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105. Let not my love be called idolatry

Let not my love be called 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.


The nearly blasphemous relationship between the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and the YM's Fair, Kind and True. 

Neo-Platonic reference: Beautiful, Good and Just. The Just, The Good and The Beautiful.

Reading historical context:

1. How the Early Church reconciled the Polytheistic implications of the Holy Trinity. 


"One God in three persons" 

Matthew 28:19King James Version (KJV)

19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost

The first recorded use of this Greek word in Christian theology was by Theophilus of Antioch in about 170. He wrote:

In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the Trinity [Τριάδος], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom. And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, wisdom, man.

Tertullian, a Latin theologian who wrote in the early 3rd century, is credited as being the first to use the Latin words "Trinity", "person" and "substance" to explain that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are "one in essence—not one in Person"."

Council of Nicea, Council of Constantinople

The Athanasian Creed:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. 

2. Shakespeare's exposure to this

covert religious eductation

cultural context of Catholicism during Elizabeth's reign

Frank Kermode's Age of Shakespeare:

An age had ended when most people derived their religious knowledge not from printed books but from the imagery and symbolism of the wall paintings and stained glass of the churches, a huge non-literary context for the Catholic sacraments (immemorially seven, but now reduced by the theologians of Reformation to two).

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 161-163). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  

[ The seven sacraments—Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick—are the life of the Catholic Church. Each sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. When we participate in them worthily, each provides us with graces—with the life of God in our soul. In worship, we give to God that which we owe Him; in the sacraments, He gives us the graces necessary to live a truly human life. - ]

This is in part the thesis of Eamon Duffy’s remarkable book The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c. 1400–1580 (1992). Duffy emphasizes the degree to which almost every aspect of daily life had been consonant with the liturgy, and the ways in which religious doctrine was taught—not only by pictures but by many liturgical acts not properly part of the Mass—instances of traditional piety, as when the episodes of the Passion were annually reenacted by the clergy but also, in dramas of their own devising, by the laity. For example, since St. John spoke of the parting of Christ’s garments, two linen cloths were removed from the altar at the appropriate moment. A sepulchre was prepared in which the Host was reverently laid—for of course the Host was literally corpus Christi, the body of Christ. And such enactments should be borne in mind when one reflects on the extraordinary persistence of quasi-dramatic traditions throughout the entire period before the professionals began, in the new world of the later sixteenth century, to absorb and secularize play-acting and translate it from these quiet devotional origins to the inns and theaters of London.

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 167-175). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Shakespeare’s father seems to have owned a copy of Borromeo’s Spiritual Testament, a guide for perplexed and oppressed Catholics.

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 198-199). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

There were some, among them the poet John Donne, who hoped for a theological compromise, believing some move toward reunification might be possible, but the differences, for instance those concerning the doctrine of the Real Presence and the celibacy of the clergy, were too stubborn to be reasoned away.

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 201-202). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

[ Doctrine of Real Presence: The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a term used in Christian theology to express the doctrine that Jesus is really or substantially present in the Eucharist, not merely symbolically or metaphorically. ]

They had no time for such festivals as Corpus Christi, instituted in 1264—a feast of central theological importance as a celebration of the Real Presence in the sacrament, but also the occasion of great civic festivities, including the cycles of plays organized and financed by the craftsmen’s guilds of the towns. Of these remarkable works the “mystery plays” of Coventry, York, and Wakefield are the most famous (“mystery” was a word for “trade” or “craft”) and they continued into Elizabeth’s reign. Shakespeare as a child could well have seen them at Coventry; but by his time they were frowned upon. The feast itself was no longer legal, and the expense of these elaborate displays had probably grown too great, and so they expired. [sonnet 52]

These productions had a didactic purpose, offering in the vernacular a long series of plays about sacred history. Events in the Old Testament were presented as prefiguring the truths of the New (much as church glass and paintings did, or had done), together with scenes from the lives of the Virgin and Christ. Performances were on “pageants” or carts, stages that could be moved from one site to the next. [sonnet 15] As far as possible, each guild chose a subject appropriate to its particular mystery. Costumes were elaborate, and there was some use of stage machinery. Solemnity was mixed with broad humor, and some stock characters became famous—when Hamlet tells the traveling actors not to out-Herod Herod, he is alluding to the traditional rant of that character in the Corpus Christi plays. [sonnet 23] Spectacle was provided; hell yawned and devils vomited smoke. Some of the plays are more subtle than this account suggests—the Wakefield (or Towneley) Second Shepherds’ Play is renowned for the daring of its double-plotting, mixing the serious theme of the Nativity with farce—indeed, the kind of mixture to be found later in some of the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries; for a celebrated example, see Middleton’s tragedy The Changeling.

The mystery plays testify to the ingenuity of their authors and actors, and also to the strong desire of late-medieval Englishmen to perform their beliefs, to act out in their own persons the sacred truths as they had been taught them in sermons and paintings. These plays translate into their own popular style the patterns and narratives of medieval piety; and they were fun, occasions for holidays. They prove that the English had long been well attuned to dramatic display, whether as actors or audience. These tastes were inherited, in very different circumstances, by their descendants. A common purpose had brought together the variously gifted craftsmen of the town, and they made a solemn feast over into a universal holiday. [sonnet 52[

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 222-227). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Given the religious upheavals produced by Edward and Mary, it would be strange if people were not still somewhat muddled in 1558, when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. There were strong inducements to accept the rules of religious observance as promulgated from London. To opt for recusancy was to take a possibly dangerous and sometimes costly stand, at a time when one risked a fine even for failure to go to church. Some kept the faith despite the penalties; some presumably did so without advertising the fact; and others, perhaps the majority, lived more or less contentedly, betwixt and between.

