Shakespeare Sonnet 138

Updated on September 25, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

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Introduction and Text of Sonnet 138

Readers familiar with this speaker's devotion to truth as portrayed in his "Muse Sonnets" may find the falsity of this sonnet sequence a bit jarring. But if one notes carefully, the poet/speaker is quite aware of his allowing himself to be deceived, and he thus makes it clear that he is obviously just playing along to satisfy his lustful needs that he knows do not represent his higher self.

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 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 supprest.
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.

Reading of Sonnet 138

Commentary

At the same time that speaker in Sonnet 138 is making a mockery of truth in a relationship by offering a feeble defense of indefensible actions and thought, he is still polishing a fascinating drama of entertainment. Likely the speaker in this sequence is more than ever separating himself from the ludicrous milksop he is creating in himself because of this disgraceful woman.

First Quatrain: A Will to Deception

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.

The speaker in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 spills forth the bizarre admission that when his adulterous mistress assures him of her fidelity and truthfulness, he seems to accept her word on the issue. However, he knows she telling a bold-face lie. Of course, the speaker makes it clear that he is only pretending to believe her. In fact, he is well aware that he cannot believe her, and he is convinced of her prevarication.

But the speaker then admits to being a liar as well. He wishes to have her believe that he is as unsophisticated as a young man. He thus pretends to accept her lies, for the purpose of making her to believe his pretense as he attempts to act younger than he is.

Second Quatrain: Ageless Vanity

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 supprest.

In the second quatrain, the speaker summarizes all the lying and falsifying on both sides: he is aware that she knows he is not a young man. He is not in his prime, so he confesses that his pretending remains in vain.

She does not actually believe he is a young man, anymore than he accepts that she is his faithful lover. They both exaggerate and lie all for the sake of their silly, stupid, licentious game.

Third Quatrain: Rationalizing Deception

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:

In the third quatrain, the speaker tries to rationalize their deceptions, as he makes the absurd claim that, “love’s best habit is in seeming trust.” However, this speaker is creating a character, pretending to believe what the poet/speaker knows to be untrue.

The poet/speaker knows the value of truth; he is a mature man who realizes that such feigned “trust” is not trust at all. These lovers cannot, in fact, trust each other: each knows that the other is lying.

Couplet: Punning Lie

Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

The couplet offers no hope of assuaging the situation. It simply demonstrates that the relationship between these two pretenders is based solely on sexual attraction: “I lie with her and she with me.” The speaker is punning the word “lie.” He has made it abundantly clear that these so-called lovers “lie” to each other, and thus when he claims that they lie “with” each other, he is referencing only their sexual relationship, that is, lying in bed as sexual partners.

The speaker says that they are flattered by this absurd arrangement. However, because flattery is hardly a strong basis on which to build a relationship, the speaker leaves it up the reader to determine that the relationship is truly a sad one—despite the gay glee they may experience as they "lie" together and then lay each other.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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