Shakespeare’s 26th Sonnet, written to the Fair Youth, is not numbered as one of his greatest, but I like it. Its central metaphor of a vassal professing homage to his Lord is very medieval and feels very much part of the times—Elizabethan times, that is. Social class was everything. This sonnet can also seem very traditional in poetic terms: the master-servant theme was common in Petrarchan love poetry. Beyond that, though, this sonnet is pretty radical for Elizabethan poetry, like most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are. It’s a male Poet writing to a male young man, after all.
The other reason I like this sonnet is that it seems to offer a tantalizing clue about Shakespeare the man. Who the devil was the Will the playwright, the player, the businessman, husband and father? What was his day-to-day life like? We barely know. That hasn’t kept scholars, historians and students from wondering—and arguing. One thread to pull at is the supposition that the sonnets are somehow autobiographical. Even though I adhere to this theory—probably because I’m trying to write a book about The Bard’s life—a few Shakespearean scholars I really respect don’t necessarily buy into this.
This sonnet seems to suggest the two lovers are physically separated: ‘To thee I send this written embassage’ and ‘Till then not show my head…’ Hints of actual life events?
Regardless, things are not going well between the two lovers, and the Poet is ‘wanting words to show’ how much he still loves the Young Man. He professes his wit is poor, but of course we know that isn’t true. Four centuries later we’re still poring over his verse.
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit:
Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
But that I hope some good conceit of thine
In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it;
Till whatsoever star that guides my moving
Points on me graciously with fair aspect
And puts apparel on my tatter’d loving,
To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
Till then not show my head where thou mayst prove me.