The Language of Deceptive Transparency in Shakespeare’s Sonnets1

Par Mireille Ravassat
Publication en ligne le 28 décembre 2019


The first major point of the present contribution is to demonstrate that resorting, ut pictura poesis, to the falsely veridical, or naturalistic, Albertian device of perspective was a way for Shakespeare, in his collection of Sonnets, to elicit deceptive and duplicitous forms of transparency. A further most important point is to argue that Shakespearean versions of perspective diverge from Albertian norms on account of the single, restrictively monocular focus of the Perspective. Another major topic of interest is to demonstrate that glass, a topos in the poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries, although not very obtrusive in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, nevertheless undeniably informs our philosophical and aesthetic experience of reading this specific poetic collection. Accordingly, the purpose is to probe into the privileged connection between the poetic idiom and the notion of transparency, the very attribute of glass. The references to windows, mirrors, and other glass artefacts are meant to articulate the verbal and the specular through the medium of a privileged refractive prism. The final point will be to argue that Shakespeare’s Sonnets signal a major shift away from a sense of poetic discourse as evincing visual and semantic ideality – notably relying on the figure of the mirror as mimesis – to a sense of verbal duplication, even duplicity, and eventual opacity, not only in the Dark Lady Sonnets, but also in the Fair Friend ones.

Le premier objectif de cette étude est de démontrer que le procédé faussement véridique, ou naturaliste, de la perspective selon Alberti, que Shakespeare adapta, ut pictura poesis, à sa collection de Sonnets, lui permet de susciter des formes trompeuses, voire fallacieuses, de transparence. Un autre point crucial est de montrer que les interprétations shakespeariennes de la notion de perspective divergent des normes fixées par Alberti en s’affranchissant de l’axe exclusivement monofocal de la Perspective. Un autre axe majeur de la présente réflexion est de mettre en relief le fait que le verre, qui se trouve être un lieu commun de la poésie des XVIe et XVIIe siècles, bien que motif discret dans les Sonnets de Shakespeare, nourrit néanmoins en profondeur notre expérience tant philosophique qu’esthétique de la lecture de cette œuvre. À cet effet, une des directions essentielles de la présente démonstration est d’analyser la corrélation privilégiée qui s’instaure, au fil du texte, entre la notion de transparence et la matière même du verre. On s’apercevra ainsi que les références aux fenêtres, miroirs, et autres artefacts de verre, ont pour finalité d’articuler le mode verbal et le mode spéculaire par le biais d’un prisme de réfraction. Le point ultime de la démonstration consistera à prouver que les Sonnets de Shakespeare se démarquent, de manière frappante, d’un sens du discours poétique mettant en exergue une idéalité tout autant visuelle que sémantique – en s’appuyant notamment sur la figure du miroir comme mimesis – pour parvenir à un sens dédoublé du discours aboutissant à la duplicité, voire à l’opacité, tant dans les poèmes consacrés au jeune dédicataire que dans ceux ayant trait à la dame noire.


Texte intégral

1The present contribution is concerned with analysing some paradigms of « [t]he perspectival imperative that has structured so much of modern aesthetic interpretation with its instructions to “look through”, as the etymology of perspective suggests2». In other words, what is at stake here is a presentation of the world, in the early modern period, in terms of specular and verbal modes. The following investigation will be carried out in examining the founding Albertian metaphor of the painting, and, ut pictura poesis, of the text, as a window onto another world, a highly subjective one since Shakespeare’s Sonnets are, by definition, a most introspective type of poetic writing. Shakespeare’s Sonnets explore « the impossibility and the necessity of knowing and of showing the mind’s construction3 » through an intricate interplay of metaphors of painting, mirroring, acting and reproduction. Now, transparency in Shakespeare’s collection of mind-boggling Sonnets is all but an obtrusive subject matter although it greatly informs the thematic range and at times the very (meta)stylistic texture of the poems. The Sonnets go against the notion of imaginative ideality, and they manage to do so by taking into account, and ultimately by merging, the privileged connection between the poetic conceit and the very substance of glass. The Sonnets as such resort to the representation of windows, mirrors, and other glass artefacts in order to illustrate the link between the verbal and the specular in poesy, being in a position to be articulated as a matter of technical invention, and not only by means of either the symbolic emblem and the Neoplatonic invention, on the one hand, or the work of art, on the other. The point of the present paper is to argue that the glass artefacts featuring in Shakespeare’s Sonnets – notably mirrors – tend to offer a deceptively mimetic reflection verging at times on opacity. The modern assumption according to which language is so transparent as to take on an immaterial appearance – in other words, what matters is the signified concept and words are only indicators – finds itself reflected in Alberti’s celebrated perspectival pronouncement according to which the painting should have the status of a window onto the world. In the same way as the signifier, the painting was not supposed to call attention to itself, or rather its surface, but rather should produce the illusion of a space lying beyond the superficial stratum of the image. But, in the sixteenth century, the notion of perspective was construed in two ways, both as a collection of geometrical techniques meant to conjure up a three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface, and as optical instruments including lenses, mirrors, and panes of glass. « Insofar as Renaissance poets are perspectival poets, they are so primarily in this latter sense. For optical instruments showed transparency as a material attribute4 ». Also it should be kept in mind that the Renaissance « invested [the art of perspective] with far more than technical significance; for Neoplatonism in particular, the power to map, mirror, or represent the world bore witness to the spark of the divine in man5 ». The very theme of transparency follows a dialectical pattern of disclosure versus concealment to which the advent of linear perspective was hugely instrumental in that this particular phenomenon rendered possible a novel objectification of the self for the purpose of depiction, both by creating a deliberate distance between the artist and his subject and by seeming to allow a more accurate duplication of optical reality. The late sixteenth century is generally associated with the blossoming of such « private » literary forms and genres as the soliloquy, the sonnet, and autobiography, each of which had the mission of delving in a detailed way into personal experience. Bent on probing the innermost recesses of the human psyche, such eminent sonneteers as Sir Philip Sidney and Shakespeare exploited and yet enlarged the possibilities for far-reaching self-analysis which Petrarch had first brought to light and initiated in the sonnet cycle. The greatest difficulty meant voicing in an authentic way what lies hidden within, making it transparent, so to speak.

