Shakespeare Sonnet 140: "Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press"

Updated on February 5, 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

Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 140

Again, the speaker in this series is fighting a losing battle with this woman. He continues to debase himself by begging her to behave in ways that are obviously quite foreign to her. Begging someone to fake their feelings for the sake of a pretend relationship cannot but hold despair and loss for the beggar. But until that gloomy time, he continues to enjoy his little dramas, which continue unabated, and in reality, he is likely continuing the relationship in order to collect firewood for his burning creativity.

Sonnet 140

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.

Commentary

The speaker is attempting to keep his anger in check; thus he creates a little drama wherein he beseeches his love to at least pretend to be civil to him

First Quatrain: Patience Is Wearing Thin

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.

In the first quatrain of sonnet 140, the speaker, addresses the "dark lady," insisting that she refrain from straining his patience with her cruelty and disdain. He suggests that if she continues in her hateful actions, he will be forced to lash out at her. Heretofore, he has remained "tongue-tied" and holding his emotions in check for her sake.

If she will not take his advice to be as "wise" as she is "cruel," his "sorrow" will motivate him to untie that tongue and express his suppressed pain, and he will let loose without pity for her feelings. He reveals that his "patience" is wearing thin and cautions her lest she suffer his wrath. The reader will snicker at these threats, wondering, "what is he going to do? talk her to death."

Second Quatrain: A Sick Man

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;—

The speaker, as he remains quite civil, does get in a zinger or two here and there. With a condescending remark—"If I might teach thee wit"— he is implying that she is simply too dull-witted to be taught wit or anything else by him. If, however, by chance, he were able to teach her to be a smart woman, it would be better that they were not involved as lovers. But because they are engaged in relationship—however, licentious it may be—he is insisting that she simply must tell him what she means, as he remains unable to comprehend her lies and obfuscating circumlocution.

The speaker then likens his feelings for her to a sick man who can only hear good health news form his doctor. He feels no compunction for admitting that he remains in denial because of his continuing lust for his mistress.

Third Quatrain: Worldly Appetite for Gossip

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.

The speaker then tells the woman that he would become mentally unstable if he sank into "despair." And from that "madness," he "might speak ill of [her]." He then evaluates the world in general claiming that it has "grown so bad"; it plucks evil from every corner.

The speaker does not want to become a "mad slanderer[ ]," because he thinks that the world would believe him even though he knows he would probably be exaggerating. He is warning her that if he does eventually explode and start denouncing the woman, her reputation will be further diminished because of the world’s appetite for gossip.

The Couplet: Protesting for the Impossible

That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

The speaker then concludes that if the lady will just keep her eyes on him for a change, he will not have to become this raving madman railing against her. Even if she continues to flirt and carouse with others, if she will just keep her "eyes straight," in the presence of others, he will overlook the fact that her straight eyes belie her "proud heart" that roams wide.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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 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 (Erroneously "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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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      • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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        Linda Sue Grimes 2 months ago from U.S.A.

        Thank you, Shafqat Mushtaq. Sonnets are fascinating forms, and no one has ever produced a greater collection than the Shakespeare sequence of 154 sonnets. They reveal a mind totally devoted to his art and the representation of beauty, love, and truth. That sonneteer, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, remains one of the most skillful writers of all time.

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        Shafqat Mushtaq 2 months ago

        Very well written, informative and a treat for all sonnet lovers.

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