Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 129: Love Turns To Lust

Updated on April 30, 2020
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Venus, Cupid and Time (Allegory of Lust) 1540-45. Angelo Bronzino National Gallery, London
Venus, Cupid and Time (Allegory of Lust) 1540-45. Angelo Bronzino National Gallery, London | Source

William Shakespeare, Love, Lust and a Summary of Sonnet 129

William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets contain some of the most romantic poetry ever written in the English language. They're thought by many to express the poet's innermost feelings - his love for a young man and a 'dark lady' - through the then popular mode of iambic pentameter sonnet.

Yet one of these poems, sonnet 129, goes against the grain. It's unusually desperate, full of male anguish and cuts to the core. It gives us an insight into Shakespeare's deepest fears and feelings about lust, specifically the lust of the male for the female. But he doesn't use the first person 'I' and there's no mention of me, myself, thyself, thou or thy.

Strange, because in all the other sonnets the references are personal. Sonnet 129 reads like a torturous statement of someone hurt, wounded and wronged.

It's as if William Shakespeare the man is declaring his hatred of that old demon lust and at the same time condemning all women. Why would the Bard of Avon portray himself as a misogynist?

This analysis will take you into the depths of the poem and guide you line by line through what is Shakespeare's sonnet of agony and anxiety.

Sonnet 129

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despisèd straight;
Past reason hunted, and, no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad -
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The English or Shakespearean Sonnet

The English sonnet has three quatrains and a turn at the end of line twelve ending with a couplet. So, 14 lines in total and a rhyming scheme ababcdcdefefgg.

Line by Line Analysis of Sonnet 129

Sonnet 129 is all about lust and the physical bodies of both male and female. It's about sex, bodily functions and the potency involved in the act of love making.

Take careful note of the three quatrains (the first twelve lines) building up and up before the release at lines 13 and 14. There is skilful use of punctuation and varying stress which helps increase the tension as the sonnet progresses.

  • The first line suggests that sexual action is wasteful and shameful, especially for men. The term 'expense of spirit' suggests a loss of vital force, and 'in a waste of shame' sets the scene for the emptied male, a victim of lust.
  • Note the use of the enjambment, the first line flowing into the second which is halved abruptly and contains two repeat words: action and lust. Enough said.
  • Enjambment again between lines two and three carries the reader into an incredible definition of lust - eight potent adjectives and two dark phrases combining to leave the reader in no doubt about the writer's feelings.
  • Perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, savage, extreme, rude, can sense the anger and the dangerous emotional energies at work in lines three and four.
  • In line 5 lust might be enjoyed temporarily (during the act) but it's immediately despised once the chase is over.
  • Lust leads to madness, rides roughshod over reason (lines six to nine) and can drive a man out of his mind.
  • Lines ten to twelve focus on the extremes. Who could argue with the blissful feelings associated with sex, the joys of carnal pleasure? But afterwards comes the downer, the feelings of emptiness and sometimes sadness and yes, guilt.
  • The last two lines, thirteen and fourteen tell the reader that everyone knows about lust and it's temptations but men especially are helpless to resist.

Summary of Sonnet 129

There seems little doubt that this poem was fuelled by personal experience. It's not a dry literary exercise in syllabics and beats per line, it's too powerful for that.

Did William Shakespeare go through hell in his more intimate relationships? Was he thwarted by a dark lady of his dreams? Was a triangle of love involved?

It's difficult to believe that this young genius, away from his wife and domestic restraints, the world at his feet, didn't enjoy himself socially and sexually from time to time with members of the opposite sex.

But the darker elements of the sonnet point to dissatisfaction. Perhaps the poet craved a meaningful relationship yet experienced only sensual frustration. Many adult males have been there at one time or another.

As lovers waking up alone with a profound ache, disheveled, full of regret. You loved someone but they shunned your advances. You gave it one more try but the result was a disaster. Lust got the better of you again, you swallowed the bait and madness ensued.

Isaac Oliver Allegory of Conjugal Love
Isaac Oliver Allegory of Conjugal Love | Source
Anne Hathaway's cottage, Shottery near Stratford-upon-Avon, where William Shakespeare and his wife Anne first met.
Anne Hathaway's cottage, Shottery near Stratford-upon-Avon, where William Shakespeare and his wife Anne first met. | Source

William Shakespeare's Lost Years - The Reason For Sonnet 129?

William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1582. He was a mere 18 years old, she 26 and with child. In 1583 Susanna, a daughter, was born, and two years later in 1585 their twins Judith and Hamnet were born.

Little is known about Shakespeare as a married man in the small provincial town of his birth. Some biographers suggest he became a school teacher for a time, others that he joined a traveling theatrical group and toured throughout the country.

What is certain is that, by 1592, his name is known in London, and by 1594 he was already a leading light in the Lord Chamberlain's men, as dramatist and actor.

We'll never know for sure just how he and Anne were affected emotionally by this mutual separation. Were they still 'in love' or was the marriage impossible to maintain because of William's wayward pursuit of a career as a dramatist in London?

The so called 'lost years', between 1585 and 1592, must have been intensely productive for the young poet and playwright. He establishes his reputation during this time but has to sacrifice his family life.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment
  • JC Scull profile image

    JC Scull 

    4 months ago from Gainesville, Florida

    Excellent article!!

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Shakespeare invented unforgettable characters, unique phrases; he reshaped and invigorated a language; he altered the course of culture. Not many writers do that. Oh and he wrote the finest sonnet sequence in history. A true genius.

  • SANJAY LAKHANPAL profile image

    Sanjay Sharma 

    2 years ago from Mandi (HP) India

    I am a great fan of Shakespeare. His writings and characters are local and universal. He was a great delineator of the feelings and traits of human beings.

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    4 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit Venkatachari, much appreciated. Shakespeare left many mysteries behind after his death, despite the fact that he was well known in his lifetime, and well respected. The sonnets are wonderful yet who were they written for?

  • Venkatachari M profile image

    Venkatachari M 

    4 years ago from Hyderabad, India

    Very interesting Sonnet and the facts about Shakespeare's personal life. Thanks for sharing.

  • Brandon Bledsoe profile image


    4 years ago from Houston, Texas

    Love it so beautiful

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Thank you for the visit Nell Rose,much appreciated. Keep on learning!

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    6 years ago from England

    I also learned something new chef, I have read so much Shakespeare back in school but these days the whole lot have disappeared from my memory! lol! great hub! voted up!

  • jhamann profile image

    Jamie Lee Hamann 

    6 years ago from Reno NV

    Thank you for this look at Shakespeare's Sonnets, I enjoy reading about them. Jamie

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    6 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Many thanks for the visit and comment Glenn, much appreciated. William Shakespeare's sonnets are playful, romantic, deadly serious and a bit mysterious - there's a whole world to explore and marvel at.

    I didn't know about the HubPot Challenge...that's breaking news!

  • Glenn Stok profile image

    Glenn Stok 

    6 years ago from Long Island, NY

    I learned something about Shakespeare from you today, Andrew. I didn't realize that his Sonnets are actually expressions of his own feelings. And he does that without referring to himself. Or maybe it's just Sonnet 129 which is like that. That creates the desire to learn more.

    Congratulations for having this hub selected for this week's HubPot Challenge.


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