2Despite their frequent self-proclaimed claim to transparency, reading the Sonnets often amounts to « [seeing] through a glass darkly », to take up an excerpt from Saint Paul’s celebrated Epistle to the Corinthians. However there are exceptions – such is the case with Sonnet 3. Here, in the initial line and in the following one – by means of the Poet-Speaker resorting to the affective rhetorical method known as adhortatio meaning command – the Fair Friend is urged to contemplate his own image as a reminder that he should reproduce it for posterity, which amounts to the creed of the first seventeen sonnets: « Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest / Now is the time that face should form another. ». This particular « glass » is a literal one, it is any looking glass, whereas, line 9, the Poet-Speaker refers to a metaphorical glass symbolizing an exemplary image rather than an object sending back a merely mimetic reflection. To say more about the first glass though, before coming to the second one in further details, it should be kept in mind that:

The mirror was evidently far from what it has become for us, an occasion for reflexivity and self-consciousness. Whatever its use in everyday life, it was represented instead in a way that corresponded “exactly to the standard Renaissance model of cognition6”.

3Now, to come back to the second glass, this one exemplifies a model of duplication, or rather of replication, as Helen Vendler explains: « To the idea of replication-by-breeding this sonnet adds the idea of replication-in-a-mirror, combining the two in a single image of dynastic representation (Thou art thy mother’s glass)7 ». Starting in the sixteenth century, with Gascoigne’s Steele Glas of 1576, or The Mirror for Magistrates of 1599 onwards, the looking glass took on a highly symbolical function. Now, when, in the course of the same sonnet, lines 9-12, the poet moves on from « glass » to « windows », or operates a figural shift from glass to window, the symbolic translucence of the maternal heritage finds itself transmuted into a reference to the perspicuity of a mature epiphany:

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time. (Sonnet 3, 9-12)

4Here Saint Paul’s account of the spiritual illumination available at a mature stage of human existence – « For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face8 » – is perceptible, but with an emphasis on light, not on darkness and opacity this time. The term « windows » itself (line 11) – « through windows of thine age » – is to be understood as « through your age-dimmed eyes ». This is Stephen Booth’s gloss. The critic adds: « The phrase loses its precision if a modern reader forgets that non-distorting, fully transparent window glass is an achievement of recent technology9 ». Actually the same applies to the growing market for plate-glass mirrors in the sixteenth century. Indeed, it was not until the early sixteenth century that the technology for the production of flat looking glasses was initiated and developed in Venice and the latter came to replace the hitherto used and manufactured convex mirror10. Moreover the phrase « windows of thine age » is reminiscent of the biblical topos of the eyes as the windows of the soul inherited from the Psalms and harped upon by writers of the period. For Murray Krieger, in A Window to Criticism, this sonnet crystallises the structural pattern of the whole collection of Sonnets in merging a poetics of the mirror with one of the window. In Krieger’s theory, the mirror does not amount to a mimetic reflection of nature, but to « an enclosed set of endlessly faceted mirrors ever multiplying its maze of reflections but finally shut up within itself11 ». Krieger assigns to the window the mimetic function of language that the mirror is usually endowed with – the window eventually gives readers a view onto the world, in very much an Albertian perspectival fashion. The Sonnets, thereby to be construed as a window-mirror delineate the contours of the figura of a typically modern form of emerging poetics:

The mirror, the perspective glass, and the window were comparable to poetic language, not only as metaphors but because language too was phenomenological, in and of this world, a material instrument of observation, perception, and reception, and not only as voice and script but in its impressions on the imagination as the mortal flesh of reason12.

5In Sonnet 5, one key piece if any as far as the theme of transparency is concerned, there crops up the topos of time the creator and arch destroyer to be found ever and again in Shakespeare:

Then were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was.
But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
(Sonnet 5, 9-14)

6Physical decay closely and cruelly walks in the footsteps of physical bloom and perfection. The whole sonnet, as Katherine Duncan-Jones points out13, is pervaded with matrimonial references, and notably echoes to Sidney’s Arcadia and New Arcadia, like the reference to « crystalline marriage » compared to « a pure rosewater kept in a crystal glass », to be related to what Shakespeare terms « summer’s distillation » (line 9). This process of « distillation » and of « walls of glass » may also summon, although in an anachronistic way, a test tube wherein the Fair Youth’s precious seminal substance would be held. As for the idea of the womb, it is definitely inscribed here just as it crops up again in the mention of the « vial », presumably a transparent container: « Make sweet some vial, treasure thou some place/ With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-killed » (Sonnet 6, 3-4). Here, there is no ambiguity whatever: the Fair Friend’s semen (i.e. his « treasure ») should impregnate some woman’s womb, or « vial », so that « beauty’s rose » (Sonnet 1, 2) should not be left to die. « The gentle work on the embryonic young man was also done in “walls of glass”, that is, in the pure, crystalline womb of his mother », to be opposed to the Dark Lady’s foul uterus likened to hell, as the gynophobic waste/waist pun in Sonnet 129, 14 shows14.

