Poetry Series VIII: “Ransom” in Sonnet 34

A month or so ago, I talked about Shakespeare’s Sonnet 34 and my general thoughts and noticings on it.  Today, I’m going to break that down into a very specific segment of the poem, and talk specifically about a single word that he used– “ransom”. For class we were required to find a word that had multiple meanings and discuss it, and I think it’s super cool to take a look at the way the word impacts the overall meaning of the sonnet. I got all of these definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, and would 10/10 recommend using it for bonus points with your poetry teacher!

Sonnet 34

Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?
‘Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,
To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,
For no man well of such a salve can speak,
That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:
Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;
Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:
The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief
To him that bears the strong offence’s cross. 
Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,
And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

Definition

The word ransom first came into our vocabulary in 1225 as a noun, meaning “freeing oneself from a penalty” (OED 1.1), a definition very much the same as the one we use today. It didn’t get used as a verb until about 100 years later when, rather than referring to earthly matters, it meant “to deliver… from sin” (OED 2), a direct reference to Christianity. During Shakespeare’s time, it was mostly used in poetry to mean “atone or pay for”, in addition to “procure respite of” (OED 2c). Although this second definition is now obsolete, it plays into modern definitions, as a modern day ransoming is done in order to give individuals a respite from their captivity.

Analysis

Shakespeare uses the word ransom in sonnet 34, where he writes “and they are rich and ransom all ill deeds” in his final couplet. In this line, he is referring to the tears which a woman is crying after hurting him.  In this line, Shakespeare is most obviously referring to OED definition 2c, “atone or pay for”. In this sense, he is stating that the woman’s tears make up for all the ill deeds which she has previously done, and because of that he forgives her. On a surface level, this allows for comprehensive understanding of the poem. However, definition 2a also gives important context and meaning to Shakespeare’s poem. At the time this was written, ransom often had religious connotations, and this means that Shakespeare could have also been referencing freedom from eternal damnation. When read with this in mind, the couplet of Shakespeare’s poem seems to imply that the person Shakespeare is talking to is capable of religious interference. In other words, it appears as though he is referring to a Jesus or Godlike figure. Since the ransom is referring to “tears” which the woman sheds, this entire couplet could be about an act of confession and purging of the sins, and at the very least shows that he thinks this woman has some otherworldly power over him. With the multiple definitions of ransom, Shakespeare strengthens his connection to the woman and demonstrates a greater respect for her than the rest of the poem would imply otherwise.

let's talk

How do you think “ransom” impacted the meaning of this sonnet? do you care at all? has this given you a new perspective on the sonnet?

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