Magazine: Explicator; Summer 1997
SHAKESPEARE'S SONNET 73That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The production, in summer 1996, of William Shakespeare's The Tempest by the Indiana Repertory Theatre made a number of interesting adaptations of the drama for a modem audience. Some of the less-significant changes were the incorporation of jazz and blues into the play by the drunken butler Stephano, who was played by an African American, and the double casting which the director deployed very effectively. But perhaps the most important change that this production brought to the drama was the substitution of five or six of Shakespeare's sonnets for the pageantry scene in which Prospero summons island spirits, who appear in the form of Greek goddesses, to perform a ceremony in celebration of the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda. In a post-performance discussion, the director remarked that she made this substitution to make the celebration of love more accessible to a modem audience, who may not appreciate the significance of the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno in the pageant. The last sonnet incorporated into this scene, number 73, serves philosophically to remind Prospero of his mortality, even during this awesome spectacle of his creation, and more practically to remind him of the plot against his life. This sonnet is one of Shakespeare's best, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it may be interpreted in a number of different ways. The Indiana Repertory Theatre's interpretation of the sonnet is widely held; however, I subscribe to an alternate reading which not only would have been appropriate to this scene in The Tempest, but would have provided a drastically different effect.
The IRT production accepts a common interpretation of the sonnet that life and death, or more specifically the mortality of the poet or speaker, is its theme. This reading assumes that the topic of the sonnet, the speaker's life, is constant throughout. That is, the poet always speaks about his own life to his auditor (in Shakespeare's case, the young man of the sonnet sequence, in Prospero's case, his daughter Miranda). In this production of the play, Prospero joins the anonymous speakers in the background in the recital of Sonnet 73 and assumes the role of the poet, injecting his own life into the text as the object of attention. Prospero becomes painfully aware of his own mortality as his reading of the sonnet progresses. By the end, he is speaking to his daughter, but even more so to himself, about the certainty of his death at some future time. I would paraphrase his reading of the finishing couplet as "My imminent death you perceive, Miranda, which makes you love me more because you will one day lose me to death." Prospero is then characterized in the drama as a man who awakens not only to his own mortality, but to the limits of his magical powers. This interpretation has credence in the context of the play, but I think it overlooks the emphasis that the director admittedly intends to place on the development of Prospero's character.
An alternate reading of the sonnet, and the application of that reading to The Tempest, would have demonstrated effectively a recognizable change in Prospero from a selfish to a selfless man. I believe that the theme of the sonnet is, rather than death, the passing of youth; and I also believe that the topic of the sonnet shifts in the couplet from the speaker's life, to the addressee's life. This alternate reading of Sonnet 73 is neither unique nor recent, however. In a note in the June 1948 Explicator, R. M. Lumiansky argued that the "young person to whom the poem is addressed must inevitably grow old and experience those things which the poet says, in the three quatrains, he is experiencing in his old age.
I believe that the key to the difference between the two readings lies in the last line of the sonnet. First, we must recognize the importance of the demonstrative pronoun "that" in the final line of the sonnet. The question we need to ask is, "To what does 'that' refer -- the speaker's life, or the listener's?" The director of the IRT production chose the former possible answer, the speaker's life, or more specifically, Prospero's life. Based on the grammar of the rest of the line, I believe that "that" refers to the listener's life and therefore should, if adapted to The Tempest, refer to Miranda's youth. The final clause of the sonnet provides the textual evidence supporting my and Lumiansky's reading because it is a modifying clause which further describes the ambiguous "that" -- "which thou must leave ere long." The problem with the common interpretation of the sonnet, which insists on the consistency of the speaker's mortality as the topic, is that the grammar of this final clause contradicts it. Why, if the speaker is referring to his own life, does he state that the listener must "leave" the speaker's life? If the "that" in the final line does refer to the speaker's life, then why doesn't the last line read "To love that well which thou must lose ere long?" Or why doesn't the action of leaving have as its subject the "I," the poet, who in death would leave behind his auditor?
If we read the last line with a stress on "thou," according to the meter, then the grammar and the meaning become consistent, and the reading of the sonnet insists upon the shift in focus from the speaker's life (and imminent death), to the addressee's imminent loss of youth. Instead of referring to some future day when the addressee will lose the speaker to death, the last line of the sonnet refers to the day when the addressee's youth, like the speaker's, will be gone: "To love that [youth] well which thou must leave ere long." I submit, then, that the focus of the sonnet shifts from the speaker's youth, which has already passed, to the addressee's, which is still in bloom. The sonnet's theme then resembles, or rather anticipates, the theme of carpe diem as it is most notably exemplified in Robert Herrick's mid-seventeenth-century poems "To Virgins, To Make Much of Time" and "Corinna's Going A-Maying."
Lumiansky, R. M, "Shakespeare's SONNET LXXIII." The Explicator 6 (June 1948).
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 73." The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 3rd. ed. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1980.
-----. The Tempest. Dir. Libby Appel. Indiana Repertory Theatre, Indianapolis. 19 Mar. 1996.
By JOHN S. PRINCE, Ball State University
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Source: Explicator, Summer97, Vol. 55 Issue 4, p197, 3p.