7But to go somewhat further, what stands out in the end here is the idea of the Poet’s metastylistic preservation of the Fair Friend’s quintessential being for all seasons, a theme harped on in further sequences of the Sonnets. The young man is thereby made a prisoner for art’s sake, for us, readers, to gaze and wonder at. The message of Sonnet 5 is reinforced in an explicitly metastylistic way in the couplet of Sonnet 54: « And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth; / When that shall vade, by verse distils your truth ». The metastylistic dimension of Sonnet 5 is underscored by Rayna Kalas who writes:

Whether or not this sonnet describes the poet’s deflowering of the young man, at the very least it can be said that the collaboration of the poet and the young man that produces these poems is its own form of reproduction. For the “liquid pris’ner” of “summer’s distillation” is not only “pent” or trapped in “walls of glass” but also penned or written15.

8« Distillation » epitomises the peculiar poetic trend of this sonnet, which, even when it seems most transparent – when it has « walls of glass » – is not liberated from matter, but retains the ink penned on the page like a « liquid prisoner ». The issue of materiality in a poem of this sort – a poetics of glassy distillation – functions as a process of opposing time by preciously keeping what is wasted. New material is being produced out of the old, which is precisely the way a distillate works. Such initially independent notions as time, youth, and the act of poetic creation become combined through a process of framing by a glassy substance. Such a process of poetic transmutation depends on the phenomenological reality according to which glass, being a solid product, retains in its very liquid properties all the successive stages of its fashioning as well as the vestiges of its initial status.

9In Sonnet 5, in the Poet-Speaker’s insistence on the necessity of perpetuating one’s beauty through the birth of an offspring, the specular organ – i.e. the « children’s eyes » – acts as an apt mirror, an idea explicitly present in Sonnet 9: « When every private widow well may keep, /By children’s eyes, her husband’s shape in mind » (7-8). There is a process of double reflection at stake here: the children mirror their begetter’s image, an image itself to be duplicated, replicated in their own future progeny.

10However transparent and easily available as it may seem, the very solution afforded by an offspring is questioned in Sonnet 12, lines 9 and 10, wherein it appears that the assaults and ravages of Time may not leave the Fair Friend unscathed. The latter is bound and destined to be part of all the mortal beauties that must inevitably pass away, notably the beauties of the vegetal realm, « the violet past prime » (3) or the « lofty trees » « barren of leaves » (5): « Then of thy beauty do I question make, / That thou among the wastes of time must go » (9-10). Nonetheless, even here, in this poem dominated by doubt, the closing couplet leaves a glimpse of hope through the mention of « nothing », the same « nothing » between women’s legs that Hamlet refers to (III.2.119)16, which can allow a victory through procreation again and, thereby, abolish the seemingly all powerful scythe of time: « And nothing ’gainst time’s scythe can make defence / Save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence » (Sonnet 12, 13-14). Here is one of the paradigms of a deceptively transparent notion – « look[ing] on truth/Askance », that is obliquely, as the Poet-Speaker puts it in Sonnet 110, lines 5-6. The present citation from Sonnet 110 itself provides, ut pictura poesis, an apt definition of the artistic, pictorial, technique of anamorphosis « whose etymology itself suggests a back-and-forth movement, a constant forming and re-forming17 », in other words, a constantly restless shifting of perspective that most adequately fits Shakespeare’s apprehension of things, beings, events, and language. The term anamorphic is understood here in the figurative sense of oblique as when it is applied to narrative strategies or the expression of wit or ambiguity of which we find a typical instance here. This particular technique, which consists in eying things « awry », as Shakespeare has it in Richard II, was commonly practised and discussed between the 16th and 18th centuries then became a curiosity18. Alison Thorne also refers to this device as « the epistemological conundrum – paradoxical, tautological and self-negating – of that which “is, and is not” […] firmly associated in [Shakespeare’s] work with anamorphic perspective19 ».

11Starting with Sonnet 18, coming after the procreation sonnets, the Poet-Speaker clearly and triumphantly asserts the unrivalled superiority of poetry over progeny. But, just prior to this renewed trend of inspiration – namely in Sonnet 16 – is to be found an arresting self-defeating assertion which makes the poet’s pen appear as in no position whatsoever to counteract the all-powerful dictates of « this bloody tyrant, time » (Sonnet 16, 2), an assessment which, though apparently transparent, has to be read, in the perspective of what ensues, as a case of false modesty:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, time,
And fortify yourself in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
(Sonnet 16, 1-4)

12The transparent « glass » that shows the young man’s image to himself also signals the love bond between the Fair Friend and the older man, as the opening of Sonnet 22 testifies: « My glass shall not persuade me I am old/So long as youth and thou are of one date » (1-2).

