Sonnet 138

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Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue,
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

–William Shakespeare

Sonnet 138 is one of the most famous of William Shakespeare's sonnets. Making use of frequent puns ("lie" and "lie" being the most obvious), it shows an understanding of the nature of truth and flattery in romantic relationships. The poem has also been argued to be biographical: many scholars have suggested Shakespeare used the poem to discuss his frustrating relationship with the Dark Lady, a frequent subject of many of the sonnets. (To note, the Dark Lady was definitely not Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway.) The poem emphasizes the effects of age and the associated deterioration of beauty, and its effect on a sexual or romantic relationship.


The Passionate Pilgrim[edit]

An early version of Shakespeare's Sonnet 138 made its début in 1599 in a collection of twenty poems called The Passionate Pilgrim published by William Jaggard.[1] The group of poems was listed as being written by "W. Shakespeare".[2] The Passionate Pilgrim went through two separate printings during 1599. Sonnet 138 is the first poem in The Passionate Pilgrim, followed thereafter by another of Shakespeare's sonnets, 144.[3]

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her (though I know she lies)
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unskillful in the world’s false forgeries.
Thus, vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I, simply, credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love, with love’s ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I, that I am old?
O, love’s best habit's in a soothing tongue,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
   Therefore I'll lie with love, and love, with me,
   Since that our faults in love thus smothered be.

It has long been conjectured whether the present version of Sonnet 138 was an early draft penned by Shakespeare himself or a contrived fabrication devised by an unknown individual who discovered a later version being circulated in the Quarto or some diverse formulation.[4] Carl D. Atkins argues that this version of Sonnet 138 is just a "poor memorial reconstruction" stating that "the whole point of the sonnet is missing in the earlier version".[5] However, Edward A. Snow feels more inline with the assumption that the early version was, indeed, written by Shakespeare and that it is not an "imperfectly remembered transcript".[6]

The later version did not appear until ten years later, 1609 in Quarto.[7] According to Snow, the differences between the two version begin in that "the earlier version still hesitates at the threshold in question, and in the end relapses into metaphors that evoke the repressive claustrophobic atmosphere of Othello ("Since that our faultes in love thus smother'd be"); while the 1609 version passes over into the lucid, accommodating, fully manifest space of Anothony and Cleopatra ("And in our faultes by lies we flattered be")" [8]

The Dark Lady[edit]

Sonnet 138 is a part of a series of poems written about Shakespeare's dark lady. They describe a woman who has dark hair and dark eyes. She diverges from the Petrarchan norm. “Golden locks” and “florid cheeks” were fashionable in that day, but Shakespeare’s lady does not bear those traits.[9] The lady is shown as being both fair and foul, and both kind and unkind.[10] Alice F. Moore feels that within these later sonnets the poet is equally as dark as the lady. As the speaker reveals the mistress in her “foulness” and “deceit,” he consequently reveals himself. These sonnets are shadowed by the speakers own self-hatred and anger.[11] However, Joel Fineman believes that the biggest difference between series of the dark lady and the other series of sonnets featuring the young man is that those about the dark lady use a formula of lusty misogyny that is clearly Shakespearean.[12] Throughout the sonnets, and especially sonnet 138, the lady "comes to occupy this peculiarly charged erotic place ("therefore I lie with her, and she with me,/And in our faults by lies we flattered be").[13]

The sonnets addressed to the dark lady usually relate the lady with "a disjunction occasioned by verbal duplicity," ("When my love swears that she is made of truth,/I do believe her, though I know she lies").[14] The language in the dark lady sonnets is some that "one is forced to hear-- to hear, that is, as language-- functions as a supplementary and confirming, not a disavowing, gloss on what the poet has to say".[15] They “conceal praise under the guise of disparagement (Kambascovic-Sawers p. 293). A.L. Rowse believes that the sonnet takes us further into Shakespeare's relationship with the lady. The relationship is both "purely sexual" and "utterly unromantic".[16] However, it can also be said that the speaker is not attracted to the woman because of her “physical, intellectual, or moral excellence”.[17] Instead, the attraction is portrayed as being “self-generated, with no basis in ‘reality’”.[18]

