THE HEAVENLY TREASURE OF SONNETS 48 AND 52
Reprinted from the June 1999 issue of NOTES AND QUERIES
The New Testament pericope Matthew 6:19- 21 (1) containing Christ’s admonition to store up treasure in heaven – “for where your treasure is, there wil your heart be also” (Genevan 1568) appears to have exercised a reverberating influence in Shakespeare’s theological imagination.
Although review of literature on Shakespeare’s Bible knowledge (2) turns up several published comments on this influence, a close reading of Sonnets 48 and 52 reveals that Christ’s striking moral in this pericope is also the germinative inspiration for both Sonnets, a finding which underscores the intimate character of the influence.
Like the famous Neo-Platonic Sonnet 146(3) Sonnets 48 and 52 invoke the Platonic metaphor of the body as a container, although the content is not “dull earth” but divine treasure and the Biblical source is not Paul, but Matthew. As Stephen Booth has recognized, the double appearance of the word “blessed”(52.1; 52.13) ties Sonnet 52 unmistakably to the gospels: The “‘blessed key’ suggests the keys of the kingdom of heaven given to St. Peter in Matt. 16. 19” (4).
Unfortunately, Booth’s commentary overlooks the dynamic figurative interplay between the keys of the kingdom alleged in Matthew 16:19 and the “treasure” of the youth’s being, “lockt . . . within the gentle closure of my breast” in Sonnet 48 – which recalls the admonition given in Matthew 6:19- 21 not to “store up treasure on earth, because where your treasure is, there wil be your heart also.”
Indeed, the paired sonnets make iterated reference to the author’s leasehold on the treasure’ of the beloved. Although he fears that the beloved, his ‘best of deerest, and mine onely care I Art left the prey of every vulgar theefe’ he protests that “Thee have I not lockt up in any chest, Save where thou art not though I feele thou art, Within the gentle closure of my brest.”
As Booth presciently notes, without identifying the source text which inspires the homonym, the word ‘chest’ plays upon the double sense of that which contains treasure and that which contains the heart. The line “thee I have not locked up in any chest” answers the catechesis of Christ’s admonition not to lay up treasure on earth: “Where have you kept your treasure?” Thus, while sonnet 48 makes explicit reference to the author’s fear of his beloved’s exposure to “every vulgar thief,” by sonnet 52 his beloved is safely sealed within the gentle closure of his breast, where Christ in Matthew 6:19-21 dictates all treasure should be kept.
Now the author is “as the rich whose blessed key/Can bring him to his sweet up-locked treasure”. The small simile, ‘as’, like all small words in Shakespeare (6), should not pass unconsidered. The writer’s condition is like that of those who heed the wisdom of Matthew 6:19- 21; these are not, perhaps, literally rich, but as the rich, possessing treasure in the heaven’ of their hearts which becomes spiritual compensation for worldly poverty.
If sonnet 94 has been called “a beatitude for the rich and powerful” – a poem lecturing another on the worldly responsibility of an Aristotelian “great soul” (7) – this pair of meditative soliloquies, directed from the author’s “I” to his “me,”are contemplative beatitudes for the self-as-lover. What might appear, at first glance, as the author’s boast of being among those who will inherit heavenly treasure finally is transformed into an expression of devotion to his beloved in the concluding couplet of Sonnet 52:
Blessed are you whose worthinesse gives skope,
Being had to tryumph, being lackt to hope.
This concluding figure of the beloved as a treasure to be attained, “a captain jewel” in his carcanet, though surely recalling the “pearl of great price”, for which the rich merchant ventured all his possessions (Matthew 13:45-6), more directly reflects the indubitable and profound influence of the same biblical pericope which the Sonnet author appears to have taken deeply “to heart”: Matthew 6:19-21.
1 19 Lay not up treasure for your selves upon the earth, where the mothe & canker corrupt, & where thieves digge through, and steale. 20 But lay up treasures for your selves in heaven, where nether the mothe nor canker corrupteth, and where theves nethere digge through and steale. 21 For where your treasure is, there wil your heart be also (Genevan 1568).
2 Lexical traces of the pericope have been detected in II Henry IV by Naseeb Shaheen in his Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Histories (Newark, 1989); in an essay on Merchant of Venice, Barbara Lewalski identifies it as the key scripture text opposing love of this world to the Christian love of god and neighbor’. Further influence can be cited from Othello, in which the proto-Puritan Iago parodies Christ’s moral in his instructions to Brabantio on how to win Desdemona’s heart: put money in thy purse… put money in thy purse. .. .put money in thy purse. If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than drowning. Make all the money thou ……. Put money enough in your purse’ (I.iii.337-57). Iago’s fourfold iteration of the commandment to put money in thy purse’ cannot fail to evoke reminiscence of Christ’s contrary advice in Matt. To “lay not up treasure for your selves upon the earth, where theves digge through, and steal”‘ (Genevan 1568).
3 See Donald A. Stauffer, Critical Principles and A Sonnet’, The American Scholar (Winter 1942-3), 52-62; B. C. Southam, “Shakespeare’s Christian Sonnet? Number 14″‘, SQ xi (Winter 1960), 67-71; Charles A. Huttar, “The Christian Basis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14″‘, SQ xix (Autumn 1968), 355-65.
4 Shakes-peare’s Sonnets. Edited with Analytic Commentary (New Haven and London, 1977), 503.
5 Booth, op. cit., 223.
6 Stevens, The Honorable John Paul, “The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction,” The Pennsylvania Law Review, cxl (1992), 1372-86.
7 Roger Stritmatter, A Quintessence of Dust (unpub. manuscript, 1992), 210.