13Now, when it comes to pronounced interdependence between Poet-Speaker and Fair Friend, Sonnet 24 is certainly a perfect illustration and is definitely a case of most convoluted specular conceit hinging on the theme of transparency. This very poem, being at the core of the present preoccupation, needs to be dwelt upon at some length. It starts with the description of the Poet-Speaker as a painter who has depicted his lover’s image in the table of his heart:

Mine eye hath played the painter, and hath steeled
Thy beauty’s form in table of my heart;
For through the painter must you see his skill,
To find where your true image pictured lies,
Which in my bosom’s shop is hanging still,
That hath his windows glazed with thine eyes:
Now see what good turns eyes for eyes have done:
Mine eyes have drawn thy shape, and thine for me
Are windows to my breast, wherethrough the sun
Delights to peep, to gaze therein on thee;
(Sonnet 24, 1-2/5-12)

14This one, very much a mannerist poem, revolves around the idea that by probing into the poet’s eye, which is the direct channel to his heart (8) – a common topos of Elizabethan love poetry by the way – the young man is in a position to visualise his own self, his own eyes having the function of a glass window. But, however deep the vision extends, the young man can have no idea of the real extent of the Poet’s love. The sun, equally in love with the young man, similarly uses the Poet’s eyes as channel to the youth’s reflected image. Though Sonnet 24 strikes an initial note with the frame of the body as a « table of my heart » (2), the very mention of « perspective » that is « best painter’s art » in the fourth line does seem to transmogrify that very bodily frame into a quadrilateral frame and to make the reader aware that the poet is striving to keep attuned to the « best » or latest techniques available to the painter. The shift occurring here, one from the frame of the body to the perspectival frame, is materialised through the presence of windows in subsequent stanzas of the poem. The very mention of windows almost encroaching on a reference to perspective is openly reminiscent of Alberti’s injunction that pictorial art should follow the laws of perspective designed to appear as a window opening onto the world. As for the particular attention paid to glass in the image of the window, it infers that « perspective » refers not only to the newly refashioned one-point perspective, but also to the new glass lenses and mirrors – themselves referred to as perspectives in a metonymical way – and that were used by artists.

15As for the word « glazed », which is a nonce word in the whole sequence of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it is to be understood in at least two ways. First of all, the « windows glazed » (Sonnet 24, 8) are a direct reference to the increased production and growingly affordable status of glass windows in the 16th century, thereby enhancing the image of the Poet-Speaker’s « bosom-shop » (7), as a commercial showcase. Secondly, as Stephen Booth explains, « glazed » holds the meaning of:

furnished with glass (but with a suggestion of “covered with a film”, the meaning “glazed” has in Richard II II.ii.16-20, a passage that shares much of the language of this sonnet: “For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,/Divides one thing entire to many objects,/Like perspectives which, rightly gaz’d upon,/Show nothing but confusion – ey’d awry,/Distinguish form”20.

16Such a visual phenomenon encountered in the course of a prior stage of the present demonstration, evinced by the second interpretation of the word « glazed », can definitely be accounted for as one of anamorphic representation. Finally, the term « perspective », in « And perspective it is best painter’s art » (Sonnet 24, 4), may refer to either the pictorial technique of perspective, a Renaissance innovation, or to the optical instrument allowing a precise vision of otherwise inaccessible things thanks to mere eyesight. The etymology of « perspective » is perspicere, that is, « look through », as is mentioned above, but, as often again in the Sonnets, the Poet-Speaker looks « on truth / Askance and strangely » (Sonnet 110, 5-6). The progressive movement that characterises this particular poem, « to find » the picture as the painter has authored it very rapidly embraces a backward movement: back to a « true image » that has already been « pictured ». Such a case of imitatio, the fact that imitation of the painter’s skill has taken on a character of urgency and insistence, urges the beloved, or Fair Friend, to see things from the very perspective of the painting, i.e. he should acknowledge the skill in question and look back upon the lover in order to reciprocate the gaze. However, linear perspective and the quadrilateral frame that fixes and ensures perspectival representation, though they have turned into major tools of modern analysis and explanation, when it comes to manners of envisaging things through sight, do not feature as any warrant of progress whatsoever in the present poem. The sonnet, in fact, seems to counteract any attempt at constraint or lack of manageability when it comes to the innovation of one-point perspective, the idea being that perspective, in the end, jeopardises poetic art. Indeed, although 24 is definitely and primarily a poem dealing with transparency, it nevertheless contains an arresting trompe l’œil feature underscored by Rayna Kalas:

That the image is deemed “true” calls forth the pun on “lies” that ends line 6: the “true image”, once “pictured”, lies still and tells a lie. Indeed, the “true image” of the beloved, although now impressed upon the poet’s heart, is also disembodied, abstracted from the life of its source. As the ideal form of that life, this image is not active but “pictured”: in “hanging still”, it “lies” motionless and tells a lie21.

