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July 15, 2014

Sonnet 53 - What is your substance? - by William Shakespeare- Analysis

Sonnet 53 - What is your substance? - by William Shakespeare- Analysis

William Shakespeares's "Sonnets 53" has the narrator elevating his beloved to that of the ideal beauty; thus, all beauty is subsequently judged in comparison to him. This poem is perhaps the most Platonic of all of Shakespeare's sonnets. Plato states that "a higher world of eternal, unchanging Ideas or Forms has always existed. These ideal Forms constitute reality and can only be apprehended by a trained mind…The objects that we perceive with our senses are simply reflections of the ideal Forms. Hence, they are shadows whereas reality is found in the Forms themselves" (Duiker and Spielvogel 111). The premise of this poem is "that all external beauty consists of mere shadows of the youth's perfect beauty" (Landry 26).

The first stanza opens with the philosophical question: "What is your substance?" or what are you made of? "Substance" refers to a person's essence (fundamental nature or quality). What makes you so attractive to others? The shadows reference several different things: the body's silhouette, image, reflection, likeness, and picture or portrait (Landry 25). The narrator goes on to say that everyone has only one "shade," but his beloved is the only one who can lend his "shadow" or likeness to everyone else. He is the epitome of all beauty-that which all others are compared to or aspire to be.

In the next stanza, the narrator goes on to show how his beloved is even more beautiful than some of the most famed beauties throughout history. According to Greek mythology, Adonis is the god of beauty and desire; he was largely considered to be the archetype of beauty. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was in love Adonis, which was here cross to bear (Hamilton 94-5). The narrator states that Adonis is a "poorly imitated" counterfeit of his beloved. "Counterfeit" is often associated with artwork, so in this instance "shadows" would be referring to a portrait or picture. Helen refers to Helen of Troy; she was considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world, and some believe that she was the cause of the Trojan War (Hamilton 185-200). Helen's beauty has been highly immortalized throughout the years, so it is on her cheek that "all beauty is set;" since her beauty is just a mere shadow of the beloved's beauty then his image is painted anew in Grecian attire every time her image is painted.
In the third stanza, the narrator starts comparing his beloved to other beautiful things. Spring is one shadow of his beauty. "Foison" is a plentiful harvest or abundance. In this poem, "foison" refers to the fall harvest; thus, fall becomes synonymous with the image of the beloved as being generous. The beloved's beauty influences all things; he is in "every blessed shape."

The rhyming couplet summarizes the first three sonnets by saying that the beloved is a part of every "external grace" or beauty. There is no one else like his beloved and because of this the narrator will forever love him.


Duiker, William J., and Jackson J. Spielvogel. World History. 3rd ed. Stamford: Wadsworth, 2001.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. New York: Mentor, 1940. 94-5, 185-200.

Landry, Hilton. "Hilton Landry on Platoinism's Influence on Sonnet 53." Shakespeare's Poems and Sonnets. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House, 1999.