Letter from Sidney to Shakespeare: A Comparison of Two Sonnets

Letter from Sidney to Shakespeare: A Comparison of Two Sonnets

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Letter from Sidney to Shakespeare: A Comparison of Two Sonnets

My Dearest William,

I have just returned from seeing your marvelous new tragedy Romeo and Juliet, and I wish to offer my sincere congratulations on another stupendous success! One particular passage from the play has stuck in my mind. In the first act, scene five, Romeo and Juliet exchange a dialogue about a kiss which is in the form of a sonnet. This reminded me of one of my own sonnets: Sonnet #81 of Astrophil and Stella. Your views on the subject of kissing are very interesting, and in many ways parallel my own. For instance, you compare kissing to a holy and prayer-like act, where as I compare it to a union of souls. There was one aspect of your sonnet that reminded me very much of my own. Your Juliet is very clever and quick-witted in speaking to the lovesick Romeo in the same way that my Stella is in her response to Astrophil.

In your poem, Romeo believes he is being very clever, but Juliet consistently turns his quick-witted statements around on him. Romeo tries to flatter Juliet by calling her hand a “holy shrine” which he hesitates to “profane with [his] unworthiest hand” (Shakespeare, I.v.95-6). Juliet later insisted that he does not give himself enough credit: “you do wrong your hand too much” (I.v.99).

Romeo compares his lips to “two blushing pilgrims” with which he offers to remedy his rough touch by giving her a kiss. This begins an extended metaphor of the relationship between saints, their supplicants, and in a roundabout way, God.

As Juliet explains, pilgrims show their devotion when they appeal to saints in prayer. A “holy palmer’s kiss,” is a prayer, “palm to palm,” to the saint (I.v.102). In much the same way, Romeo places his hand together with Juliet’s hand in a sort of prayer.
Romeo tries to use this analogy to his advantage by asking, “Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?” (I.v.103). However Juliet replies to his apparent cleverness by explaining that both saints and pilgrims use their lips in prayer, not in simple kissing as Romeo is suggesting.

Romeo then makes a last effort to obtain the kiss he desires. He calls her a saint, implying that he intends to be her pilgrim.

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Using his lips, “let lips do what hands do” (I.v.105), he implores her to grant him what he is praying for - a kiss from her. He makes his plea sound even more desperate by adding the words “lest faith turn to despair” (I.v.106). This suggests that if she does not kiss him, he will despair and become devastatingly melancholy (much as he was over Rosaline at the beginning of the play).

At this point, Juliet makes her most cunning observation yet. She notes that saints cannot grant anything: they “do not move” (I.v.107). They can only act as intermediaries between God and the supplicant. Therefore, since Romeo has compared her to a saint, she insists that it is not in her power to grant the kiss that is the object of his prayer. However, she puts in a cunning little clause: if the devotee, Romeo, decides to grant a kiss to her, she would have no qualms about responding to the kiss by kissing him back.

In the end, Romeo gets his way and his kiss, even though he had to work very hard to obtain it. Since Juliet, as a saint, insisted that she could “not move” (I.v.107), Romeo tells her to “move not” (I.v.108), and he takes for himself what he had been praying to her for. In another sense, the words “move not” mean that he is telling her to hold still while he kisses her.

Similarly, Stella, in my sonnet, uses artfulness to keep the amorous Astrophil at bay. Unlike in your own sonnet, in which Romeo is seeking a kiss, Stella has already given Astrophil a kiss. I give Astrophil use of the first eight lines to describe how wonderful he considers that kiss to be. I also illustrate how he longs to share Stella’s graces with the world, although he admits that his skills are poorly suited to praise something so high.

Stella, however, would rather “build her fame on higher seated praise” (Sidney ln. 10) when her admirer Astrophil offers eagerly to sing the praises of even just a small part of her many attributes to the world. Stella would rather have someone other than Astrophil, who is more skilled with words, sing her praises.

Astrophil insists that he cannot hold his tongue from speaking his heart’s delight. In much the same way that Romeo is able to turn the tables on Juliet in the end and obtain his kiss, Astrophil also gets the last laugh. He tricks Stella by telling her that if she really prefers that he not speak a word of praise about her, then she had better stop him from speaking by giving him another kiss: “stop you my mouth with still still kissing me” (ln. 14).

I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed and appreciated the wonderful similarities that I have pointed out to you between our two sonnets. You are an extremely talented poet and playwright, and I look forward to enjoying more of your work in the future. Best of luck in all your endeavors.

Your faithful servant,

Sir Philip Sidney

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books,
1998. 30-31.

Sidney, Sir Philip. Astrophil and Stella in The Norton Anthology of English
Literature, M. H. Abrams, ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company,
1993. 469.
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