17Rosalie Colie most cogently explains how paradox can find its way through both visual metaphors and visual practices, especially in connection with the ones revolving around mirroring, trompe l’œil, and other forms of illusionism in general. The very equivocation suggested by the paradox makes it assume mirror-like qualities. As such, the mirror turns out to be the paradox’s privileged emblem, the images provided by it being at once « thinkings », that is « reflections », « speculations » and food for thought for the spectator. The same remark can apply to the art of self-portraiture and to that of still life: « the more faithful the likeness, the greater the falsity of the picture, the greater its isolation from any reference point outside of the creating, re-creating self22 ». As it turns out, perspectival depiction amounts to a way of manipulating the surface of the image in order, through the vanishing point technique, to provide only the illusion of depth and furthermore it exacts that the onlooker behold « through the painter », seeing the image from that very point in space where the artist is deemed to have stood in order to produce the image. Through windows « glazed » with the eyes of the beloved, the Poet-Speaker is in a position to picture the celestial gaze of the sun in his mind’s eye, in other words, he can imagine that he is the object rather than the subject of the gaze. The outcome of such a peculiar specular phenomenon is that, in such a mutual exchange of glances, the fallacious artifice of the vanishing point of the so-called costruzione leggitima – that is of depth managed through perspective – is exposed. As a result, the assumed distance between viewer and viewed is reduced to naught, and its monocular positioning of all viewers at one single point is defeated. Taking into account the « good turns » that « eyes for eyes » can achieve in delineating the contours of the « shape » of another, the very bodily frame appears to be an effective remedy when it comes to the faulty framing of that « best painter’s art ». Most importantly, « [p]oetry seems here to be the ideal complementarity that responds to a visual duplicity23 ».

18Primarily, what finds itself at stake here, on account of the phenomenon of trompe-l’œil dwelt upon above, is the subversion of the very notion of optical naturalism. The very issue of the self-referentiality of painters focusing attention on their art and the visual hocus-pocus that goes with it finds itself exposed24. It should be made clear at this stage that « perspective rests on the ultimate visual paradox: complete deception in the service of utter veracity25 ». In fact, Leon Battista Alberti’s window opens but onto a fake reality. The optical illusion is managed through a featuring of three-dimensional forms receding behind a two-dimensional plane. The fallacious picture-plane consists in a vertical intersection managed at a certain point through, and by means of, a visual pyramid the apex of which is the eye, mirrored by the centric – or vanishing – point to which forms appear to recede in a purely illusionistic way. Here is a definition of what mimetic art is about, i.e. an ambiguous and insoluble combination of the false and the genuine. Ultimately the artist’s ability is apprehended according to its ability to approach such a mimetic ideal.

19Sonnet 26, like 76, is to be construed as an antiphrasis throughout. In it, the Poet-Speaker puts on a conspicuous stance of self-modesty, wallowing, vassal-wise, in an exacerbated sense of duty at the alleged expense of brilliant writing skills which are definitely his. In this poem, wherein the Poet-Speaker insists on his being the fair dedicatee’s social inferior, the conspicuous rhetorical mastery of the piece stands out, be it through the use of feminine rhymes or through the skilful use of mere syllables (e.g. « duty », lines 2-5, or « witness » and « wit », line 4):

Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit:
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit;
(Sonnet 26, 1-4)

20As for the closing line, it lays emphasis on the Poet’s desire to be transparent according to the dialectical pattern of disclosure and concealment pointed out and dwelt upon earlier on – « Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me », in other words, find me out, an idea itself anticipated line 4: « not to show my wit ». The prevailing impression is one of reading a text in a mirror, which reverses the printed order. The Poet-Speaker of the Sonnets assumes quite a number of roles and takes up quite a number of parts: the falsely modest artist like in the present instance, the preacher, the melancholy man, just to name a few. Such « a dazzling array of personae26 » which amounts to shifts of viewpoints « generat[es] a succession of selves whose discontinuity and contradictoriness preclude any integration into a single, unified entity27 ».

21Now, the Fair Friend, more often than not the byword for clarity, light and transparency – for instance, « his rose is true », he is a natural paragon and « nonpareil », thereby avoiding the opacity of cosmetics famously indicted by both Claudius and Hamlet in the eponymous tragedy – may also turn out to embody quite the reverse, like in Sonnet 33 where the closing line makes the friend appear as tainted because charged on grounds of betrayal. The sun/son paronomasia, to boot, is one that crops up often in Shakespeare, whether explicitly or implicitly like here: « Suns of the world may stain, when heaven’s sun staineth ». In Sonnet 35, by exonerating the friend, the Poet-Speaker takes on the part of the former’s fault and as such the stain contaminates him. Once more transparency gives way to opacity against a cosmic background. The tone is a gnomic one: « No more be grieved at that which thou hast done; / Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud; / Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun, » (Sonnet 35, 1-3). As such Illona Bell’s statement below should be somewhat qualified:

The dark lady sonnets draw us into a world where passion distorts judgement, where duplicity and role-playing are a mark of sophistication, and where it is difficult to distinguish truth from lies. Whereas sonnets 1-126 idealize and eternize the man, covering up or excusing his moral lapses, the dark lady sonnets set out to be honest about the woman’s attractions and limitations28.

22In Sonnet 43, rather a straightforward poem, although replete with paradoxes and oxymora, the youth’s radiance illuminates the Poet-Speaker’s nights bestowing upon them the translucency of daylight: « Then thou whose shadow shadows doth make bright » (5); « And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me » (14). Sonnets 46 and 47 form a diptych opposing, on the one hand, the realm of artefacts – pictures, miniatures, paintings – and, on the other hand, the true image of the beloved hidden and cherished in the lover’s heart. These two poems rehearse the Renaissance topos of true love stemming from the heart and mere attraction being born at the sight of beauty, as is said in Romeo and Juliet: « young men’s love, then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes » (II.3.67-68)29. Here is part of this rhetorical debate taking the form of a legal disputation resolved in Sonnet 46: « My heart doth plead that thou in him dost lie, / A closet never pierced with crystal eyes » (5-6), « And by their verdict is determined / The clear eyes ’ moiety, and the dear heart’s part » (11-12). Here the transparency of eyes said to be « crystal30 » finds itself implicitly contrasted with the opacity of the enclosed heart.

