‘Sonnet 23,’ also known as ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage’ is number twenty-three of one hundred fifty-four sonnets that Shakespeare wrote over his lifetime. It is part of the famous Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (numbers one through one hundred twenty-six). This sonnet is one of several that taps into the theme of writing and the power that the written word has or does not have.
The poem uses several similes to compare the speaker’s state of mind to a wild animal, replete with rage, and to an actor who has forgotten his lines for all the fear he’s experiencing. The speaker, in the same way, is overwhelmed with the amount of love he feels. Because of this, he is unable to accurately express himself. He tells the Fair Youth that instead he’s going to turn to writing and it is through the written word that the youth will have to hear from him.
‘Sonnet 23’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that is structured in the form known as a “Shakespearean” or English sonnet. The poem is made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet, or set of two rhyming lines. It also follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
As is common in Shakespeare’s poems, the last two lines are a rhyming pair, known as a couplet. They often bring with them a turn or volta in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers. In the case of ‘Sonnet 23,’ the final two lines provide less of a turn than that which exists between the first eight lines and the last six. At this point, the speaker informs the youth that it is only through books that the problem presented in the first two quatrains is going to be solved.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 23’. These include but are not limited to simile, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There are two in the first quatrain. In the first the speaker compares his mind to that of a frightened actor overcome with fear and unable to remember his lines. The poem begins with the word “As”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “for fear” and “forget” in line five and “book” and “breast” in lines nine and ten. Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six as well as eleven and twelve.
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 23,’ the speaker begins by crafting a multi-layered simile that compares his current state of mind to an actor and a “fierce thing”. The first half of this simile starts that the speaker describes himself as an actor who doesn’t know his lines or gets up on stage and forgets them. Too much “fear” keeps him from remembering them.
Alternatively, he compares himself to a powerful, “fierce thing,” an animal, that has “too much rage”. Both speak to him of the damage he is doing to himself. The beast’s strength “weakens” its “own heart”.
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burden of mine own love’s might.
In the next four lines of ‘Sonnet 23’ the speaker adds onto this saying that because of hits way he feels he can’t trust himself to say what needs to be said. He is worried he hasn’t or he won’t say the things he’s supposed to say to his love, the Fair Youth.
The strength of his love is contrasted with what it’s doing to his mind. As well as how weak that makes him feel. Just when it seemed to be at its peak he is weakening. He is “O’ercharged” (an example of syncope) with the burden of his “love’s might”. Just as the animal in the first lines was filled to the brim with rage.
O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
In the third quatrain of ‘Sonnet 23’ the speaker determines that the only way he’s accurately going to be able to get his emotions across is through writing. His speech, as a fearful actor’s, is going to fail him.
Through his books his love will have to read his emotional depth. They have the ability to “plead for love and look for recompense” than his tongue doesn’t at this point. Even if his tongue has in general said more throughout life.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ!
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
In the final two lines of ‘Sonnet 23,’ the speaker concludes by saying directly to his love, the Fair Youth, that he should “read” in the books the things that the speaker is unable to say. “Love hath writ” upon the pages and it is through love that the youth will be able to interpret everything the speaker has been unable to say.