Shakespeare’s Sonnet 143

This is about Shakespeare’s sonnet 143 before editors repunctuated it.

In his wonderful book Shakespeare’s First Texts, Noel Greenfield remarks, accepting the punctuation below, "...given the simplicity of the language: here the character is so disturbed that it cannot phrase properly." (He says other interesting things about it too.) The stimulus of that remark made me look at that sonnet again and come to a somewhat different conclusion.

1 Loe as a carefull huswife runnes to catch,
2 One of her fethered creatures broake away,
3 Sets downe her babe and makes all swift dispatch
4 In pursuit of the thing she would have stay:
5 Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
6 Cries to catch her whose busie care is bent,
7 To follow that which flies before her face:
8 Not prizing her poore infants discontent;
9 So runst thou after that which flies from thee,
10 Whilst I thy babe chace thee a farre behind,
11 But if thou catch thy hope turne back to me:
12 And play the mothers part kisse me, be kind.
13 So will I pray that thou maist have thy Will,
14     If thou turne back and my loude crying still.

The above has the original 1609 punctuation, and that leads to a very different interpretation than what is possible from modern or any other edited repunctuation.

For comparison’s sake, here is the sonnet edited by me to make it conform to contemporaneous standards. Ugh.

1 Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch
2 One of her feathered creatures broke away,
3 Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch,
4 In pursuit of the thing she would have stay:
5 Whilst her neglected child holds her, in chase,
6 Cries, to catch her, whose busy care is bent
7 To follow that which flies before her face,
8 Not prizing her poor infant’s discontent:
9 So runn’st thou after that which flies from thee
10 Whilst I, thy babe, chase thee, afar, behind.
11 But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me
12 And play the mother’s part: kiss me, be kind.
13 So will I pray that thou mayst have thy Will
14     If thou turn back and my loud crying still.

Now let’s go back to the sonnet with the 1609 punctuation.

This is a stage or video sonnet. By this I mean it is not a sound only or radio sonnet, but a sonnet in which the enactment of what is described is indissoluble from the sound of the words if the sonnet is not to seem less important and less good than some of the better known sonnets. I will now describe what happens.

Line 1.
Loe is to be taken literally. The speaker gestures to the audience to look. He then, while speaking, runs on the spot but like someone who is trying to catch something. Because he’s not actually running, this establishes that this is a comic line, and indeed this will turn out to be a comic sonnet, and a pleasure.

Line 2.
Remaining on the spot the speaker imitates a hen breaking away. There is no break in the sound between the first and second lines, only a change in the action, and perhaps the double spacing before broake indicates an enhancement in the action (or a pause in the sound, or a printing error, both unlikely), since commas are being used to indicate the end of one type of action and the beginning of another.

Line 3.
The speaker imitates the setting down of the baby, and then goes on with the pursuit of the hen, still running on the spot..

Line 4.
The speaker changes direction to accord with the swerve of the chased hen, and then changes it again to accord with the next swerve at she. Or else there is only the first swerve since there is no other comma. The colon indicates that what we are to see next is the action going on after a discontinuity in our looking at it or from another visual point of view.

Line 5.
The child is seen literally holding on to her at this juncture of the chase, able to do so because the mother has temporarily stopped or is taking new bearings. Shakespeare seldom if ever uses metaphor.

Line 6.
The actions are: the mother is on the run again, and has again left her child behind, who is again crying for her to come back, while the mother literally bends forward (bent is not a metaphor, or only secondarily so as a pun meaning intent or tends to) in order to

Line 7.
follow the hen who in an extra effort to get away has now risen a few feet above the ground (as hens do in such situations) in order to get away. So the mother is bent forward and looking more or less straight ahead at it. If this line applies to both the huswife and the child, the child is female. The colon indicates

Line 8.
another discontinuity. The mother is shown as ignoring the child. The child is shown as discontented. The words always accompany the actions, and don’t occur before or after the action, and are not prolonged in order to fit in more action. The semicolon indicates a real break in the continuity of the action, and with the rhyme of Loe and So breaks the action into its two main chunks. The speaker is about to go to commentary on what has happened so far, and will illustrate his commentary with simultaneous action.

Line 9.
On thou, point with the index finger at an imaginary person behind the audience; and point at the floor in front of the audience, at that; perhaps. The recapitulation of the action of flies should get a laugh.

Line 10.
The first 8 syllables intimate and imitate a toddler putting first one foot down and then the other, several times. That is why afarre is split into two.

The remaining four lines are a sinking sands for the interpreter. The only way across them is to trust the punctuation. The traditional interpretation is imperceptive. It assumes that the baby’s mother is the one who should play the mother’s part. From then on the meaning is forced astray. That assumption is only made possible by ignoring the punctuation, and imposing a meaning co-extensive with the rhyme scheme:3 quatrains and a concluding couplet. It is a triumph of formality forcing the meaning to the side of the road like a motorcycle cop dealing with an erring car driver. The real original punctuation has a quatrain, 3 lines, 4 lines, 1 line, and a concluding couplet. Let’s see where that gets us. And I could be wrong, too smart for my pants.

Line 11.

Line 12.

Line 13.

Line 14.

Other remarks

Loe, meaning Look at this, applies to the action. The secondary meaning, which is pay attention and which derives from Look, becomes the primary one only if the sonnet is spoken without any action. If there is a pun on Low it will effect the position of the hands. The e at the end of Loe suggests that a larger space and longer time is filled by the sound of Loe than if it were spelled only Lo.

The spelling of Fethered probably shows it is lighter and shorter vowelled than we would normally say it.

fethered creatures is a roundabout way of saying hens and exists to suggest the action and give it time to be done.

The prolonging spelling of the vowels in broake puts a spurt into the breaking away. The double space before broake emphasizes this if it not a typesetter’s idiosyncrasy.

A standard spelling for the time was chace for our modern chase, so our action is not influenced by the spelling.

Final remarks

This interpretation of the sonnet shows that the speaker, however distressed by his situation, can also distance himself from it and turn it to comic account as a way of handling it so as not to be only a victim caught up in suffering.

The performer should not try to be funny. The action is funny in itself.