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 261-265). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Her [Elizabeth] advisers then made the best of a bad job and ensured that she was celebrated as the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, married only to her realm. An elaborate propagandist mythology was devised to suggest that her virginity was an entirely admirable and desirable state. Edmund Spenser was the great poet of this myth, but many others joined in, including Shakespeare, who made a passing allusion to it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Puck describes Cupid taking aim 

At a fair vestal throned by the west; . . . 
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft 
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon, 
And the imperial vot’ress passed on 
In maiden meditation, fancy-free. [sonnet 107]

Elizabeth herself never willingly discussed the matter, though she must have been aware of its importance.

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 296-302). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

The last years of Elizabeth had not been joyous—as she herself decayed, the nation suffered bad harvests and inflation—and in 1603 James was given a grand welcome in London. [sonnet 67, 68, 106, 107]

Kermode, Frank (2004-02-03). The Age of Shakespeare (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 15) (Kindle Locations 315-317). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Shakespeare's Sonnets Online

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). 

Line 4. To one, of one, still such, and ever so.
This is surely an echo of

Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, is to You, God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory, forever and ever.

These are the words used at the Elevation of the host in the Tridentine Mass.  I grant that the word match is not exact, but the rhythm and sense is very similar, and it seems to compel one to look at it as a sort of Trinitarian declaration.  The usually quoted link to the Gloria Patri, which occurs in the Mass, is also relevant, especially as it names the three persons of the Trinity. 

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritu Sancto.  Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.

However this does not seem to have quite the same verbal resonance as the words used at the Elevation, ‘per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso’.  There are also probable links to the Athanasian Creed, which was used as an alternative to the Nicene Creed on certain Sundays, including Trinity Sunday. 

The mystery of the Trinity is that the God of theology is three persons in one God, The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though three, they nevertheless are one everlastingly. Hence the emphasis in this line on the words to one, of one. In this case the one is the beloved youth. The songs and praises mentioned in the line above could be an echo of the 'Gloria' of the Gloria Patri, or of other Christian songs of praise, such as 'Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will'. As SB points out, (p.337), idolatry was forbidden in various of the Homilies read out in the churches, and there is an echo of the Gloria Patri in the 'Homily Against Idolatry': ". . . images in temples and churches be indeed none other but idols, as unto the which idolatry hath been, is, and ever will be committed".

Line 8. One thing expressing, leaves out difference.

One thing expressing - i.e. the youth's constancy. Or the one thing is perhaps the youth himself, now newly converted into a deity. His oneness is a manifestation of his constancy and his godliness. 
leaves out difference = does not take account of any differences, does not recognise differences or anomalies. This is probably also a slightly parodied version of the doctrine of the Trinity, in which differences are not allowed in the three forms of the godhead. Much ink and mental gymnastics were expended by theologians in defining the true nature of the Trinity.  In the Canon of the Tridentine Mass, the priest reads a preface, which for Trinity Sunday includes the following: 

Quod enim de tua gloria, revelante te, credimus, hoc de filio tuo, hoc de Spiritu Sancto, sine differentia discretionis sentimus. 

For what we believe from your revelation concerning Your glory, that also we believe of Your Son and of the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction;


What is indisputable however in relation to this sonnet is Shakespeare's obvious familiarity with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, perhaps as a result of learning with which he was imbued from an early age, perhaps as a result of later reading. (I suspect the former is more probable. All grammar school pupils would have a grounding in theology, and his later reading, as far as we can judge, seems to have been decidedly secular.) Such knowledge does not imply adherence specifically to either Catholicism or Protestantism, since the doctrine was common to both religions. The Reformation however did appear to strike out against idol worship in the old religion, as it perceived it, and it fiercely stripped many a church of its statues and images, deeming them to be symbols of idolatrous worship. The theme of idolatry was therefore much more in the public consciousness than it is today, and the determined statement, 'Let not my love be called idolatry', rather like a deposition in a court of law, could be expected to have far greater resonance than it has nowadays. There is no point in suggesting modern equivalents, since it is ahistoric to transport experiences and prejudices from one age to another. But one should remember that, in the time of James 1, just as much as in that of Elizabeth, doctrinal questions were also political ones, and a belief in devils or idols or spirits, or lack of such belief, could be taken as a pointer to one's true sympathies, and even as a determining factor in one's loyalty to the crown.


The feasts referred to are those of the Christian calendar, more probably those of the pre-Reformation calendar, because the protestant religion was much more suspicious of festivities, whether religious or otherwise, and tended to see them as the work of the devil.  Even today we are still very much under the influence of the protestant ‘work ethic’.  In the pre Elizabethan tradition, no doubt preserved in the memory of many of the contemporary ‘breathers of this world’, one of the great feast days was that of Corpus Christi, held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, when the host carefully enclosed in a monstrance was carried in an elaborate and colourful procession.  It is tempting to see an oblique reference to this in the ‘sweet up-locked treasure’, and to the stones of worth as the jewelled encrustations usually found on monstrances.  The wardrobe which the robe doth hide perhaps reveals the richly decorated church vestments worn by the priest on this occasion.  Of course these are not certain readings, but the blessed key and the hidden pride and splendour are likely to be pointers to some hidden references, unknown to the many but clear to the cognoscenti.  Were it not for the other Christian references in the sonnets, especially to the Trinity in 105, and with Trinity Sunday preceding Corpus Christi, we would be justified in ignoring these hints and suggestions.  But it seems that there are just too many of them for us to pass them by. [sonnet 52]