23In Sonnet 62, the Poet-Speaker broaches again a theme essential to the Sonnets as a whole, that of identity, and notably that of cleft identity, a theme already tackled in Sonnets 36 and 39. As Joel Fineman has it: « identity in the young man sequence is always defined as its own duplication; it is something that can be itself only insofar as it is something other31 ». This time, the topic of narcissism is transferred away from the Fair Youth to the loving Poet-Speaker who is made to acknowledge that whatever beauty he can pride himself on is but a reflection of the young man’s idealised features: « ’Tis thee (myself) that for myself I praise, / Painting my age with beauty of thy days » (13-14). This poem further explores the other-as-self concept culminating in line 9: « But when my glass shows me myself indeed ». To take up Stephen Booth’s explanation:

[…] the conjunction of the three words enriches the ideational fabric of the poem, making it feel as if it were bottomed in precise distinctions between truth and falsehood, reality and illusion, substance and shadow (my glass), and physical fact (indeed) and spiritual fact (inward in my heart)32.

24As for Sonnet 71, it is a deceptively transparent sonnet wherein the Poet-Speaker seemingly urges the Fair Friend to forget him whereas, in fact, just the reverse is meant and intended – in reality, the Poet-Speaker adopts here a disguised self-commemorative strategy: « No longer mourn for me when I am dead » (1) is to be read as an antiphrasis, as the pun on « rehearse » (line 11) indicates: « Do not so much as my poor name rehearse », to be construed apparently as « do not repeat my poor name », but with a superimposed meaning: « do not bury myself again by forgetting me ». In Sonnet 81, the Poet-Speaker’s insistence on a plea for oblivion of himself and his œuvre at the expense of the Fair Youth carries the selfsame motif yet somewhat further, actually to the very extreme limit of the train of thought in question. In these two instances wherein the very issue of deceptive, or duplicitous, transparency is most certainly at stake, antiphrasis takes on the form of amphibology or amphibologia, a statement which can be read in utramque partem, a rhetorical device and stance George Puttenham in his Arte of English Poesie (1589) himself referred to in a vernacular fashion as « the Ambiguous »: « as [w]hen we speake or write doubtfully and that the sence may be taken two ways ». Such a sense of « general linguistic ambiguity, of language “at cross-purposes with itself”33 » definitely elicits a sense of paradoxical discourse closer to duplicity than to straightforward transparency – « Deceits of the senses that are two things at once, two-or-more-in-one, are the parallel in natural philosophy of the verbal paradox of contradiction, since they raise and illustrate the same puzzles about the nature of perceived reality34 ».

25Sonnet 77, as far as it is concerned, is in the memento mori vein: « Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear » (1). This sonnet goes a long way from the early Sonnet 3 wherein the looking-glass showed the Fair Friend’s youthful, blooming perfection. Here time has really gone by and the selfsame « glass » shows « wrinkles » reflected for good.

26The topos of deceptive transparency, or of fair outward show and foul inward reality already alluded to, is developed in a series of sonnets. The couplet of Sonnet 93 is a good example: « How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow, / If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show ». Sonnet 94, as far as it is concerned, develops the argument throughout. In Sonnet 95, the Poet-Speaker yet harps on the theme and drives the point home by still more emphasising the young man’s beauty that too easily exonerates him from blame:

O in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose!
(Sonnet 95, 4)
O what a mansion have those vices got,
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot,
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!
(Sonnet 95, 9-12)

27For the third time, in Sonnets 3 and 77 beforehand, the Poet-Speaker urges the Fair Friend to gaze at himself in a mirror but, whereas the first time this was in a perspective of wished for reproduction, the second time in a sic transit gloria mundi vein, in Sonnet 103, the point is to extol the youth as a nonpareil with the Speaker-Poet again wallowing in a mood of self-abasement: « Look in your glass, and there appears a face / That overgoes my blunt invention quite » (6-7), two lines reinforced by the couplet: « And more, much more, than in my verse can sit / Your own glass shows you, when you look in it. »

28In Sonnet 119, recovering from the effects of what has become a maddening relationship with his young friend, the Poet-Speaker says he has « drunk » « potions » « of siren tears » « [d]istilled from limbecks foul as hell within » (1-2). The present passage from opacity to recovered transparency can be accounted for in the following way: « “Tears” are the drops of moisture that condense at the top of the still and rain down upon the blackened body lying at the bottom of the alembic, cleansing it of its impurities35 ».

29As far as Sonnet 126, the last poem in the Fair Youth sequence, is concerned, it contains the only occurrence of « glass » out of seven in the sense of an hourglass, said to be « fickle » – « O thou, my lovely Boy, who in thy power / Dost hold time’s fickle glass, his sickle hour, » (1-2) – because traditionally held by the allegory of Time, itself characterised by mutability just like the sand trickling down and thereby giving a material rendering of the relentless passing of hours and minutes.

30In the Dark Lady series, in Sonnets 137 and 148, the Poet-Speaker insists on the idea of love madness which makes him see things awry: « Thou blind fool love, what dost thou to mine eyes, / That they behold, and see not what they see? » (Sonnet 137, 1-2). This is equally the whole argument of Sonnet 148 starting: « O me! What eyes hath love put in my head, / Which have no correspondence with true sight? » (1-2).

