Interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 128”
Being so much in love that one envies everyone who gets in contact with the beloved person is probably something that all of us have experienced themselves. But in “Sonnet 128” Shakespeare presents a speaker who admires his mistress so deeply that he is even jealous of the objects that are close to her.
Although this poem deals with very strong feelings its external form does not reflect the highly confused state of emotion of the speaker. The poem follows strictly the form of the English sonnet with its three quatrains (consisting of alternate rhymes) and one concluding rhyming couplet that summarises the thoughts of the speaker. The rhymes are absolutely regular, too and the masculine end rhymes are without exception perfect rhymes. With just few exceptions (which will be examined in the next paragraphs) the iambic pentameter is also regular and evokes an atmosphere of harmony and calmness.
The poem is divided into three main parts of which the first one (consisting of l.1-8) is a rhetorical question asked by the speaker. While his beloved mistress is playing a kind of harpsichord, he fantasises about being as near to her as the instrument is. Besides, he links the music and the musician by addressing her with the metaphor “my music” (l.1). The relationship between both of them which is stressed by an epanalepsis and two alliterations shows that the mistress makes the speaker as happy as the beautiful harmonies and melodies she produces. The mistress’ instrument is also described with a metaphor (“blessed wood”, l.2) that illustrates its “divine” sound. The rhetorical question that primarily wants to show that the speaker envies the harpsichord because of its contact with the addressee, is artfully embellished with circumstantial descriptions of the mistress (“thy sweet fingers”, “thou gently sway’st”, l.3) and is intensified by a parallelism (“when thou, my music,…” l.1 and “when thou gently sway’st” l.3). To make his jealousy towards the instrument more comprehensible, the speaker uses another rhetorical figure: He personifies the harpsichord by saying that its keys “leap” (l.5) and kiss the musician’s hand (l.6) and by speaking of the “boldness” (l.8) of the instrument as if it approached her consciously. Especially the kissing of the palm of the hand which is considered to be very erotic (definitely more erotic than a formal kiss on the top of the hand) arises jealousy, because the speaker thinks that his lips (which are a symbol for the whole person and are therefore a pars pro toto) deserve her love.