[What follows is a record of the emails that were sent to our Sonnets group.]

Sonnet 136

Sonneteers, welcome back.

“Will” is at it again:

If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy “Will,”
And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there;
Thus far for love, my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
“Will” will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.
In things of great receipt with ease we prove
Among a number one is reckon’d none:
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store’s account I one must be;
For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me, a something sweet to thee:
     Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
     And then thou lov’st me, for my name is “Will.”

What’s curious here is that Shakespeare picks up on two threads I noted in the last sonnet: his anxiety about his mistress having other lovers; and his (frustrated) wish to unite with her, to have his feelings fully reciprocated. He knows he has no unique place in his mistress’s heart, and this pains him. A gloss:

Q1 If your soul confronts you with letting me come so near, let it know that I am Will (or: it was your desire); your soul knows that desire (or: the desire of others) is admitted to your heart (this could be glossed as lewder than ‘heart’) — so fulfil my love-suit that far at least

Q2 I will fulfil your heart’s desires (or: sexual desire will give you what you want), fill your heart with love (again, could be much lewder); desire will bring many wills (recall the range of this euphemism) to you, and mine is one

Q3 Among all these loves/wills, I will pass untold, though I will always be one of them; no need to hold onto me; treat me as nothing, though a sweet nothing

C But even if I’m not special, still use my name to refer to what you really love: will

Shakespeare knows (or believes) he’s not particularly special to his mistress, and this snarky sonnet essentially concludes by accusing her of being in love not with any particular object of desire, but with desire itself. On his account, she’s in love with love. I suspect that this idea underlies both of these ‘Will’ sonnets: she isn’t that interested in ‘Will’ (him), because she’s too keen on ‘will’ (desire); Shakespeare’s realised the pun, and away we go.

I’m a bit puzzled by the soul in Q1. The soul at first checks the dark lady for letting Shakespeare come near to her; but the soul is ‘blind’ (line 2), and letting it know that the person drawing near is ‘Will’ is supposed to assuage it — but on the grounds that will/desire is an acceptable reason for coming close. Nothing to do with him in particular. So why is the soul such a guard dog, as line 1 suggests, if it can be so easily appeased?


Sonnet 137

Good morning, Sonneteers.

Shakespeare’s desire to have his mistress to himself is still causing him anguish:

Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes,
That they behold, and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be.
If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchor’d in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgement of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
     In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
     And to this false plague are they now transferred.

Here he is sure that the issue is his eyes: somehow they’re lying to him, he’s sure, for when he looks at his mistress he sees his mistress (‘a several plot’, i.e. a plot of land owned privately, as opposed to a commons), even though he knows she is not (uniquely) his. This angst then mixes with his other anxiety, that while he feels intense desire for his mistress, he’s also aware that she doesn’t fit the canons of desirability that he’s internalised. A gloss:

Q1 Love, you’ve done something to my eyes: they do not see what is actually there. They know what beauty is, but when they actually see it they take it for the worst

Q2 (If Shakespeare’s eyes are meant:) My eyes (over-partial) are anchored in a bay in which there are plenty of other ships; my false eyes have hooked the judgement of my heart. (Or, if his mistress’s eyes are meant:) My mistress’s eyes (glancing at me as though partially) are anchored in a face that all men pursue (and win); these false eyes (done up with make-up?) have hooks that have snared my heart. (Niftily, it works equally well both ways.)

Q3 Why should my heart think my mistress is my own, when she’s common ground? My eyes, seeing this, somehow put an appealing gloss over it

C My eye and heart have erred: and now both are bound to this false plague

You’ll recall that Shakespeare has invoked his eye and his heart before — many moons ago,  in sonnets 46-47. Then it was a question of whether the eye or the heart truly had the rights to the young man: the heart insisted that it possessed the essence of the young man, which was inward; the eye insisted that the young man’s loveliness was his essence, which was to be found on his surface. There’s none of this here. Rather, Shakespeare prosecutes both eye and heart, though primarily his eye, for having been hoodwinked, for seeing falsely, and thus for causing his torment.

There are those two anxieties operating here: fear that his mistress is not uniquely his; and fear that his desire for her does not match what he thinks he should desire. It is easier to feel more sympathy for Shakespeare on the one front than the other. Romantic love is structured around a desire for a unique kind of recognition from the other, to the effect that they find you as irresistibly special as you find them; its most characteristic corruption is to demand this recognition from the other without bestowing it oneself. When it is unrequited it is uniquely painful.

On the other hand, Shakespeare has all the materials here for an interesting exploration of the contrast between the beautiful and the desirable, and the extent to which they intertwine and the extent to which they do not. I, for one, have known my share of people who are conventionally beautiful, but who still leave me cold — and vice versa. Yet Shakespeare’s exploration of this issue is so steeped in his self-loathing for feeling as he does about his mistress that he cannot approach it directly.


Sonnet 138

Sonneteers, good morning.

Something refreshing today, something not too steeped in Shakespeare’s self-loathing, something about relationships rooted in small lies and half-truths:

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 untutor’d 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 suppress’d.
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 flatter’d be.

Shakespeare pretends he thinks his mistress is honest (presumably with reference to her fidelity), and he pretends this in part so she thinks him earnest and inexperienced and thus young; she, meanwhile, is happy to maintain this fiction, that the ageing Shakespeare is still a young man. Each thus lies to the other, and is flattered by the lie, even though both know the truth of the matter, and that the other does too. It’s an elegant and believable portrait of a certain kind of relationship. A gloss:

Q1 When my mistress says she’s honest, I believe her, not least so that she thinks me youthful

Q2 This lets me believe she thinks I’m still young; meanwhile she gets to think I believe her

Q3 Why does she lie about her honesty? Why do I lie about my youth? Love is best suited by (seeming-)honesty; and love loves to feel young

Thus we lie to each other, and each feel better about ourselves

The sestet is where this one gets interesting. Shakespeare is evidently rethinking his relationship with his mistress. Where he had been expressing anguish that he was distant from her heart, and not unique in her loves, this one tries out the idea that superficiality might actually still be an acceptable relationship: it gives a simulacrum of love — and, he suggests, isn’t that close enough to the real thing to satisfy? I don’t believe it, and I don’t think he does either, but this strikes me as another of those sonnets in which he tests an idea out.

