Let not my love be call’d idolatry,
Nor my beloved as an idol show,
Since all alike my songs and praises be
To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
Still constant in a wondrous excellence;
Therefore my verse to constancy confined,
One thing expressing, leaves out difference.
‘Fair, kind and true’ is all my argument,
‘Fair, kind, and true’ varying to other words;
And in this change is my invention spent,
Three themes in one, which wondrous scope affords.
‘Fair, kind, and true,’ have often lived alone,
Which three till now never kept seat in one.
This curious sonnet treads once again the very thin line between arcane humour and outright blasphemy, which has already been seen in Sonnets 34 (Peter’s denial of Christ) and 52 (the Beatitudes), and it continues in 108, which has an irreverent parody of the ‘Our Father’. Here the theme is that of the Holy Trinity and the poet’s argument seems to be that his love is not idolatrous because it is a worship of the Holy Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, which three he transmutes into fairness, kindness and truthfulness, all seen in his beloved. It is as if the poet is responding to an accusation, and defending himself against the charge of idolatrous worship which has been levelled against him. He uses the refutation that his worship of the beloved youth has the same character as the Christian worship of God in the Holy Trinity, and therefore it cannot be idolatrous. His love is not an idol, but a holy trinity of beauty, goodness and truth.
Commentators have on the whole found this sonnet dull and repetetive, lacking in any metaphor which might enliven it. I am more inclined to think that its life springs from the fact that it takes a rather perilous walk along a precipice. In the 16th. century to be on the wrong side of a religious divide could be a matter of life and death. Elizabeth herself was probably fairly tolerant, and could be pacified with a formula of words. But there were many religious fanatics who were ready to insist that ‘He who is not with me is against me’. Being a Catholic was obviously dangerous, and being seen as a non-believer risked the threat of denunciation from all sides. Either of these would be liable to the charge of being traitors since they could be portrayed as attempting to undermine the government’s declared policies. It is therefore quite difficult to decide how one should interpret this sonnet. Is it a piece of frivolous sophistry which supposedly frees the speaker from the accusation of idolatry? Or is it meant to be taken seriously, to the extent that we are to understand the poet as genuinely believing that his love of the youth is comparable to the Christian love of God, and therefore non-idolatrous? Or are we perhaps expected to interpret the poem as an allegory of some sort, of divine love, or of self-deception, or of human love?
The first two possibilities are inherently dangerous, since they lay the speaker open to the charge of blasphemy or sacrilege, which were imprisonable, and possibly even capital offences. The third possibility is very un-Shakespearian, but in any case would run the risk of being seen as very similar to the quasi-blasphemous pronouncements of the first two interpretations.
It is also possible, given Thorpe the publisher’s Catholic connections, that there is some cryptic message relating perhaps to doctrinal disputes buried in the sonnet. Or the love lauded here could be allegorically the love of the one true faith. (See the Introductory notes for further discussion of these points in relation to this and the other sonnets with religious references).
No doubt other interpretations are possible. HV for example stresses the links to neo-Platonic philosophy, and the fact that ‘Fair, kind and true’ could be the traditional Platonic triad, ‘The Beautiful, The Good, The True’ (HV.p.445). But no interpretation removes one entirely from the edge of the precipice, and the poem raises insoluble questions about a). Shakespeare’s attitude to organised religion; b). the social milieu in which he moved which might have allowed him to circulate poems like this one; c). the effect the inclusion of such poems in the sequence might have had on delaying the publication of the sonnets.
All Shakespeare’s uses of the word idolatrous, as well as his use of idol, are given at the bottom of the page. (See the note to Line 1). The discussion of the implications of the use of the words in this sonnet and the ideas implied continues below, adjacent to the examples quoted from the Plays.