31In Sonnet 127, the Dark Lady’s beauty is no concession to fashion contrary to the often artificial fair beauties. In this respect at least, she is to be read as an open book. Her black is true just as the Fair Friend’s rosy cheeks which need no cosmetics to enhance their natural hue, and as such are a token of transparency, as was pointed out earlier on. However, in the end, the poem as a whole is not to be understood at face value as « the paradoxical assertion that what is black (dark) is now regarded as fair (light) identifies this sonnet, like 130 and 132, as a conceited exercise in mock-encomium36 ». In Sonnet 131, it turns out that the real blackness of the Dark Lady is an inward matter: « In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds » (13). This is explicitly the subject matter of Sonnet 147 which ends this way: « For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright, / Who art as black as hell, as dark as night » (13-14). Sonnet 138 probes into the system of the mutually dependent type of mendacity that links the Dark Lady and the Poet-Speaker, one pretending she is chaste and the other pretending he is still young. Duplicity is best exposed in the punning couplet expressing the idea of mutual acceptance of lies and of having sex: « Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be ».

32The Reformation had limited much of the cultural traffic between England and Italy and precluded attention to art that dealt mainly with religious subjects. The English tradition went on valuing perspective for practical purposes mainly, such as ways of building, fortification, astronomy, for instance – and not in association with aesthetic subjects37. Shakespeare, but also Jonson, Chapman, or Drayton, « responded to what were, for them and their generation, the new-fangled devices of perspective and chiaroscuro38 ». But it was definitely Shakespeare who was the most receptive to this device, the most inclined to see that « perspective it is best painter’s art » (Sonnet 24) and to probe into the implications of such a technique when it came to his own art. However « Shakespearean versions of perspective diverge from Albertian norms. As a dramatist, he is necessarily concerned with multiple and conflicting points of view, rather than with the single, restrictively monocular focus of the costruzione leggitima39 ». Such a statement equally perfectly fits the spirit of the Sonnets. Furthermore, in 1938, art historian William M. Ivins published a book whose title gave way to a theory henceforth known as « the rationalization of sight », and applied time and again thereafter to a pattern of linear or one-point perspective, an impact bearing on the culture of post-Renaissance Europe. Stuart Clark, as far as he is concerned – when it comes to the early modern period, most especially the time span between the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution – argues for a notion of the instability of vision40, what he refers to as « the visual instabilities of an age41 ». Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, everything deemed to be accurate when it came to visual cognition, amounted to a rehash and recycling of Aristotelian theories. Actually, the relationship between specular apprehension and cognitive approach was particularly « unsettled » in late Renaissance Europe42. As such, distinguishing between the true and the false turned into a quasi impossible feat. In the same period, vision came to be impacted by the crucial refashioning of thought that came with the adoption of perspectival techniques by the artists and art theoreticians of the Italian Renaissance, namely Leon Battista Alberti. Perspective and its anamorphic derivatives are then to be perceived in the wider context of a strong appeal of visual fallacy, or more accurately, of visual deceptiveness. Attempts at re-establishing codes and conventions of visual rationality were made by Descartes and Hobbes in the 17th century. Such thinkers strived to do away with resemblance as the founding stone of cognition and substitute instead a characteristically mechanical explanation of the phenomenon with a view to put sight and the other senses back into a more stable pattern in keeping with the tenets of the new philosophy.

33Now, as a conclusion to the present train of thought, it could be argued that glass, mirrors, in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, are akin to books recording existential matter often in a perspective of shadowy contemplation. The present demonstration is in the line of Joel Fineman’s argumentation in his Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye, according to which glass artefacts, namely mirrors, are not endowed with a mere mimetic function anymore, but operate a shift away from a strict mimetic rendering of ideality towards « a poetics of double tongue », and ultimately one of opacity43. As such the poems reviewed more generally thrive on paradoxes, namely paradoxes of diffracted or cleft identity. One of Fineman’s key ideas in Perjured Eye is that the modern subjectivity crafted by Shakespeare in his Sonnets44 does away with the specular ideality of the epideictic tradition, or poetic tradition of praise, and replaces it with the « poetics of double tongue » mentioned above. Thus, most of the time in Fineman’s vision, the « ideal complementarity » or « true vision » that the Poet-Speaker indissolubly associates with the Fair Youth sonnets is replaced by the « suspicious word » of the « duplicitously verbal » Dark Lady sonnets, a statement that requires some amount of qualification in the perspective of most of the poems reviewed in the present contribution45. Finally, what remains fascinating for us, 21st-century readers, is what could be termed the obliqueness of the writing strategies adopted by early modern writers – Shakespeare being a case in point – many literary texts offering the possibility of an « anamorphic » reading owing to their peculiar wit, ambiguity, or cult of uncertainty.


1 All quotations from the Sonnets are from Katherine Duncan-Jones’s edition: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, The Arden Shakespeare (Third Series), London, Thomson, [1997] 2005.

2 Rayna Kalas, Frame, Glass, Verse – The Technology of Poetic Invention in the English Renaissance, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 2007, p. 181.

3 Clark Hulse, «Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the Art of the Face», John Donne Journal 5 (1986), p. 3-26, cited in Alison Thorne, Vision and Rhetoric in Shakespeare – Looking through Language, London, Macmillan Press LTD, 2000, note 25 to chapter 4, p. 252.

