April 19, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas
Sonnet 33
By: William Shakespeare

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
’Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break, 5
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak
That heals the wound and cures not the disgrace.
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss. 10
Th’ offender’s sorrow lend but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offense’s cross.
Ah, but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich, and ransom all ill deeds.

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While Sonnet 33 seems to be in the form of a soliloquy, Sonnet 34 is directly addressing the wayward friend. There has been some obvious passage of time between the two sonnets, and 34 uses more intimate, reproachful, and simplistic language. Also like Sonnet 33, 34 continues the metaphor of the sun and clouds, repeats key words of 33 (with the idea of fallen “bravery,” or ostentatious pride), “face,” “disgrace,” “base,” “cloud,” and the idea of rotting, “ugly rack,” “rotten.” Sonnet 34 takes the form of a dramatic monologue and is a credit to the poet, Shakespeare. The sonnet suggests a scene and the successive staging of confrontation and reply: the friend having just arrived, the poet’s accusations, the friend’s apology, the poet’s immediate “that’s not good enough!”, the friend’s blushing shame, the poet’s acknowledgment and relentless pounding, and the breakdown of the friend into tears.[1] Then the poet’s dubious response in the couplet.

The friend has returned and apologised, “’Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break;” but the “disgrace” still remains, both for him and the speaker. The hurt and surprise is apparent and is given voice in the form of a mordant, cruel rebuke.[2] Neither the friend’s return, nor his “shame” are enough to “heal”[3] the speaker’s “loss.” The medical imagery alludes to some physical injury suffered by the narrator, who was caught in the storm without his “cloak,” i.e. without protection, and wounded. The “disgrace” that was suffered by the friend has now taken the form of the speaker’s “loss.”

This “loss” can be interpreted in several ways: the loss of an ideal vision of the friend; the culpability of public humiliation; something not previously mentioned; or loss of the friend’s constancy. Sonnet 33 would support the former and latter readings, while 34 supports the mean two. As discussed above, the poet’s image of the Sun-Friend has been shattered, as was his microcosm built around that image; this could easily be acknowledged as the poet’s loss. The “loss” as public humiliation can be supported by the lack of the poet’s cloak in the unexpected storm. The cloak could represent some public risk the poet took for the friend that backfired, or any number of things that left the poet exposed and alone, thus supporting, really, all of the readings above. The poet was left unprotected and was thus suprised and injured by the disgrace. In another sense, the poet’s world has now been unmasked by the friend and reality has rushed in destroying the ideal and the microcosm.

With such a “loss” dealt to the poet, he is filled with “love and hate,” the latter bringing the friend—the perfidious Judas—to tears. The image of the “cross” and the ideas that it evokes are very cruel. From the poet’s injured point of view the friend is akin to Judas betraying Jesus, destroying the divine world that he was trying to create, and displaying him naked to the world. While this thinking is logical—showing the awfully keen mind of the poet—it is a very strong, merciless conceit. With the realization of the significance that image, the friend, almost pitiable having been crushed under the poet’s juggernaut, breaks into tears.

Perhaps the poet has gone too far without realizing it, is miraculously filled with love by his friend’s contrition, and can truly forgive him now for his “ill deeds.” Perhaps the poet has gone too far because he does not know the power of his own words? Maybe, like a malicious god, the poet is reveling in his friend’s tears and pronounces the last lines with ironic relish? Perhaps the narrator is swelling with pride for having reversed their positions? Perhaps the poet has talked himself into believing his own palliating words? All of these arguments are supportable, and all can be realistically envisioned.

For the Elizabethans, however, a couple of the explanations are better suited. The reversal of positions, though they love paradoxes, will not do because order and relation have not been reestablished, but turned upside down. The poet has become a tyrant of love exceeding his rightful position and dishonorably not bestowing grace upon the beaten friend. Excessive pride in the poet will mark him for an even larger fall than his previous. Caritas would be acceptable to Elizabethan readers: the innocent poet taking the sin upon himself introducing hope and a chance for reconciliation.[4] Also legitimate would the poet not truly knowing himself: a chance for individual growth is an auspicious situation.

To a contemporary audience, any of the interpretations would do—perhaps a few more are within reason. Gloating, manipulating, hurt lovers, vindictive parents, and power-hungry acquaintances can all relate to the poet’s situation. The pertinent question remains with the culpability of the poet. Is he malicious or ignorant in his powerful use of words? And is he truly forgiving?

Speculation before an explication of Sonnet 35 would support the poet’s ignorance but desire to forgive. With his imaginative words he had created a perfect, little world where he and his friend are static and infallible. With the onset of an outside event initiated by the friend, reality shatters the naive creation of the sensitive, ingenious, yet ignorant, poet. Forgiveness, by the end of 33, has only been achieved on the tenuous level of language; the poet’s “loss” and his “cross” persist.[5] This remains implicit, but capable if inference, in Sonnets 33 and 34, and will become explicit in Sonnet 35.

Notes and Citations

  1. Martin, Philip (1972). Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Self, Love and Art. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. p. 68.
  2. Martin 1972, p. 67.
  3. Ingram and Redpath supply two likely definitions for heals: “heales”—to heal in amodern sense; “heles”—to cover or hide. While the former definition is obvious the latter carries more weight in the sense that the poet now feels shame and disgrace, and furthers the “mask’d” allusions. See Ingram, W. G.; Redpath, Theodore, eds. (1964). Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: U of London P. p. 82.
  4. Krieger, Murray (1964). A Window to Criticism: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Modern Poetics. Princeton: Princeton UP. p. 155.
  5. Krieger1964, p. 156.