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Shakespeare Sonnet 149: "Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 149: "Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not"

Sonnet 149 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence is composed of a series of six rhetorical questions—a literary device in which the question contains its own answer. For example, a paraphrase of the the opening question might be, "Are you really able to claim that I do not love you when you see me acting against my own best interests by continuing this ruinous relationship with you?" As a statement: Even though you claim that I do not love you, you can see that I act against my own best interest by continuing this ruinous relationship with you. Likewise, the second question is: "Don’t you understand that for you I debase myself with self-cruelty?" And its implication is: "You well understand that for you I debase myself with self-cruelty."

The sonnet then continues with four further rhetorical questions. The speaker fashions his complaint into questions in order to add emphasis to their meaning, which is the function of all rhetorical questions. The couplet caps the series with a heavily sarcastic command.

Sonnet 149: "Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not"

Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not
When I against myself with thee partake?
Do I not think on thee, when I forgot
Am of myself, all tyrant, for thy sake?
Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?
On whom frown’st thou that I do fawn upon?
Nay, if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend
Revenge upon myself with present moan?
What merit do I in myself respect,
That is so proud thy service to despise,
When all my best doth worship thy defect,
Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?
But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;
Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.

Reading of Sonnet 149

Commentary

Attempting to ferret out the dark lady’s reason for the constant cruelty she metes out to him, the befuddled but still clever speaker now concocts his drama by posing six cleverly worded rhetorical questions to the slattern.

First Quatrain: Groaning and Complaining

Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not
When I against myself with thee partake?
Do I not think on thee, when I forgot
Am of myself, all tyrant, for thy sake?

The first two rhetorical questions of Sonnet 149 appear in the first quatrain and may be paraphrased as follows: 1. Are you really able to claim that I do not love you when you see me acting against my own best interests by continuing this ruinous relationship with you? 2. Don’t you understand that for you I debase myself with self-cruelty?

Throughout this "Dark Lady" thematic group of the sonnet sequence, the speaker has continued to groan and complain about how he is kinder to the woman than he is to himself. He continues to swallow his pride and hand over his own thoughts and feelings to a supercilious woman who spurns him and abuses him and then audaciously insists that he does not hold affection for her.

Second Quatrain: Sacrificing for Mistreatment

Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?
On whom frown’st thou that I do fawn upon?
Nay, if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend
Revenge upon myself with present moan?

Rhetorical uestions 3, 4, and 5 continue in the second quatrain, and may be paraphrased as follows: 3. Have I not estranged myself from all those who have spoken ill of you? 4. Are you not aware that I scorn anyone who scorns you? 5. And as you look at me with disdain, do I not berate myself for your sake?

The speaker is confesseing that he has sacrificed other friends for her sake. And he even scolds himself after she makes him think that he is to blame for her disagreeable treatment of him. He wants to make her realize that he has been willing to surrender not only other friends, but also his own self-interest for her sake.

Third Quatrain: Self-Hate and Low Self-Esteem

What merit do I in myself respect,
That is so proud thy service to despise,
When all my best doth worship thy defect,
Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?

The final question comprises the entire third quatrain. A paraphrase might result as: 6. When you see me under the spell of your wondering eyes, how do you think I should have any self-esteem left when I virtually hate myself in order to serve your blundering ways?

The speaker has become desperate to understand the betrayal of trust and appreciation he feels he deserves after remaining dedicated to serving this deceitful woman’s needs. He knows he has degraded himself while allowing his senses to rule him instead of his balanced mind.

The Couplet: Seeing What Is Not There

But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind;
Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.

In the couplet, the speaker seems to throw up his hands telling the woman to go ahead and hate him if she must. But at least he finally knows what she is thinking. He adds a final, sarcastic jab: anyone who thinks that you can love is fooling himself, and yet I consider myself the deluded one.

Depending upon how one reads the last line, another interpretation is also possible: the speaker wishes to contrast himself with those men that the "dark lady" would love; thus, he claims that she loves only the ones who "can see," and therefore, she cannot love him, because he is blind.

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.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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