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Analysis of 'Sonnet 144' 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 sonnet analysis

William Shakespeare sonnet analysis

'Sonnet 144' Summary

'Sonnet 144' is unique in that it brings together the two main protagonists of the complete sonnet sequence, the lovely boy and the dark lady.

In the sonnet, they are referred to as a man right fair and a woman coloured ill, and a kind of battle of good versus evil goes on for the speaker's soul.

First published in 1609, the 154 sonnets are chiefly concerned with all aspects of love and explore such issues as sexuality, romance, friendship, physical passion and truth.

Some think the sonnets reveal what was going on in Shakespeare's private, emotional life, and represent the contents of his heart. Others claim that the sonnets are strictly literary, the speaker and characters were created by Shakespeare as he exercised his considerable talent for poetics. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two.

'Sonnet 144' explores the relationship between three people: one good, one evil and one caught in between.

As the sonnet progresses, the speaker is gradually torn and tormented because the woman (the worse spirit), is tempting the man (the better angel), away from him. How is she doing this? He suspects that they're having an affair, but he isn't completely sure. He'll only be certain when the affair is over and she relents.

'Sonnet 144'

Sonnet 144

Sonnet 144

Line by Line Analysis

'Sonnet 144' is the only sonnet out of a total of 154 that involves both the fair youth and the dark lady, the two lead roles in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence. Consequently, sonnet 144 is a high drama, high stakes poem where both characters battle it out for the heart and soul of the speaker.

Line 1

The first line, with its inverted word order, Two loves I have, and psychological extremes, comfort and despair, signals to the reader that they are about to undertake an unusual journey.

There is an immediate feeling of stress, the language portraying a person caught between two poles - positive and negative, ease and unease, hope and hopelessness. One love brings comfort, the other despair.

Line 2

The fact that the speaker is affected psychologically/emotionally, causes him to view the loves as spirits, entities of the air (or the mind). This is why they are able to tempt him constantly (suggest me still).

Note the enjambment which takes the reader straight to the next line. Iambic pentameter is dominant in both opening lines and continues on.

Line 3

The love that brings comfort is the better angel, a man right fair—the fair youth, the lovely boy from previous sonnets. With the introduction of a biblical term, angel, the focus shifts somewhat. We've entered the religious realm of Christian imagery.

Line 4

In contrast, the adversary is a woman with a dark complexion, the dark lady of previous sonnets, now a rival lover, a worse spirit. So the scene is set. These two are walking onto the stage and bringing with them their respective auras and histories.

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Line 4 is the first to slightly deviate from pure iambic pentameter, the rhythm altering mid-line so there is a pause after spirit, a natural caesura.

This first quatrain presents the reader with the antagonists, introduces religious language and has the speaker well and truly caught in a triangle of love. He is trying to work things out in his mind, inviting the reader into a suggestive world of hetero and homo.

Line 5

Now we're being told that the female, the dark lady, is evil. Why? Because she's causing hell for the speaker. And the word soon only worsens the desperate situation the speaker finds himself in.

Line 6

Enjambment takes the reader straight into line 6, the evil woman now a temptress, taking the man right fair away from the speaker. This is shocking news. The reader is beginning to understand now just what is at stake. This is becoming a battle of good versus evil, embodied in these two characters, and the speaker is clear that the fault lies with the woman.

Line 7

In the process of distracting the better angel, the worse spirit is also corrupting him. There is more religious language—saint, devil—which suggests that there is a danger of her using her feminine charms, to tempt the young man into sin.

These biblical undertones are growing stronger. The image is conjured up of a saintly innocent being sexually seduced by a female whose dark powers will send him (and the speaker) directly to hell.

Line 8

All of this action in the second quatrain is summed up in line 8 as the woman woos- tries to gain the love- of a pure and fair young man. She is using her physical prowess and her sexual advances which are blatant and obscene.

Further Line by Line Analysis

Line 9

If the fair young man has been turned into something diabolic, changed from a spiritual person into a demon because of the dark lady and her powers . . .

Line 10

. . . which is difficult to tell, but is likely so . . .

Line 11

. . . because he knows them both, they share common ground as friends, even if they're away from each other, which is not the ideal situation he wants to be in . . .

Line 12

. . . so the fair young man and the dark lady will get what they deserve, he being in a hell created by her, both of them victims of lust, sin and unspeakable acts.

This third quatrain is a little ambiguous. Has the speaker denounced the better angel because he has been tempted away from his side by the lustful advances of the dark lady?

Passion seems to have gained the upper hand. In Shakespeare's time, hell was also used as a double entendre, being in hell was an allusion to sexual intercourse. It seems that heaven has been brought down by the hellish antics of the female spirit.

Lines 13 and 14

And so to the concluding couplet and the agony of the speaker who isn't really certain about these two friends after all. He is destined to live in doubt and ignorance because he hasn't actually caught them red-handed, in the act, he only suspects that she is up to something and fears for his fair friend, the young man, who could end up a sorry, corrupted figure.

The speaker will only get to know for certain if she gets rid of him and he contracts a venereal disease. Then he will know. This last line is based on a metaphor which was in common use in Shakespeare's time - that of using fire to get a fox out of its hole. It was also an allusion to the onset of venereal disease—let's not forget this was a pretty serious ailment back in the Elizabethan era.

Shakespeare as ever takes us to heaven and back down again to hell, revealing life and love and the agonies apparent in both as no other poet has. Was he actually involved in such a triangle in real life? Impossible to tell, so little is known about the day-to-day life of the Bard of Avon.

It does seem highly likely that at some stage in his emotional love life, the only way for him to understand what was going on was to write sonnet after sonnet, transforming life into art as only he could.

Rhyme and Metre

'Sonnet 144' is a typical Shakespearean sonnet, that is, it has fourteen lines made up of three quatrains and an end couplet.

The first quatrain sets the scene, the second is full of action and the third deals with reaction. A conclusion is to be found in the end couplet.


The rhyme scheme is conventional for this sort of sonnet: ababcdcdefefgg and all of the end rhymes are full, except for lines 5 and 7 evil/devil.


This sonnet is typically written in iambic pentameter. Most lines have five feet per line, 10 syllables, following the familiar daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM with the stress on the second word/syllable.

  • There are certain lines that do not follow this rhythm. Lines 4,5,and 7 have an extra beat, 11 syllables, which means that the rhythm is slightly altered, the steady iambic stretched.
  • And lines 6 and 8 contain an opening trochee, with the stress on the first syllable: DAdum. This makes for a slight stall.

First, let's take a look at the opening line, which is pure iambic pentameter:

  • Two loves / I have / of com / fort and / despair,

Five equal feet, a familiar regular, rising rhythm.

Now let's move on to lines 6 and 8:

  • Tempteth / my bet / ter an / gel from / my side,
  • Wooing / his pur / ity / with her / foul pride.

In line 6 the first word has the stress on the first syllable so is a trochee (DAdum), which tends to slow the reader down slightly. Iambs follow. Line 8 also starts off with a trochee and has an interesting pyrrhic (dadum) as the third foot which causes the reader to fade away mid-line before iambs restore the balance.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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