Rowse feels that the woman discussed in the sonnet can be identified as the mistress, Emilia. Shakespeare is six years older, and is thus highly conscious of his age. Underneath all the hyprocrisies there is Shakespeare's "honest candour." [19] In Shakespeare's Sonnets: The Problems Solved, A. L. Rowse notes that Sonnet 138 shows the "uncompromising realism with which he [Shakespeare] describes it all: it has been said -- rightly-- that there is no woman like Shakespeare's in all the sonnet-literature of the Renaissance. Most of them are abstractions or wraiths; this one is of flesh and blood".[20]

Themes and motifs[edit]

Valerie Traub presents the idea that many sonnets follow a Judeo-Christian idea of procreation as “justification” for heterosexuality. Shakespeare explores more sensual and even explicit ideas in the sonnets that challenge these ideals. Though Sonnet 138 does not vastly differ from this tradition as Shakespeare’s sonnets to the young boy this does fall in to this contradictory tradition.[21] Here there Shakespeare references her truth and lies rather than her sensual body showing that he is differing from Christian traditions. Joel Fineman speaks on a similar topic when referencing Shakespeare. “On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.” Fineman states, “his desire is imposed on him, not by God or by Nature, but by poetry itself.” Fineman is explaining that Shakespeare is not only challenging Christianity he is examining the forms and ideas of poetry themselves.[22] Shakespeare’s emphasis on truth takes away from his emphasis on procreation. J. Bunselmeyer takes it even further and discusses that Shakespeare’s puns here begin to negate not only the traditional ideas of Christianity but also the words that are being presented. This contradiction plays on fineman’s idea of the form of poetry.[23]

Line by line[edit]

When my love swears that she is made of truth,/

I do believe her, though I know she lies,/ That she might think me some untutored youth /

Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.

Lines 1 and 2 of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 present a paradox where the obsessed lover is blind to what he can clearly see. Line 2 reveals that the speaker is aware of his delusion, possibly because of the word “swears” in line 1. Swearing, according to editor Stephen Booth, means there is a reason for disbelief; consequently, the statement incriminates itself.[24] Alice F. Moore also concurs with the writing of Stephen Booth in her own commentary on Sonnet 138, also proclaiming the relationship between the two lovers as one of mutual dishonesty. For Moore, line 2 highlights an internal division of the speaker because he knows that the lady lies, but he, even knowing this, chooses to believe her.[25] The speaker clearly acknowledges his lady’s lies in line 2, and he acknowledges his decision to believe them.[26] Both lines 3 and 4 give reason for the speaker’s beliefs concerning his and his lover’s lies. He wants to appear younger, while she wants to think that she is with a more youthful lover.[27] However, the editor, Carl D. Atkins, approaches the first quatrain with a slightly different take, believing the word “lies” in line 2 to be nothing more than a set-up for the pun in the ending couplet, using the word “lies” to mean “sleep with” instead of “falsehoods.” He also has a slight twist about who lies to whom, claiming that the lady lies to the speaker about her faithfulness, but he does not lie to her, only to himself, imagining that she believes him to be an “untutored youth.” [28]

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,/

Although she knows my days are past the best,/ Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue;/

On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed

In the second quatrain, specifically in lines 5 and 6, the speaker declares he is aware that she knows he is no longer young.[29] Beginning line 5 with the words “Thus vainly” effectively negates the second half of the line, implying that the lady does not actually believe in the speaker’s youth. The same can be said for line 7, with the second part of the line clearly contradicting the beginning. According to Moore, the confusing contradictions within these lines are intended to display, and help the reader to feel, the “schizophrenia” of both the poem and the two lovebirds.[30] Booth’s writing agrees with Moore; lines 5 and 6 parallel the inconsistencies that the speaker discusses in line 2. Booth’s interpretation suggests that the lady struggles to believe that she actually believes the lies that she pretends to believe. Boothe says line 7 simply shows line 8 as a truth “thus, we are both liars, she in pretending faithfulness and I in pretending youth,” emphasizing the mutuality of the relationship.[31] It reiterates their mutual deception and recognition of said deception, believing all that they hear from each other and all that they tell to each other.[32]

But wherefore says she not she is unjust? /

And wherefore say not that I am old?/ O love’s best habit is in seeming trust,/

And age in love loves not t’ have years told:

