while distinctly divided, in reality describe a single incident where the poet suffers disgrace because of a shameful act his lover has committed. Naturally, the two sonnets contain similarities in many areas such as diction, imagery, and style. Shakespeare's conscious decision to reiterate certain words--base "clouds," "face," and "disgrace"--reveals the connection in theme between the two sonnets. Many words and phrases in Sonnet 34 echo specific terms chosen in Sonnet 33. "Beauteous day"(34,1), for example, plays off of "glorious morning"(33,1); "Rotten smoke"(34,4) corresponds to "basest clouds"(33,5). The lover's "bravery"(34,4)--glory, display--in Sonnet 34 recalls his "splendour"(33,10) in Sonnet 33. In both sonnets, a shameful incident appears to eclipses love's brilliance. Moreover, Shakespeare employs meteorological imagery throughout the two sonnets. He likens the lover to the sun in both sonnets, employing direct metaphor in Sonnet 34--"my sun one early morn did shine"(33,9)--and indirect allusion in Sonnet 34 where his lover "[dries] the rain on [his] storm-beaten face"(34,5). In both cases the splendor of the lover or sun becomes obscured by shame, or dark clouds. The dynamic forces of nature serve to wreak havoc in the poet's life in both sonnets; Sonnet 33 describes the sun just "mask'd"(33,12), and the poet weathers a tempest in Sonnet 34 and emerges with a "storm-beaten face"(34,5). This imagery underscores the ever-changing nature of love and the poet's concern with his fragile mortality. Alchemy and precious gems, while specifically described in Sonnet 33--"Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy"(33,4)--are consistently alluded to in the imagery of both sonnets. "The meadows green" become "golden"(33,3), his lover shines with "all-triumphant splendour"(33,10), his tears are transformed into pearls and become "rich"(34,14). This theme of alchemy and transfiguration continues in Sonnet 34 with a shift in its application. The last verse of Sonnet 33 "Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth" begins the religious imagery that Sonnet 34 picks up on and strengthens. "Suns" can be interpreted as a play on "sons"--where "Suns of the world" refer to God's children--or "sins," where "Suns of the world" refer to the corruption of mankind. In Sonnet 34, the religious allusions continue with Shakespeare's choice of biblical words such as "repent"(34,10), "offender"(34,11), and Christ's "cross"(34,12). Finally, throughout the two sonnets the poet remains the passive victim of his lover's transgressions. In Sonnet 33 he is the "world" that becomes "forlorn"(33,7) when the sun "[steals] unseen to west"(33,8); in Sonnet 34 the poet, while realizing that the lover cannot atone for his transgressions, still relies on him to "ransom all ill deeds"(34,14). The interrelated themes, imagery, and diction of the sonnets tie them together in a consistent presentation of a single episode.

While similar, Sonnet 34 takes the motifs and emotions introduced in Sonnet 33 and delves deeper into the tempest of the poet's consciousness. Shakespeare in Sonnet 34 places more emphasis on the poet's inner suffering rather than surface appearances of love's glory; and the imagery of the transformation of metal is partially disregarded in favor of the transformation of the human form. Because Sonnet 33 focuses more on superficialities, Shakespeare pays much attention to the refulgent appearance of objects such as the "golden face"(33,3) of the meadows and the "[gilded] pale streams"(33,4). The word "flatter"(33,2), belying insincerity, further emphasizes the shallowness of the appearances. In addition, the imagery highlights facial features extensively: Shakespeare describes the sun's "celestial face"(33,6) and "visage"(33,7) and the poet's "brow"(33,10). These appearances, in place of substance and inner emotions, are featured extensively in Sonnet 33. Moving on to Sonnet 34, the reader will discover an increased emphasis on the poet himself and his feelings. The poet refers to himself constantly--"my storm-beaten face"(34,6), "my grief"(34,9),"I have still the loss"(34,10)--and describes his sufferings extensively. He speaks of his "wound," "disgrace"(34,8), "grief"(34,9," "loss"(34,10) and bearing "the strong offence's cross"(34,12). The word "travel"(34,2) invokes associations with "travail" or pain and and toil. Parallel to the increased focus of the sonnet itself on interior, Shakespeare takes the theme of transformation and alchemy in Sonnet 33 and applies it on the poet's body itself. Medicine's ability to heal and transform is a central motif of the sonnet. Words that invoke medical associations are scattered throughout the sonnet--"salve"(34,7), "physic"(34,10), and "relief"(34,11), for example--and Shakespeare refers specifically to medicine's ability to "[heal] the wound"(34,8). Thus alchemy of the human body is emphasized over alchemy of inanimate substances, given the shift in focus of Sonnet 34 compared to Sonnet 33. The poet in Sonnet 34 appears to be concerned with his own mortality when in fact his interests are in the ephemerality of 3 love. These foci reveal the poet's humanity, his concern with self, and ensure the sonnet's everlasting appeal.