4 Rayna Kalas, op. cit., p. 136.

5 Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning – From More to Shakespeare, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, [1980] 2005, p. 18.

6 Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye – Vision in Early Modern European Culture, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 18. The quotation within the quotation is referred to in note 60 to chapter 1, p. 35, and is due to Debora Shuger, « The “I” of the Beholder: Renaissance Mirrors and the Reflexive Mind », in Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt (eds.), Renaissance Culture and the Everyday Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, p. 31.

7 Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Harvard, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, [1997] 1999, p. 59.

8 1 Corinthians, 13. 12.

9 Stephen Booth (ed.), Shakespeare’s sonnets, Edited with analytic commentary, Yale, Yale University Press, Nota Bene Books [1977] 2000, p. 139.

10 Alison Thorne, op. cit., p. 107, and note 15, p. 251.

11 Murray Krieger, A Window to Criticism:Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Modern Poetics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1964, p. 3, cited in Kalas, op. cit,. p. 186, and note 35, p. 236.

12 Rayna Kalas, op. cit., p. 187.

13 Katherine Duncan-Jones, op.cit., p. 120.

14 Dympna Callaghan, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Malden MA, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 99.

15 Rayna Kalas, op. cit., p. 173.

16 Hamlet edited by Harold Jenkins, The Arden edition of the works of William Shakespeare, London and New York, Methuen, [1982] 1986.

17 Stephen Greenblatt, op. cit., p. 23.

18 See « perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon / Show nothing but confusion; ey’d awry / Distinguish form » (Richard II II.2.14-17). For other references and applications of anamorphosis in Shakespeare, see Henry V (V.2.20-23), Twelfth Night (V.1.216-217), and All’s Well That Ends Well (V.3.47-52). For a complete study of anamorphosis in Troilus and Cressida, see Thorne, op. cit., chapter 5: « Troilus and Cressida, “Imagin’d Worth” and the “Bifold Authority” of Anamorphosis », p. 135-165.

19 Alison Thorne, op. cit., p. 135.

20 Stephen Booth, op. cit., p. 174.

21 Rayna Kalas, op. cit., p. 180.

22 Rosalie L. Colie, Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox, Princeton, New-Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1966, p. 360.

23 Rayna Kalas, op. cit., p. 181.

24 On this particular subject, see Rosalie L. Colie, op. cit., p. 276-277.

25 Stuart Clark, op. cit., p. 83.

26 Alison Thorne speaking of the Prince of Denmark’s « antic disposition », op. cit., p. 108.

27 Ibid., p. 121.

28 Illona Bell, « Rethinking Shakespeare’s Dark Lady », in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Michael Schoenfeldt (ed.), Malden MA, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 299.

29 Romeo and Juliet edited by René Weis, The Arden Shakespeare (Third Series), London, Methuen drama, 2012.

30 See also Henry V (II.3.54) and Venus and Adonis (963).

31 Joel Fineman, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye – The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, University of California Press, [1986] 1988, p. 223.

32 Stephen Booth, op. cit., p. 243.

33 Margaret D. Burrell, « Macbeth: A Study in Paradox », Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 1954, p. 90, cited in Stuart Clark, op. cit., p. 264.

34 Rosalie L. Colie, op. cit., p. 312.

35 Margaret Healy, in « “Making the quadrangle round”: Alchemy’s Protean Forms in Shakespeare’s Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint », in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Michael Schoenfeldt (ed.), Malden MA, Blackwell Publishing, p. 415.

36 Katherine Duncan-Jones, op. cit., p. 368.

37 See Alison Thorne, op. cit., p. 43-45.

38 See Lucy Gent on the subject, referred to in Alison Thorne, op. cit., p.44-45, and see note 32 p. 235 where Gent’s book is mentioned: Picture and Poetry, 1560-1620: Relations between Literature and the Visual Arts in the English Renaissance (Leamington Spa, 1981), p. 22-27.

39 Alison Thorne, op. cit., p. 56.

40 Stuart Clark, op. cit., p. 1.

41 Ibid., p. 331.

42 Ibid, p. 2.

43 Joel Fineman, op. cit., p. 15.

44 A statement to be qualified: see Alison Thorne, op. cit., note 3, p. 250, referring to Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London and New York, Methuen, 1984), and Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London and New York, Methuen, 1985), p. 33-51. Thorne writes: « Both see the emergence of the modern subject, first given philosophical definition by Descartes and Locke as a consequence of the rise to power of the bourgeoisie after 1650, though they concede that it is foreshadowed in literature from the turn of the century onwards ».

45 See the remark above concerning Illona Bell’s sweeping statement.

Pour citer ce document

Par Mireille Ravassat, «The Language of Deceptive Transparency in Shakespeare’s Sonnets1», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°7 - 2013, mis à jour le : 28/12/2019, URL :

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Mireille Ravassat, docteur et agrégée d’anglais, est maître de conférences à l’Université de Valenciennes où elle enseigne la littérature, la stylistique et la version. Spécialisée dans la Renaissance anglaise, la traduction, la poésie et le théâtre, elle axe ses recherches sur le langage et le style de Shakespeare. Elle a publié de nombreux articles et chapitres sur ce sujet et organise régulièrement des séminaires, notamment aux congrès d’ESSE. Elle a co-dirigé avec Jonathan Culpeper, linguist ...