In line 9, the word “unjust” is taken by Atkins to mean either “dishonest” or “unfaithful”; the editor leans toward the second option because it is in keeping with the rest of his interpretation, but it is clear that the word refers to some “falseness in matters of the heart.” [33] In line 12, the term “lie with” also furthers Atkins’s argument for an elaborate pun, declaring that the speaker lies with the mistress rather than to her.[34] Also in lines 11 and 12, much is debated over the beginning “O” of line 11. Moore interprets this interjection as impatience or sarcasm, possibly a “reason or excuse hastily tossed off.” [35] However, author Helen Vendler views it as the beginnings of proverbial wisdom; the “O” is actually an answer to a question. Both lines 11 and 12 are in proverb form, but it is interesting to note that Vendler believes the proverbs to reference the speaker, as opposed to his lady.[36]

Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

The ending couplet provides, according to Moore, an interesting twist when “deception and love making become one: to lie is to lie with” [37] However, Vendler has a slightly different take on the poem as a whole in response to the final volte. She notes that the pronouns “I” and “she” share a mutual verb, becoming “we” with “our” shared faults. The end of the poem shows the final progression of the lovers’ relationship, beginning with anger, then suppressed anger, followed by game playing, then the realization of the absurdity of truthfulness, finally ending with the admission of flattery when each lover suppresses frank speech in order to lie to and with each other.[38] Booth also recognizes the significance of the mutual pronouns, with line 13 reiterating lies as necessary for a cooperative relationship, but his conclusion from the closing lines of the poem varies slightly from Vendler’s. For Booth, line 14 is not a realization of the lovers situation, but it is a reason for the speakers attitude throughout the poem, particularly that of “cynicism, bitterness, and despair.” [39]



  1. ^ (Atkins, Cecil D., ed. Shakespeare's Sonnets with Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007, p. 340.)
  2. ^ Booth, Stephen, ed. Shakespeare's Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, p. 476.
  3. ^ Booth, 476.
  4. ^ Atkins, 340.
  5. ^ Atkins, 340.
  6. ^ Snow, Edward A. "Loves of Comfort and Despair: A Reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 138," ELH 47:3 (1980), 462-483 [1].
  7. ^ Snow, 463.
  8. ^ Snow, 463.
  9. ^ (Danijela Kambraskovic-Sawers. Three themes in one, which wonderous scope affords: Ambiguous Speaker and Storytelling in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Criticism, 49:3 (2007:Summer) p. 294)
  10. ^ (Joel Fineman. Shakespeare's Perjurd Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1986, p. 17.)
  11. ^ (Alice F. Moore. Shakespeare's SONNET 138, Explicator, 43:2 (1985:Winter) p.15)
  12. ^ (Fineman p. 17)
  13. ^ (Fineman p. 17)
  14. ^ (Fineman p. 17)
  15. ^ (Fineman 286)
  16. ^ (A.L. Rowse. Shakespeare's Sonnets: The Problems Solved. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1973, p. 287)
  17. ^ (Kambascovic-Sawers p. 294)
  18. ^ (Kambascovic-Sawers p. 294)
  19. ^ (Rowse: p. 287)
  20. ^ (Rowse: p. 287)
  21. ^ (Traub, Valerie. "Sex without Issue: Sodomy, Reproduction, and Signification in Shakespeare's Sonnets" Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. Ed. Schiffer, James. 2001.)
  22. ^ (Fineman, Joel. Shakespeare's Perjurd Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. University of California Press, Berkeley: 1986.)
  23. ^ (Bunselmeyer, J. Appearances and Verbal Paradox Sonnets 129 and 138. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, No 1 (winter, 1974) 103-108)
  24. ^ (Ed. Booth, Stephen. Shakespeare's Sonnets Edited with Analytic Commentary. Yale University Press, New Haven: 1977.)
  25. ^ (Moore, Alice F.,Shakespeare's SONNET 138 , Explicator, 43:2 (1985:Winter) p.15 )
  26. ^ (Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 1997.)
  27. ^ (Booth p. 479)
  28. ^ (Ed. Atkins, Carl D. Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison: 2007.)
  29. ^ (Atkins p. 339)
  30. ^ (Moore p. 15)
  31. ^ (Booth p. 479)
  32. ^ (Booth)
  33. ^ (Atkins p. 340)
  34. ^ (Atkins)
  35. ^ (Moore p. 15)
  36. ^ (Vendler)
  37. ^ (Moore p. 15)
  38. ^ (Vendler)
  39. ^ (Booth p. 481)

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