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Shakespeare Sonnet 53: "What is your substance, whereof are you made"

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - The real "Shakespeare"

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 53: "What is your substance, whereof are you made"

This exceptionally talented speaker has been examining his own talent related to his poetry creations. He is well aware that his ability to compose sonnets far exceeds that of many who have written before him and who are now publishing. The speaker, however, prefers to concentrate on eternal verities. Thus, he muses on the nature of God and God's relationship to the speaker's own soul.

This speaker's concentration has been so focused that it has led him to understand the dual nature of the material level of being. And more importantly, that concentration has led him to at least the early stages of meditation, wherein the soul begins to become aware of it own nature. Thus, in sonnet 53 this speaker demonstrates that he is becoming ever more aware that the Divine Creator has created all of creation and has inserted a spark of that divine nature into each of His creations.

Sonnet 53: "What is your substance, whereof are you made"

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

For a brief introduction to this 154-sonnet sequence, please visit "Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence."

Reading of Sonnet 53

Commentary

In sonnet 53, the speaker is exploring the nature of the Divine, as he examines the nature of his own soul and its relationship to his poetic ability.

First Quatrain: Substance of Being

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.

The opening quatrain of sonnet 53 finds the speaker posing a question, "What is your substance, whereof are you made, / That millions of strange shadows on you tend?" As this very talented speaker begins to address his Belovèd Divine Creator, he is asking that Reality about the composition of Its being.

The phrase "millions of strange shadows" refers to the many created things that take their existence and/or that flow from the substance of the First Cause, Divine Reality, or God. The speaker is thus elucidating the nature of the Divine Reality. This speaker knows well that that Reality exists as the creator and the storehouse for his special talent for creating and organizing his poetry.

In his multitudinous collection of sonnets, this extraordinarily talented speaker has long since discovered his soul nature. He has come to comprehend his soul's relationship with his talent for poetry creation. Thus, this speaker has come to understand the unity that exists between that gift of talent and the Ultimate Creative Force.

The speaker then avers: "Since every one hath, every one, one shade, / And you but one, can every shadow lend." The Divine Reality is one entity, but creatures emanating from the Creative Force exist as many. God, or the First Cause, exists as only one "substance"—one being. Yet, His creatures remain similar to His shadows. It remains a conundrum to puzzle the small human mind that One Being can, indeed, possess a multitude of shadows.

Second Quatrain: The Use of Myth

Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:

The speaker, as a poet, is wont to allude to mythological pieces by which to examine his own art. Thus, he remarks: "Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit / Is poorly imitated after you."

The speaker is contending that even the loveliest of manmade creations pales in contrast to the Ultimate Creative Force That originally brought them into existence. Divinity remains thus planted squarely on "Helen’s cheek." The First Cause can be considered to be newly attired after the fashion of the Greeks. The speaker is exemplifying beauty as it has existed down through the ages.

The speaker is contending that the wholesomeness and loveliness of all manmade objects are merely reflections of the works of the Divine Artist's talent. The Divine Artist has eternally extended his talent to his created beings.

Third Quatrain: Beauty Divine

Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.

Further samplings of divinely inspired beauty exist in nature in the seasonal activity of spring with its new-born green, fall's multi-colored leaves, winter's snowy blankets, summer's pleasurable temperatures. All these effusions are alluring to the human senses. The speaker then remarks: "Speak of the spring and foison of the year, / The one doth shadow of your beauty show."

The speaker then asserts that the Creator remains in everything He has created: "The other as your bounty doth appear; / And you in every blessed shape we know." The First Cause, or Ultimate Force, contains not only omniscience but also omnipresence as well as omnipotence.

The Couplet: The Part and the Whole

In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

No created part of the Whole can ever claim to be the Whole. However, every part possesses features that become evident to the senses, despite the fact that the senses can never completely detect that Whole. The Ultimate Reality has never condescended to make Itself comprehensible to the senses. The awareness of the First Cause, Divine Reality, or God can only be attained by the soul, which is itself a spark of the flame that is the Divine Belovèd.

The Mystery of Shakespeare

The real "Shakespeare"

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes