Shakespeare Sonnet 139: "O! Call not me to justify the wrong"

Updated on May 4, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 139

The speaker continues to allow himself to be made a blithering fool by this woman. She even rebuffs him so that his enemies can insult him. This speaker, who treasures truth, beauty, and love seems to have become a whimpering nitwit because of this woman's physically attractive body.

The drama that this speaker continues to create reveals more about him than he even realizes. By allowing himself this weakness, he may be putting his own reputation in jeopardy. As a truth-teller, he has certainly lowered his vision by allowing such a despicable creature to control him.

Sonnet 139

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 lovest 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’erpress’d defence can bide?
Let me excuse thee: ah! my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been my 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.

Reading of Shakespeare Sonnet 139

Commentary

Addressing the "dark lady," the speaker bemoans and condemns her infidelity, as the tension grows between his desire and his intelligence.

First Quatrain: Coy Flirting

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.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 139, the speaker addresses the "dark lady" pleading with her not to hurt him in such open and offending ways. He prefers that she just tell him plainly what is on her mind, instead of coyly flirting with others in his presence. He does not believe that he should have to excuse and defend himself for feeling the pain she causes by her disingenuousness.

The speaker wants an honest and open exchange between the two; his disposition requires exactitude, but he is discovering repeatedly that this lady is not capable of satisfying his wishes for plain truth.

Second Quatrain: Stinging in an Unholy Alliance

Tell me thou lovest 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’erpress’d defence can bide?

In the second quatrain, the speaker commands her to tell him that, "[she] loves[ ] elsewhere." The reader has encountered this complaint in many of the "dark lady" sonnets, and it becomes apparent that her flaw will continue to sting the speaker if he continues in this unholy alliance with her.

In addition to a command, the speaker attaches a question, wondering why she has to "wound with cunning," and he confesses a grave weakness that renders him a weasel as he whines, "thy might / Is more than my o’erpress’d defence can bide." The strength of her continued infidelity overtakes his ability to defend himself against it.

Third Quatrain: Engaging His Enemies

Let me excuse thee: ah! my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been my enemies;
And therefore from my face she turns my foes,
That they elsewhere might dart their injuries:

The speaker with sarcasm insists that she would have him excuse her, knowing that it is her beauty, not her fine personality or intelligence that has captured his attention, a turn of events that the speaker knows to be inimical to his best interests. He knows it is her physical appearance that has been his worst enemy.

The speaker then avers that she has engaged his enemies, but he would have her behave in such a way that would allow "[his] foes" to spray their venom somewhere else, and not in his direction. He knows he cannot trust her to listen to his commands and questions, but he seems compelled to engage her despite his desire to save himself from more humiliation and pain.

The Couplet: Throwing up His hands

Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,
Kill me outright with looks, and rid my pain.

The speaker then throws up his hands again in despair, remarking that since he has been nearly vanquished with the pain she has already caused, she might as will continue to stab him in the heart and "Kill [him] outright with looks." If she can once and for all accomplish his death, at least he will experience the end of "[his] pain."

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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