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Sample 10

Extract from Part II of Shakespeare: a Hidden Life Sung in a Hidden Song

SONNET 124:  Shakespeare continues with his avowals of constancy. The term, “child of state” (line 1), is primarily a metaphor for “political product” or “political expediency”.

     As for secondary connotations, it seems that the poet was making an artful reference to his faithless friend's history. Southampton, who on the death of his father became a ward of state when aged only eight, was arguably “unfathered” twice. His wardship ended in acrimony as we have seen earlier.

     “The fools of time”, who “die for goodness” (lines 13 and 14), are considered by many commentators to be a reference to martyrs, such as the Earl of Essex, executed in 1601, or the Gunpowder Plot gang of Guy Fawkes, executed in 1606.

     However, it is unlikely that Shakespeare would call upon martyrs to witness his constant love if he regarded them as “fools of time” (and hence apparently unreliable or stupid). I suggest that the concluding couplet was, in fact, aimed at the poet's detractors (Sonnet 121), including, by implication, Southampton, whose inconstancy the poet was challenging. They are the “fools of time”, similar in their vulnerability to Time’s deceits and depredations as is the “Time’s fool” of Sonnet 116, which this sonnet echoes.


If my dear love were but the child of state,

It might for fortune’s bastard be unfathered

As subject to time’s love or to time’s hate,

Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gathered.

No, it was builded far from accident;

It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls

Under the blow of thrall-ed discontent

Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls:

It fears not policy, that heretic,

Which works on leases of short-numbered hours,

But all alone stands hugely politic,

That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with showers.

To this I witness call the fools of time,

Which die for goodness who have lived for crime.


If my dear love were but the child of State,

It might, as Fortune's spawn, be cast away,

An object of Time’s whims, a babe of fate:

A weed in weeds or bloom in brief bouquet.

But it is not a thing of accident;

It withstands smiling pomp and is not blown

Aside by strictures or disparagement,

To which these fickle times are all too prone.

Nor is it swayed by fads or policy,

Which change as minutes turn into their hours;

But, statesmanlike, stands independently,

Immune to fiery heat or weeping showers.

Take heed, all those who bend as time goes by,

That live in sin, repent when death is nigh.