Sonnet 36: Let me confess that we two must be twain

Let me confess that we two must be twain, Although our undivided loves are one: So shall those blots that do with me remain Without thy help by me be borne alone. In our two loves there is but one respect, Though in our lives a separable spite, Which though it alter not love's sole effect, Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love's delight. I may not evermore acknowledge thee, Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame, Nor thou with public kindness honour me, Unless thou take that honour from thy name: But do not so; I love thee in such sort As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 36: Let me confess that we two must be twain

December 2012


Polly Frame reading this sonnet.

As a dramatic sequence, the sonnets seem to hint at a real-life story, which has been inspiring the readers' curiosity for centuries. Who was the youth of the sonnets? Their dark lady? Their speaker? His rival poet(s)? Hypotheses abound, but the truth is, Shakespeare gives us precisely nothing about the protagonists of the sonnets; apart from the speaker, to whose mind we are made privy, they are not human beings at all, which makes the search for their real-life counterparts all the more tantalizing, and all the more pointless. For a playwright known for his ability to create a character with a few lines, if not a few words, it just cannot be an accident. The same with the hypothetical "real events" behind individual sonnets, their betrayals and reconciliations, separations and happy returns. As Northrop Frye puts it in his essay, "How True a Twain" (in "The riddle of Shakespeare sonnets"), if one reads the sonnets as transcripts of real-life experiences, about all one can get from them is the observation that "infatuations with beautiful and stupid boys are probably very bad for practicing dramatists".

Northrop Frye's argument is that while the experience of love is real, a poet can (and does) explore all its aspects and registers, enact all its range of associated emotions without direct, transparent anchors to specific events which might or might not have triggered these feelings. After all, if Shakespeare could write "Macbeth" without killing a royalty to grasp the emotional consequences of this act, why wouldn't he write a sonnet about betrayal in love without having betrayed or been betrayed? And if he could give Juliet some of the greatest love poetry ever written, he could probably put himself, in his imagination, in just about any possible love situation and distill it into a sonnet form for eternity. The sonnets find their readers across centuries and continents precisely because they aren't really linked to specific events and personalities; they are a universal account of universally accessible experiences and feelings (and a very, very good one at that), not diary entries of a teenager. And isn't it what Shakespeare did as a playwright: pack beautiful poetry and profound philosophy into tempting, entertaining, bright packages of melodramatic stories, the less rationally "logical" the better, to intrigue the audiences forever?

So with this sonnet, it makes little sense (if any at all) to ask what really happened. What is the speaker's bewailed guilt? What are the blots that should be borne alone? Where is the danger to the recipient's reputation? One can guess forever. In fact, as Stephen Booth notes in his commentary to this sonnet (p. 193), this account echoes "situations in which a mistress consents to keep secret her relationship to a lover for whom their alliance might be an embarrassment", or even, given the word choices of line 4, "a girl left pregnant to have her baby in solitary disgrace". Neither of these individual situations makes sense in the context of this dramatic sequence; what matters, though, is the deep similarity of experiences, which easily transcends their "real-life" particulars. The fundamental paradox of indivisible unity in love vs. insurmountable metaphysical distance between separate individuals "in life"; this eternal misalignment, familiar to every human being. According to Booth, the most direct source of Shakespeare's take on this paradox is Ephesians 5: 25-33 (which was part of the marriage service), on the unity of flesh between man and wife, which "appears to have been deeply embedded into Shakespeare's consciousness" (p. 192).

So this is how this painting, the most abstract so far in the sonnets series, is constructed: it depicts a twain, an inevitable separation, a misalignment between the fleeting unity of undivided loves and the separable spite of life (by the way, this separable spite here leaves the relationship between separation and spite unfixed, fleeting: it means, simultaneously, a "separating spite" (vexation that separates), and a "spiteful separation" (separation that vexes); Booth, p. 194). The two separated colour planes contain but mere hints of human figures, just gestures, one leaving, one staying, fully generic, left unspecified as to gender (or anything else).

The colour harmony of this painting obliquely links it to Marc Chagall's "The green violinist", with the same dominant juxtaposition of magenta and cold green, set off by a bit of yellow-orange and surrounded by a colourless environment of whites and greys. This is the most intrinsically sad colour harmony I know, with the primary blue split into the cold blue-red and the cold blue-green; while the blue itself can be both sad and joyful, this split, this separable spite, inevitably takes all the joy away and envelops the picture plane in sadness. This harmony only works with a spot of complementary yellow-orange (as a complementary colour to the blue, it implicitly suggests the blue to the eye, introduces it back into the overall harmony, even though the blue itself has been split nearly into non-existence). In Chagall's painting, it's the violin, the only source of joy in the scene; in mine, it's a hint at the setting sun, just about to leave the scene to the darkness of night.

Chagall's painting is about a seemingly different type of separation, the nostalgia for one's original time and place, for the summer of one's childhood. But isn't it, ultimately, the same paradox, the same pain of misalignment between unity and separation, between being one and being divided? And yet, not quite: your childhood, your memories live only in yourself, or so it feels; and all Chagall's colour shapes, however contrasted in colour, are brought together with the geometry of the painting, and into one central figure surrounded by the whites of winter. Mine, though, are separated and split irrevocably; kept together only by bits of the original unifying blue, and the suggestion of a circle across the picture plane. But even the circle is splitting, as though before our very eyes, into two misaligned ones. Let me confess that we two must be twain...

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