There’s an interesting current of self-deception running through this one. On the one hand, line 2 is pretty strident: ‘I do believe her, though I know she lies’. But the perspective of the sonnet itself is one of knowing, and by the end it has internalised this perspective, and we are presented with an attitude that might be called ironic play, in which one indulges in believing something while also being aware at some level that it isn’t true. The sonnet raises questions about what’s going on when we do this, which surely we all do. Is it that reflection only penetrates so deep, such that some of our beliefs are impervious to corrosive rationality? Or is it that, if we are sufficiently strongly motivated, we are able to persist in believing things despite at some level being aware of their falsehood? In either case, how far can irony sustain us?


Sonnet 139

Good morning, Sonneteers.

I can’t help but hear this as a reaction against yesterday’s sonnet:

O call not me to justify the wrong
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart;
Wound me not with thine eye, but with thy tongue;
Use power with power, and slay me not by art.
Tell me thou lov’st elsewhere; but in my sight,
Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside:
What need’st thou wound with cunning, when thy might
Is more than my o’er-press’d defense can bide?
Let me excuse thee: ah, my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been mine enemies;
And therefore from my face she turns my foes,
That they elsewhere might dart their injuries:
     Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,
     Kill me outright with looks, and rid my pain.

Shakespeare had tried to find some way of thinking (and thus feeling) differently about his relationship with his mistress, but it evidently didn’t take: now he says he’d much prefer to be killed with looks than try to justify her unkindness. A gloss:

Q1 Do not make me justify the wrong you’re dong me; don’t make me guess at your infidelities — just tell me

Q2 Tell me you aren’t mine along, but please don’t let your eye stray while you’re in my company — why wound me like that, when I’d be powerless to resist a frontal assault?

Q3 Perhaps I could excuse you thus: your pretty looks have wounded me, so you turn your gaze aside and look at others in order to spare me

C But don’t do this: I’m near slain from pain anyway, so just get it over with

Yesterday’s sonnet posed the question of how far one can go on with a falsehood, and this sonnet gives an answer: not far. The desire here for open communication instead of mutual lying is mixed with a not-very-concealed masochism: Shakespeare cannot live with falsehood, yet he also almost wants the pain that revelation will bring him.

What is particularly curious about this one is the echo, in the concluding line, of the conclusion of 40, which also concerned Shakespeare’s mistress: ‘Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.’ The major difference is the addressee: in that sonnet, it was the young man; now, it’s his mistress. The meaning is also somewhat inverted: ‘kill me’ in 40 refers (I suspect) to what he now calls ‘pain’ — in 40, he says he’d rather go on in the pain of jealousy than break with the young man, which he equates with death. Now he says ‘kill me’, and one takes it that what he’s inviting is for his mistress to break it off. Or, perhaps, the pain here is that of suspicion, to which he would prefer the emotional death of knowing.


Sonnet 140

Sonneteers, good morning.

Good lord, this brings us to 140. That means we’ll be done in under three weeks. I can scarce believe it.

Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;
For, if I should despair, I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee:
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
     That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
     Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

It’s been a tumultuous little sequence: first Shakespeare experimented with the idea of embracing little lies; then he rejected it, and insisted he would rather be killed by knowledge than suffer from suspicion; now he’s relented, and we’re back to him wanting to be spared the revelation that he is not loved. A gloss:

Q1 Be as wise as you’re cruel, and don’t push me too far; I’m tongue-tied now, but I might break and express my pain

Q2 If I could teach you wisdom, I’d teach you to tell me you love me, even though you don’t, just as doctors bring only good news to a man on his sick-bed

Q3 If I despaired, I’d grow mad, and I’d speak ill of you; and this is a bad world, which believes the rantings of the mad

C So that it doesn’t come to that, pretend to love me, even if your heart is elsewhere

The final line is interesting for its inversion of what we might expect the words to mean. ‘Straight’, we might think, means honest or direct — but here Shakespeare’s mistress’s eyes fixing themselves exclusively on him is a lie; similarly, something that goes wide misses its mark, or is indirect, but here it is her honest heart that goes wide.

What’s strangest here is the threat in Q3 (announced already in the first line). Shakespeare makes out that he’s merely pointing to a necessary consequence: if he broke, and grew insane, he wouldn’t be responsible for what he did; if he then went around bad-mouthing his mistress, that wouldn’t be his fault. We don’t believe his pose: the threat is plain enough. And it’s such a sad threat, which at bottom says nothing but: ‘Humour me, please, I have nothing else.’

The only way one might salvage this one is to think of it in terms of King Lear, who also is driven into madness by despair. (This sonnet almost certainly pre-dates Lear by a decade or so.) There is, in fact, something very Lear-esque about it: like the speaker here, Lear was quite content with outward shows of love and devotion, and was happy to ignore what went on in others’ hearts (in Lear’s case, to his peril). But this raises questions: would the speaker of this sonnet, like Lear, prefer his mistress to tell him sweet lies like Regan and Goneril? This is apparently what he is proposing. But then how would he react if his mistress loved him inwardly, but was unable to express that love? ‘Love and be silent,’ Cordelia says — could the Shakespeare of the Sonnets cope with that?