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Analysis of 'Sonnet 135' by William Shakespeare

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Shakespeare (the Chandos Portrait, painted 1600-1610)

William Shakespeare (the Chandos Portrait, painted 1600-1610)

William Shakespeare and a Summary of 'Sonnet 135'

'Sonnet 135' is William Shakespeare's punning poem addressing the Dark Lady, so called, the woman who, married and with bad breath, of false-speaking tongue and dubious morals, torments and brings pain to her lover.

This sonnet is highly unusual in the way the poet plays on the word Will, or will. If you add wilt to the puns, there are 14 in total.

In the first two lines for instance, the word Will appears three times, that capital W italicised, prominent and slightly puzzling. This is more than likely an abbreviation of the name William.

For the reader, dealing with so many puns can be daunting. How to approach them—are they used for comic effect? Or did Shakespeare overegg his omelette to purposefully reflect the plight of a serious speaker?

Only four lines are free of will or Will, or wilt: lines 3, 9, 10 and 13. Essentially this sonnet is an outpouring of emotion, wrapped in innuendo and symbolism, each quatrain expressing a different aspect of the speaker's obsession with their sexual relationship. Paired 'Sonnet 136' continues the story.

It should be remembered that this sonnet is not necessarily a personal confession of the poet William Shakespeare. The speaker, although a first person I, could well be an imagined persona, a character created in order to convey a certain message in a certain way. In this case the tone is playful, ambiguous and bawdy, the message willfully swamped.

The basic theme of this sonnet is sexual desire and fulfillment within the context of the relationship between Will and the Dark Lady. Sonnets 127–152 reflect the complex nature of this affair, all the torture and pain, love and lies, madness and fever—there is no final truth or confession, there is only the bliss and turmoil of love.

For the reader there is initial confusion at the profusion of Wills (wills), but once the puns are revealed, the sonnet becomes much less of a challenge. In all, there are between six and eight variations of meaning, some logical, some ambiguous, others tied up with sexuality and Elizabethan slang:

  • Will: abbreviation of William, Shakespeare's 'voice', lady's husband or lover, or friend of William Shakespeare.
  • will: carnal desire, lust.
  • Wilt: auxiliary verb or modal (archaic) of will. Future purpose.
  • will: inclination or pleasure.
  • will: male sexual drive/organ.

Second Lord: He hath perverted a young gentlewoman
here in Florence of a most chaste renown,
and this night he fleshes his will in the spoil of her
honor. He hath given her his monumental ring and
thinks himself made in the unchaste composition. (All's Well...Act 4, Scene 3:14)

  • will: female sexual drive/organ.

The form of this sonnet is Shakespearean (or English), with three quatrains and a couplet making up 14 lines in total. The last two lines often sum up the previous twelve, or bring an argument to its conclusion or reinforce a message. The rhymes are all full.

Lust, beauty, truth, love, wranglings of the heart and mind—Shakespeare in his last 25 sonnets captures the agony and ecstasy of this relationship like no other sonneteer.

Imagined or not, the extreme angst expressed by the speaker is disturbing; being starved of sex or having a continual overdose has driven this person nuts.

For example, in 'Sonnet 147' desperation sets in:

Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly expressed:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

'Sonnet 135' focuses on carnal desire and sexual identity, the speaker (Will) repeatedly seeking solace, comparing his libido with that of his lover. Will she gratify his physical needs?

'Sonnet 135' by William Shakespeare

analysis-of-sonnet-135-by-william-shakespeare

Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Sonnet 135'

Lines 1 and 2

The first line is a direct contrast of wish with Will, something hoped for against something real and attained. Some women have a desire for things to come true, but the dark lady (thou) is already in possession of hers.

The first Will could be an abbreviation of William (the poet, the poet's voice/persona), which plays on the idea of a person called Will, or is a pet name for the male penis or sexual desire.

The second line has another Will (to boot means into the bargain/in addition), meaning she has extra desire. The third Will (in over-plus means surplus/excess) suggests that the dark lady has a super sex-drive. No wishes, fantasies or dreams—it is sexual energy with a capital letter.

Lines 3 and 4

The speaker boasts of being the one who can more than satisfy her, despite his continuous, frustrating sexual advances (vexed means to irritate/annoy). He can add to her already sweet will, her wanton or lecherous sexual desire.

Lines 5 and 6

The fifth line contains the archaic second-person singular verb form Wilt meaning will, and the lower-case noun will, meaning sexual organ, which the lady uses generously.

