The theme of consolation in Shakespeare’s sonnets

Cathrine Amato

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Throughout Shakespeare’s sonnets we’re faced with the speaker’s despair and sense of social inferiority. In sonnets 25, 29-31, 37 and to some degree in sonnet 66, the speaker is able to find consolation in his misfortune, through the love of his friend. The beginning of each of these sonnets reveal the speaker’s misery, but then we’re faced with a sudden mood change, or change of thought, into a more positive state of mind. All six sonnets have in common that their concluding couplet reveal how the speaker’s love of his friend serves as a consolation, or perhaps compensation, to his misery. We find how the speaker, although depressed, betrayed and faced with misfortune finds happiness, comfort and the strength to hang on through the love of his friend.

In sonnet 25, the speaker laments over his state in society, not being blessed with wealth and titles from birth. We sense a feeling of social inferiority, which is a key-source to his misery. In the two last lines of the first quatrain he uses the words bars and unlooked for, which gives the reader a picture of him as confined and outcast. He compares himself and his state to those who, much like his friend, are blessed with titles from birth.

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,
Unlooked for joys in that I honour most.

Having, thus, encountered the speakers depressed state in the first quatrain we’re suddenly faced with a but, implicating change, which is very usual for Shakespeare. Hereafter he considers negative aspects of the fortunate state, which he previously seemed to envy, saying that, the famous and fortunate need only to make one mistake to be deprived of their glory.

But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:

A change of mood has thus occurred, and the speaker is able to find positive aspects in his state, which he reveals in the concluding couplet.

Then happy I, that love and am beloved
Where I may not remove nor be removed.

Hence, he turns disadvantage into advantage. "…the Poet contrasts those who are Fortune’s favourites, and liable to fall at any time without warning, with himself, permanently happy (as he thinks) in his love." (Muir, 57) He, himself, does not need to worry about being deprived of what he has, since his and his friends love is constant and is not subject to change. "Everything is subject to envious and calumniating time, except (as the final couplet claims) a constant and reciprocated love."(Muir, 57) Thus, he is able to turn a negative into a positive, his poor state in society being compensated with the constant love of his friend. This sonnet displays great similarities to sonnet 29, in that they both show the speaker lamenting on his unfortunate state in society, they both present an abrupt change, and they both show the compensation by love of his friend in the concluding couplet.

In sonnet 29, the speaker expresses utter loneliness, saying that society has turned against him, and that heaven, or presumably God, won’t even listen to his prayers. Cursing his unfortunate fate, he wishes to be different. Even his biggest enjoyment, which is not revealed, dissatisfies him.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate:
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least:

Having lamented on his misfortune to a point where he despises himself, his mood suddenly changes, and much like we encountered a but, in the sixth line of sonnet 25, here we encounter the word yet, both words suggesting change. From here on, we’re suddenly faced with words such as haply, lark, break of day, arising, from sullen earth, sings, hymns and heaven, all suggesting happiness. Previous to this abrupt change we encountered words implicating sadness, anger and enclosure, such as disgrace, alone, beweep, outcast, trouble, deaf, bootless, cries and curse. " It is an impressive catalogue of the ills and misfortunes of life, splendidly dispersed by the image of the lark at break of day who sings hymns at heavens gate…." (Muir 57) Again we see how the sonnet starts out with Shakespeare feeling depressed or outcast, only to abruptly change in the second half of the sonnet. As in sonnet 25, the ending couplet reveals how the speaker’s love for his friend consoles him, or compensates for his misfortune. Thus, although he despises himself, the thought of his beloved friend lifts his spirit to the extent that he wouldn’t want to change his state with kings.

