Skip to main content

Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 129

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

Love, Lust, and a Summary of Sonnet 129

William Shakespeare's 154 Sonnets contain some of the most romantic verse 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 about 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.

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 lovemaking.

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 a skillful 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 afterward 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 its 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's "Allegory of Conjugal Love"

Isaac Oliver's "Allegory of Conjugal Love"

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

William Shakespeare's Lost Years and 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 a 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