Here is the speaker implying that his lover is well endowed and so why doesn't she, just once, just one time, or once and for all, say yes to him (vouchsafe meaning to grant) having sexual intercourse?

Lines 7 and 8

The speaker's perspective broadens. She is so attracted to the sexual drive of others, but won't welcome or receive him.

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Lines 9 and 10

The sea is here a metaphor for sexual desire, the rain adding to and refreshing what is already a deep and endless resource. The sea can easily take it.

Shakespeare throughout his career used the sea as a dramatic device. It features in many plays as a symbol for emotion, change, and states of love.

Here is a striking example—Orsino's words in the play Twelfth Night:

“O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou

That, notwithstanding thy capacity

Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there,” (1.1.9 -11).

And again, Orsino, talking about his love:

But mine is all as hungry as the sea, And can digest as much. (Twelfth Night. I I . i v . 103–104)

The idea that the sea needs no more water—Titus Andronicus, distraught, with a metaphorical futile act:

"What fool hath added water to the sea" (Titus Andronicus . I I I.i. 68 ).

Whilst Romeo part of a short speech, attempts to define what love is:

"Being vex'd, a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears" (Romeo and Juliet l.i.198 ) .

So, the sea is never really full and can always take more rain, meaning that the speaker thinks his lover has an insatiable sexual appetite. It should also be noted that Shakespeare uses the sea symbolically to enhance love's intensity, passion and danger.

Lines 11 and 12

These lines follow on from the previous (and echo lines 1 and 2 with three Wills), reinforcing the idea that the dark lady has the wherewithal to increase her sexual permissiveness, and swell her organ.

Lines 13 and 14

The end couplet suggests that the speaker is urging his lover to keep alive her sexual generosity, despite other lovers who would be cruel, or those who are just. She ought especially to grant him, Will, (and his sexual drive/organ) access.

He, Will, the speaker, is willing to share with others the woman who is driving him mad, who inspires an avalanche of wills, an outpouring of future hope—where there's a will there's a way.

What Is the Metre of 'Sonnet 135'?

Shakespeare's sonnets have to be scanned carefully because not all fourteen lines are solid iambic pentameter. 'Sonnet 135' is no exception. While iambic rhythm dominates, several lines in this poem have different feet. Thirteen lines have the traditional 10 syllables, and one line 11.

These metrical variations alter the stress beats on certain syllables and bring added interest for the reader.

Let's take a closer look:

  1. Whoev / er hath / her wish, / thou hast / thy Will, *
  2. And Will / to boot, / and Will / in o / ver-plus, *
  3. More than / enough / am I / that vexed / thee still,
  4. To thy / sweet will / making / addi / tion thus.
  5. Wilt thou / whose will / is large / and spa / cious, º
  6. Not once / vouchsafe / to hide / my will / in thine, *
  7. Shall will / in o / thers seem / right gra / cious, º
  8. And in / my will / no fair / accep / tance shine: *
  9. The sea / all wa / ter, yet / receives / rain still, *
  10. And in / abun / dance add / eth to / his store, *
  11. So thou / being / rich in / Will add / to thy Will,
  12. One will / of mine / to make / thy large / Will more. *
  13. Let no / unkind, / no fair / beseech / ers kill, *
  14. Think all / but one, / and me / in that / one Will. *

* iambic pentameter (lines 1,2,5,6,7,8,9,10,12,13,14)

º please note that in Shakespeare's time the words spacious/gracious may have been pronounced with three syllables (spay-sea-us/grey-sea-us). So lines 5 and 7 have 10 syllables.

Line 3: starts with a trochee, stress on the first syllable, reinforcing the word More.

Line 4: has a third foot trochee, stress on the making, an echo of the previous line.

Line 5: has only nine syllables (unless the Elizabethans pronounced spacious as spacey-uss?)

Line 11: has 11 syllables, three trochee feet and a rising anapaest in the final foot.

The 11th line is definitely the odd one out, the extra syllable underlining the idea of something being added. Three trochees also bring strong stresses to the middle section.

'Sonnet 135' original form from the Quarto, 1609

'Sonnet 135' original form from the Quarto, 1609

Sources

  • Stapleton, M. L. “‘My False Eyes’: The Dark Lady and Self-Knowledge.” Studies in Philology, vol. 90, no. 2, 1993, pp. 213–230. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4174453. Accessed 14 June 2021.
  • "The original pronunciation of Elizabethan English" | Britannica
  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets (The Arden Shakespeare; Katherine Duncan-Jones ed.; 3e; 1997) (wordpress.com)
  • Shakespeare's Words

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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