It’s April, which means that its time again to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday with the 7th annual Sonnet Slam at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, April 21st.
This year, I’ve been assigned Sonnet 70, which seems a little less daunting than some of the others I’ve had in past years.
That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,
For slander’s mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being woo’d of time:
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present’st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass’d by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail’d or victor being charg’d;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy, evermore enlarg’d:
If some suspect of ill mask’d not thy show,
Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts should’st owe.
As always, the key to interpreting these sonnets is to first unpack the form into three quatrains and a couplet, and then to make sure that every word is understood with its original Elizabethan meaning. I found the first ten lines here fairly straightforward to understand: beautiful people attract envious slander, so don’t feel too badly about it.
It’s the last four lines which present me with syntactical and comprehension difficulty.
I think the sense of them is something like, thank goodness the power of this poem is not enough to ward off slander —because if it did, then you would be besieged by suitors, and by inference, the poet would not have you to himself. But it’s a little tricky, and I still have to work out its exact meaning.