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

Updated on April 21, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

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

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 149

This sonnet is composed of a series of six rhetorical questions. Each question contains its own answer. For example, a paraphrase of the the opening question is, "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 it's 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. The couplet caps the series with a heavily sarcastic command.

Sonnet 149

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

The speaker is posing six questions to the "dark lady," trying still to establish her reason for the constant cruelty she metes out to him who adores her so.

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 questions of Sonnet 149 appear in the first quatrain: 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?

The speaker has continued throughout the sonnet sequence 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 have 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?

Questions 3, 4, and 5 continue in the second quatrain: 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 confesses 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: 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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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