jewelry box

Loss of material possessions is something we deal with today as much as people did in Shakespeare’s time. It turns out Shakespeare–beyond writing some of the greatest masterpieces of Western Literature–was also a very accomplished businessman who successfully accumulated and protected his worldly possessions. Yet he was wise enough to see that life’s most precious possessions are not worldly, and not so easily guarded against theft. That most precious possession here is the love of the Young Man:


How careful was I, when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy of comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou, best of dearest and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
Thee have I not lock’d up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
And even thence thou wilt be stol’n, I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear

The Poet is careful to lock up all his possessions: ‘Each trifle under truest bars.’ But the Young Man is more precious than any of that: ‘But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are.’ And that Young Man is vulnerable to theft: ‘Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.’ This is because the chest the Poet keeps the Young Man in is the gentle closure of his heart, and from that the Young Man may come and go as he pleases:

Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;

Such a prize is susceptible to theft, for even an honest man would steal the Young Man if he could: ‘For truth proves thievish.’  

One of the many ingenious aspects of this sonnet are its parallels in language and image: ‘Truest bars’, ‘hands of falsehood’ and ‘truth proves thievish.’ ‘Lock’d up in any chest’ and ‘closure of my breast.’

Also, the placement of this sonnet in the sequence of 154 verses foreshadows Sonnets 49, 50 and 51, where the Young Man and the Poet part ways. Shakespeare’s sequence of Sonnets are so often difficult, because so much is happening all a once: in theme, in language, in metaphor and image, and even in the placement of the sonnets as they relate to one another.

The image is of an Elizabethan jewelry box.

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