Shakespeare’s Sonnet 23 is addressed to the lovely boy, and tries to convey the awkwardness that the poet feels towards the boy. This awkwardness is due to depth of emotion that the speaker has for the young man. The speaker’s nervousness prevents him from expressing himself with his usual eloquence while in the young man’s presence. The speaker begs the young man to read the words that he has written, so that the young man will know how the speaker feels about him.
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, (lines 1-4)
In the first quatrain, the speaker first likens himself to an actor who follows a carefully crafted script, and then the speaker becomes “some fierce thing,” which lets its desires run amuck. The imperfect actor shows his inexperience when he is so paralyzed by his fear that he cannot perform his part. The actor forgets his lines when he is onstage much like the speaker forgets his lines when he is in front of the lovely boy. It is clear that they are both intimated and flustered at the prospect of having to bare their souls and show their vulnerability, which is a necessary part of being a great actor and lover. The speaker then likens himself to “some fierce thing,” (possibly a wild animal) which is filled with so much rage that it overpowers the love that he has in his heart. “Thing” is also commonly used during Renaissance to indicate a male’s genitalia; using this definition of “thing” the speaker so enraged by his sexual desires that he cannot express his love. The flustered actor and the “fierce thing” both end up with the same conclusion: they are so enfeebled by their emotions that they are rendered speechless.
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’er-charg’d with burden of mine own love’s might. (5-8)
In the second quatrain, the speaker moves from comparing himself to others, who experience a loss of words despite their chosen career (actor) or natural instinct (fierce thing) to speaking directly about himself. It is unclear whether the speaker is saying that he is afraid to trust himself or the young man, but either way his fear renders him speechless like the actor and the fierce thing. The “perfect ceremony of love’s rite” can be interpreted as a marriage ceremony where two people exchange vows of love and commitment to one another; or as having the right set of words to complete the rite of love. A rite is a set form for conducting a ceremony, or the liturgy of a church, or a ceremonial act or action. Love’s rite could also be another way of saying a love poem (sonnet); therefore, the speaker is having a hard time remembering the words that he prepared to say to the young man, because he is afraid of how his words will be received. The speaker is overcharged with his emotion, fearing that he has been burdened with having to convey his depth of love without any help from his beloved. The pressure of his desire and making the first move is overwhelming to him. The speaker loves the young man so much that it is weakening his nerve and causing him to be speechless.
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. (9-12)
The speaker is begging the young man to let his books speak the words that he cannot. Shakespeare may be referring to the various plays that he had written, or his erotic poetry (Venus and Adonis or Rape of Lucrece), or any one of his collection of sonnets. In line ten, dumb doesn’t mean stupid, instead it means silent or mute, and presages means presenters. The speaker is telling the lovely boy to let his silent presenters (his books) speak the love which he cannot express in person. Side note: a “dumb show,” which is a silent reenactment of the main plot of a play precedes some Renaissance dramas, in order to help the audience fully understand a plot that may be a bit too complex to recognize while engrossed in a play. His heart’s words try to convey how much he loves the young man, and he hopes and pleads for the young man to return his love.
O learn to read what silent love hath writ;
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit. (13-14)
The Sonnets final couplet begins with “O,” which is commonly used to exaggerate or intensify a preceding emotion. The speaker once again begs the young man to read what his silent love has written. A silent love can mean a secret or private love that cannot be spoken of because of societal demands. Their love could be considered taboo and blasphemous; either because they are from different social classes or because they are both men. The poet also introduces a paradox: love allows for one sense (sight) to do the work of another sense (hearing).