Whereas Sonnet 33 describes the lover's shame and the poet's feelings of regret, Sonnet 34 frankly reveals the anger and bitterness the poet feels, where the lover's actions are denounced through allusions to Christ's sufferings. Sonnet 33 implies that the lover almost has no control over his misfortune. The "basest clouds . . . ride with ugly rack on his celestial face"(33,5) without his consent, forcing him to steal away with disgrace. However, in Sonnet 34 the poet begins to place the blame on the lover, on his forsaken "promise" of "a beauteous day"(34,1). The lover permits "base clouds"(34,3) to overtake the poet, and the poet fumes that no amount of repentance on the lover's part can make up for his transgressions. The disgrace that the lover suffers in Sonnet 33 becomes a disgrace for the poet. Hence, the aforementioned increased focus on the poet's inner turmoil and thus his weakness, his humanity. The poet's vindictiveness can be felt through his insistence on universalizing the lover's crime. The lover is the sun and its crime is against the entire "forlorn world"(33,7), all mankind. Sonnet 34 begins the allusions of the poet to himself as Christ, where he has to atone for the "suns of the world"(33,14) or "sins of the world" that the lover, or all man, has committed. The lover has broken his promise of good weather in Sonnet 34, as Judas has broken his promise not to betray Christ. Medicine can "[heal] the wound and [cure] not the disgrace"(34,8); Christ rises from death, yet he has already died for man's sins. The most specific allusion to crucifixion occurs when the poet speaks of himself "[bearing] the strong offence's cross"(12). Thus the poet is Christ and the lover the sinner, the "offender"(34,11) that needs to "repent"(34,10). The lover's sins have become mankind's sins and emerge all the more unforgivable. Sonnet 34 marks a progression from the exterior of Sonnet 33 to the interior, and serves as an accusatory tirade of the poet's against the lover's sin.

Unlike previous sonnet sequences, Shakespeare's sonnets features honest, unapologetic portrayals of the poet's most intimate range of emotions. Sonnets 33 and 34 are two sonnets that describe an incident, perhaps a rejection of love, that brings disgrace to the poet. While both sonnets reflect on this theme extensively and employ similar imagery relating to weather and alchemy, Sonnet 34 is much more intimate and dramatic in its characterization of the poet's feelings of abandonment and shame regarding the affair. Typical of Shakespeare's unapologetic portrayal of the most intimate emotions and reflections, in Sonnet 34 he bravely presents the poet's perversely egotistical move of likening himself not to a scorned lover, but to a Christ that has been sinned against by mankind. However accusatory the poet's tone, it is revealing that by the couplets of the two sonnets the poet always reverts to a tone of reconciliation and forgiveness. In Sonnet 33 the poet declares: "Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth"(33,13). In Sonnet 34, the poet goes a step further by abruptly reversing the role of himself and his lover, characterizing the lover as Christ who can "ransom all ill deeds"(34,12) or redeem mankind by dying for their sins. By doing so the poet in effect forgives the lover for his offenses, despite the movement of the two sonnets that seems to indicate otherwise. The sonnets are but a single episode in an entire sequence where the passive poet strives but fails to free himself from this passionate yet miserable relationship.