Sonnets for Advent 13: Sonnet 43

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Today’s sonnet is a fascinating reminder that most of Shakespeare’s sonnets do not reveal the sex of their imagined (or real) addressee.

Sonnet 43 is addressed to an intimate ‘thee’ but whether that person is male or female remains open. Only 20 of the Sonnets are unambiguously addressed to a male (man, young man, or boy, and not necessarily the same imagined addressee in each of those categories), and only 7 are unambiguously addressed to a female or females. You can find out more about this fascinating dimension of the Sonnets in the book I co-authored with Stanley Wells by clicking here.

So I arrive at the curious use of the word ‘shadow’ in this sonnet. When we recall that ‘shadow’ in Shakespeare’s time also meant ‘actor’ (think of Robin Goodfellow’s ‘if we shadows have offended’ at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), then what we have here is, it seems to me, a deliberately playful and indeed flirtatious sonnet, flirtatious with its sibilant sounds (‘sleep’, ‘shadow’, ‘shadows’, ‘show’, etc.), as well as in its sentiment: night again is illumined with dreams of the beloved.

It’s read by one of our Shakespeare Aloud actors, Jennifer Stone.

Sonnet 43
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.
Then thou, whose shadow shadows doth make bright,
How would thy shadow’s form for happy show
To the clear day with thy much clearer light,
When to unseeing eyes thy shade shines so!
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessèd made
By looking in thee in the living day,
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay!
All days are night to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Find out more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets via our free on-line course

Listen to the same sonnet being read by a student at the University of Tubingen by clicking here.

You might like to treat yourself to The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s own, exclusive edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by our Honorary President, Professor Stanley Wells C.B.E., and beautifully printed by Oxford University Press. Find out more by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Bruce Leyland

    Again I wonder if, like 33, this is addressed to a dead child. I find this reading very moving. The emphasis on shades also supports this. The anticipated reunion at the end would then be in heaven.

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