These are a few of my favourite things, but you are better than all these, Sonnet 91 seems to say. For me this sonnet is a good example of how, when imagining Shakespeare as our contemporary (perhaps in modern-dress), equivalents can easily be found. So, until line four, the aspects of life that some most prize would all stand today, and then for ‘hawks’, ‘hounds’ and ‘horse’, it’s easy to imagine ‘football’, ‘golf’, and ‘fast cars.’ But it’s the second half of the sonnet that strikes me the most: the voice of the poet valuing the addressee (an intimate ‘thee’ who might be male or female) even above high birth (and this from Shakespeare who succeeded in claiming a coat of arms for his family’s name). And then the fear that creeps in towards the end with the uncertainty that the addressee might ‘take / All this away’. How? Through breaking an intimate relationship, or perhaps through death itself?
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments (though new-fangled ill),
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse,
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest.
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be,
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.
Click on the post below to hear Sonnet 91 read by my colleague Viv Tomlinson.
You might like to visit a similar Shakespeare for Advent project led by students at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.