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The Serpent and the Flower in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene II, Line 77

JUL: O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!

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Macbeth, Act I, Scene V, Line 63

LADYMACB: Look like the innocent flower, But be the serpent under ’t.

Pericles: Son of Tyre, Act I , Scene I, Line 127

PER.: And both like serpents are, who though they feed

On sweetest flowers, yet they poison breed.

The serpent’s trickery of mortals is a theme that echoes tirelessly in the art, literature, and theology of both the Judaeo-Christian and Eastern philosophies. The instinctive illustration of the image of the serpent as a symbol of deceit for Western interpreters is the biblical (Genesis) creation story–putting forth a falsely kind face in order to urge a hero(ine) toward the loss of innocence–and the message is retained that the serpent will employ sweet-seeming logic that is, in truth, unsound and wield assurances which will ultimately be proven empty. Similarly, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh has returned from a journey to the bottom of a deep well and plucked from there a magic plant of knowledge with which he plans to return to his people. Taking a rest beside this pool, he falls asleep. A serpent slithers out from beneath a flower beside the pool and eats the magic plant, in some translations biting Gilgamesh as well. Here we see that, again, the serpent wishes to rob mortals of the power of knowledge(and the closeness to the Creator(s) in their theology that is implicit in that knowledge), this time by physically hiding beneath the beauty.

A case may be made that the serpent/flower imagery which Shakespeare uses to such extent in his plays comes both from the Christian creation story, in keeping with the faith of the Elizabethan era, but draws also from the Gilgamesh myth. The latter may seem less credible than the former to a modern reader, but Elizabethan scholars had far more extensive familiarity with classics in literature than is called for in present curricula. It is interesting that the Bard “recycled” this imagery with such repetition when one considers that Shakespeare himself wrote in a flowery style that often packed an unexpected bite. A true master of the double entendre, and highly skilled at creating devilish puns–these facets of his writing are never so blatantly displayed as in Romeo and Juliet–Shakespeare’s experimental wordplay and the frequent duality of purpose are keenly at work in Sonnet 55. This poem appears at first to be a sort of extreme pep talk, inspired by a grand and undying passion for a friend or lover(it is unclear which), but, upon closer examination of its style and structure, underlying layers of a more sly intent emerge.

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In analyzing the style of this sonnet, it is first worth noting the similarity in word choice and overall theme to that of one of the Odes of Horace, “Exegi monumentum…”:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

regalique situ pyramidum altius,

quod non imber edax, non Aquilo impotens

possit diruere aut innumerabilis

annorum series et fuga temporum.

non omnis moriar multaque pars mei

vitabit Libitinam: usque ego postera

crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium

scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.

(I have raised a monument more lasting than copper, higher than the royal structures of pyramids, which not the voracious rainstorm nor the powerless north wind, nor the numberless sequence of years nor the flight of ages can destroy. I shall not wholly die, and a large part of me shall survive Libitina : I shall arise with fresh praise in the future, as long as the high priest climbs the Capitoline Hill with silent virgins.)

Plainly, we can hark back to the earlier assumption of Shakespeare’s more-than-passing acquaintance with classical literature and see a deliberation in the similarities between Sonnet 55 and the ode here. Particularly the open lines strike one as too close to be coincidental. Aside from structurally, the sonnet owes much to the ode stylistically as well. It would not be amiss to suggest a conscious imitation of the shamelessly hyperbolic style of this ode and other classical poems like it in Shakespeare’s word and structure choices in Sonnet 55.

That motivation discerned, the thinking behind certain techniques employed within the sonnet is distinguishable in this new context. For instance, though Shakespeare’s sonnets are often rolling, melodic, and pastoral, this poem has a more jabbing and insistent meter (though it is penned in the standard quatrain/couplet style of his sonnets and in the usual iambic pentameter, there are questionable variations within some lines–e.g., the strong and almost stabbing “NOT MARble” of the opening foot). If he were mimicking the style of the classics, the grandly royal and militaristic metaphors which are given voice by this more emphatic and obvious stress pattern can also be recognized as elements of a deliberately lofty scheme.

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Style and structure, metaphor and meter aside, what about the sonnet’s content? Surface analysis reveals common themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets; the triumph of love over death, the power of poetry to immortalize, and the personification of Time as indiscriminate and unlikeable. The language here is strongly argumentative and evokes high-flown ideals of nobility and immortality, placing the loved one in an almost soldierly role, sallying forth “’ gainst time and all-oblivious enmity.” Often in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the turn signifies some de Maupassant-esque (or, in the modern context, Shymalan-esque) couplet whose succinct sharpness puts into a different light the entire work. Here the turn does not do that but merely summarizes the apparent theme of the sonnet. It is possible to take this sonnet at face value and interpret it in a completely literal sense, as a poem simply about a poet who desires to prevent his loved one from dying by immortalizing him/her (arguably “her”) in rhyme. We might call the similarity to the ode a coincidence and say that the essence of the works is that, while Horace says, “Because of my poem, I will never die,” Shakespeare says, “Because of my poem, you will never die.” However, having proven virtually beyond the shadow of a doubt that the style and structure of this poem were, if not in deliberate imitation of, then at least inspired by a particular ode of Horace, it calls into question the authenticity of every aspect of the sonnet.

The sonnet insinuates that the loved one will remain alive despite all these cataclysmic methods of erasure, but the description of these circumstances in a bold and slashing style virtually invites such elimination, belying the seeming intent. In particular, there are frequent references to grave markers–“marble” and “gilded monuments” as images of royal entombment, “unswept stone;” the headstone “besmeared by sluttish time,” perhaps obscuring even the written “living record” of the lost loved one–which seem to imply that, despite the poet’s assurances, the “you” of the poem will, indeed, end in the anonymity of a cemetery. One may pick and prod at either poem for days, but the true essence boils down to this (placing aside for the moment the obvious parallels to the ode of Horace); that, while one may come away from Sonnet 55 thinking that it is about an individual who will never die because their lover loves them, it is in fact about an individual who may die but who will be remembered because their lover wrote a poem about them.

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It is wholly self-concerned as a work and in fact, cites none of the virtues of the beloved friend or romantic interest that makes them so unforgettable and deserving–we don’t even know the gender of the dedicatee, nor their age or circumstance. The sonnet works to prove not the immortality of the loved one at all, but its own immortality. It disguises its basely self-absorbed motivation beneath dashing images of proud pomp and splendour. The flower in this instance is the sonnet itself, and the serpent Shakespeare’s vanity.

Richard III, Act I Scene III, Line 55

GLO.: Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,

But thus his simple truth must be abus’d

By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?

Libitina: the Roman goddess of corpses, in whose temple everything pertaining to burials was sold or hired out, and where the registers of deaths were kept.

This quote is itself a serpent/flower pun of my own; out of context, one unfamiliar with The Tragedy of Richard III might be unaware that “GLO” is Gloucester; Richard III himself, and that he is in fact one of the most delightfully dissembling serpents in all of Shakespeare’s works, disguising himself as a humble flower here, and, in the context of this paper, taking up the voice of a protesting Bard to the preceding accusations.

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The Serpent and the Flower in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55. (2021, Mar 03). Retrieved January 29, 2023, from