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Sample 7

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

SONNET 80: In his opening lines, Shakespeare seems to be almost prostrating himself in his admissions of inferiority to Marlowe. However, given what has gone before, we have to now expect the presence of subtle wit or, perhaps, sarcasm.

     The word “spirit” (line 2) could refer to any or all of his rival poet, the character of that poet or a supernatural entity.

     However, this spirit “uses” Southampton's name, and, in so doing, “spends all his might”. These expressions carry hints of rather unspiritual activity - strengthened if one takes Southampton's name to be “rose”, the affectionate nickname of the Sonnets and itself a beautiful receptacle.1 Elsewhere, Shakespeare uses the term “spirit”, in context, as a synonym for “semen” (as in Sonnet 129).

     In any case, there is strong sexual innuendo in the remainder of the poem, highlighted by the reference to Marlowe's “ride” on Southampton's “soundless deep” (so providing a sexually loaded maritime metaphor, similar to that of Sonnet 137, where the dark mistress is likened to a “bay where all men ride”).

     The sonnet turns into a clever plea for Southampton's continued support of his former favourite. Shakespeare hints, in reproachful parallel meanings, that his displacement may be due to the inadequacy of his love-making compared to Marlowe's.


O, how I faint when I of you do write,

Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,

And in the praise thereof spends all his might,

To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame.

But since your worth, wide as the ocean is,

The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,

My saucy bark, inferior far to his,

On your broad main doth wilfully appear.

Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,

Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;

Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat,

He, of tall building and of goodly pride.

Then if he thrive and I be cast away,

The worst was this: my love was my decay.


O, how I faint when I of you do write,

Aware that stronger issue plugs your name,

And in that rose-esteem is spent his might,

Which makes it hard for me to voice your fame.

But since your worth, as great as ocean's bulk,

Supports the low as well as proudest crafts,

My saucy skiff, so dwarfed by his fine hulk,

Persists in flitting on your boundless draughts.

Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,

While he upon your soundless deeps can ride;

And, if unmanned, I am a worthless boat,

As he, erect and tall, disports with pride.

But if he thrives and I am cast away,

The worst would be: my love caused my decay.

1 It is also used by Shakespeare as the symbol for a sexual prize, seen in the following rebuttal by Diana of Bertram's promises, as he urges her to fornicate (All's Well That Ends Well, IV, ii, 22-25): “Ay, so you serve us till we serve you; but when you have our roses you barely leave our thorns to prick ourselves, and mock us with our bareness ”.