For thy sweet love remembered such wealth bring
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

In sonnet 30 we find our speaker in a state of grieving. Unlike the two earlier sonnets, in which the speaker laments his state in society, sonnet 30 deals with thoughts on times past, lost loves and deceased friends.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

The similarity of sonnets 25, 29 and 30 lays in the consolation the Poet finds in his friend. "…Shakespeare declares that his friend is a compensation for all his own deficiencies of talent and fortune and for all his failures and disappointments…. In sonnet 30 he declares that his friend is a compensation, not merely for many disappointments and unrealized hopes, but also for the loss of earlier friends."(Leichman, 203-204) The ending couplet of sonnet 30 is almost identical to sonnet 29’s, in that they directly state how the thought of his friend’s love brings him happiness.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Thus, as Muir states " Once again the sorrows of human existence are set in the scales against the Poet’s love." (57)

Sonnet 31 seems to be a follow-up to sonnet 30, in that the speaker continues to talk about his deceased friends. Here the theme of consolation is approached differently from above sonnets. Rather than stating that the mere thought of his friend consoles him, he, here, is consoled by detecting images of the deceased in his friend. "In this sonnet the Poet grieves for ‘precious friends hid in death’s dateless night’; but in XXXI he rejoices that his friends who were buried are now in W.H.’s bosom…."(Muir, 58)

Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give-
That due of many now is thine alone:
Their images I loved I view in thee,

Although his consolation is not stated directly as in the previous three sonnets, we can as readers certainly sense the Poet being comforted by his former friends qualities coming alive in this man.

In sonnet 37, like in sonnets 25 and 29, we are again faced with the speaker’s despair over his subordinate state in society, followed by a list of what composes a fortunate state. "The sense of social inferiority, general throughout the Sonnets, is here very evident: and beauty, birth, wealth, and wit make an almost complete catalogue of the advantages of being born a handsome young nobleman." (Wilson, 38) By adding his love to these components, the speaker feels he partakes in the glory of his friend.

So I, made lame by fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth;
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store,
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despis’d
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am suffic’d
And by a part of all thy glory live.

Hence, by adding a part of himself, his love, he no longer feels as unfortunate, since, he indirectly takes part of his masters glory. " …he takes comfort in the thought that, even if separated from his Friend, the love they bear each other, or at least he bears him, enables him to imagine himself sharing in the Friend’s ‘glory’." (Wilson, 38) Thus, here the speaker is able to derive consolation through sharing in his friend's glory. From line 1 and 2, we’re told that his love for his friend is that of a father’s to a son, and like most fathers take delight in their children’s fortune, so does the speaker in his friend.

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I…

In the concluding couplet, the speaker wishes all the best to his master, and in doing so he automatically, since he is a part of his friend, gains happiness himself.

Look, what is best, that best I wish in thee:
This wish I have; then ten times happy me!

Sonnet 66 does not directly deal with consolation, however, since it shows great similarities to the previous sonnets in that it deals with the speaker’s depressed state and the love for his friend, it’s worth discussing. In its entirety, save the very last line, this sonnet deals with the speaker’s resentment and anger with society.

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn
And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, form these would I be gone,
Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

The speaker’s tone is that of utter despair and we are informed that he no longer want’s to live this struggle, but has reached a limit where he is ready to give up. Words such as, beggar and desert portrays his poor state in society. As in sonnet 29 the speaker uses the word disgrace, along with other words, such as, disabled, tongue-tied and controlling, all implying how mistreated he feels by society. The aggressive repetition of and, which begins all sentences, save the first, second and the two last, shows both despair and anger. We get the feeling he is so eager to reveal his despair, or spill his guts, he almost stumble over his own sentences with the continual use of and. In the first line of the final couplet, he states how tired he is of everything and that he’s rather be dead. But then, again we’re faced with and abrupt change, perhaps not so much in mood as in previous sonnets, but in thought. As in sonnets 25 and 29, where Shakespeare used the words but and yet, to imply change, here he uses save.

Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

He claims the love of his friend is the only thing keeping him in this world. Consolation can not be as directly felt in this sonnet as in previous sonnets; however, the speaker’s willingness to endure for the love of his friend is clearly stated. Hence, all his despair is compensated by the love of his friend. As in all the previous sonnets there is an abrupt change from anger and despair to such a divert subject as love.

Hence, the theme of consolation or compensation runs through all these sonnets, although the way in which the speaker is consoled differs. We’ve been shown, in different degrees and angles, how the speaker derives consolation for his misery in his beloved friend.

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