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Would you stay with someone who you know is unfaithful just because the passion is phenomenal? Would you stay in a relationship with someone despite knowing that they lie about who they are? "Sonnet 138" (1609) by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) explores the value of a romantic relationship between the speaker, who lies about his age, and his lover, who is unfaithful. The poem explores themes like truth and lies and love vs. lust as the speaker and his mistress continue in their relationship despite knowing the other is dishonest.
Sonnet is Italian for "little song."
|Structure||Elizabethan, English, or Shakespearean sonnet|
|Rhyme Scheme||ABAB CDCD EFEF GG|
|Meaning||The poem explores a relationship between two people who are only together because they accept each other's lies, which allows them to hide from who they truly are.|
|Literary devices||Metaphor, paradox, symbolism, rhetorical question, pun, end stop, alliteration|
|Theme||The intersection between truth and liesThe nature of love vs lust|
The speaker says he believes his mistresses when she says she tells the truth, even though he knows she lies, pixabay
"Sonnet 138" is in the traditional form of the English, or Shakespearean, sonnet. Also referred to as an Elizabethan sonnet, it has 14 lines broken up into 3 quatrains and one couplet.
Quatrain: four-line stanzas, often with alternating end rhyme
Couplet: two lines of verse that are the same length and often rhyme, presenting one unified idea
The rhyme scheme, which identifies end rhyme in a poem, is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The meter, identified by the number of feet and pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in each line, is iambic pentameter. An iamb is a poetic foot that is two syllables long. It is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. There are five iambs per line of poetry in a sonnet. The pattern is, "daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM."
"Sonnet 138" explores a relationship based on lies, where the lovers take comfort in the lies they tell each other rather than the love they share. The speaker and his mistress are both happy to accept one another's lies as truth, even though they know that the other is dishonest. He is happy to believe his lover is faithful and truthful because it makes him seems inexperienced and naïve. In turn, she accepts the lie that the speaker is young, even though she knows he is much older than he pretends to be. On and on their cycle of dishonesty continues.
The speaker wonders why they have to lie to each other. He decides that he likes keeping his true age a secret, and lying allows the lovers to feel like they trust one another. They may never actually be able to trust one another, but lying gives them the illusion that they do. They are also able to continue their passionate sexual relationship, feeling "flattered" (14) that the other believes their lies.
What do you think about telling lies in a relationship? Is it ever okay? Is it circumstantial? Does it always lead to pain?
The last section of Shakespeare's sonnets (127-154), address an unnamed woman referred to as the "Dark Lady." Not only are her physical features dark, but her personality is as well. The dark lady is sexually promiscuous and unfaithful, as shown in "Sonnet 138."
Some scholars believe that the Dark Lady is a married woman, who has affairs with the speaker, other men, and perhaps even Shakespeare's Fair Youth (the young man who is addressed in the majority of the sonnets). Her real identity has been debated by scholars, with many believing that she was merely a construct of Shakespeare's art.
Either way, the Dark Lady is the character being addressed in "Sonnet 138." This sonnet touches on themes of dishonesty and love vs lust.
The tone of the poem is straightforward, humorous, and light, even as the subject matter is rather sad. The speaker uses humor and acceptance to attempt to cope with the harsh reality of his situation: he is an older man, who not only has to contend with his mortality, but also with his lover cheating.
The tone of the poem starts out more self-assured, as the speaker states "I do believe her" (2), but it becomes increasingly less confident as the true nature of their relationship unfolds. Eventually, he reveals his hidden doubts and reservations by employing two rhetorical questions. He wonders why they need to lie about who they are with one another.
By the end of the poem, he asserts that they lie because it makes them feel good and allows them to have guilt-free sex. However, the easy tone is undermined by the seriousness of what the speaker has revealed. Although the tone is light, accepting, and relaxed, the reader themselves is given the power to interpret if the speaker is truly happy in his relationship.
In "Sonnet 138," Shakespeare effortlessly combines several literary devices to make the poem memorable and humorous, despite its nature and subject-matter. The literary devices work together to create tension, present the themes, and characterize the mistress, despite her not actually speaking in the poem.
The speaker uses metaphor and paradox to present the relationship between himself and his lover. It is a relationship built upon contradictions and dishonesty. He says,
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,"
He compares the Dark Lady's essence to that of truth, implying that everything about her is honest. This assertion makes the revelation in line 2, "though I know she lies," a blatant paradox. He believes her despite knowing that she is a liar. The metaphor and paradox create the central tension in the poem: the conflict between wanting to believe his lover is faithful and also knowing that each of them is dishonest and their relationship is a cycle of falsities.
The second metaphor in the poem positions the lover's tongue as the real source of conflict in the relationship. The speaker says,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:" (7)
He implies that it is her tongue itself that is "false" in nature and prevents them from being honest with one another. So while she is the embodiment of truth, her tongue is the beholder of lies. Does that sound contradictory? Their entire relationship is built on paradox.
Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as
Paradox: a seemingly self-contradictory statement
The speaker uses metaphor and symbolism to position the Dark Lady's tongue, and thus her speech, as the source of all their troubles, pixabay
In addition to functioning as a metaphor, the mistress's tongue is also a symbol. In Shakespeare's time, the tongue stood as a symbol for language and the very words a person speaks. And because her tongue won't allow her to speak truthfully, the speaker and his lover don't know how to be honest with one another. Adding another layer to the symbolism, free-talking women in the 16th century were thought to be sexually promiscuous and immoral. This suggests that because she talks so freely, she is also effortlessly unfaithful and immoral.
Symbolism: one person/place/thing is a symbol for, or represents, some greater value/idea.
Have you read Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1590)? In the classic play, Katherine is characterized as a "shrew," a bad-tempered and aggressive woman, largely because she speaks her mind and she is not afraid to talk back to men. What does this, coupled with "Sonnet 138," tell you about language, women, and the patriarchy in 16th century England?
When the speaker considers his relationship, he uses rhetorical questions to consider why he and his lover have such a hard time telling one another the truth. He says,
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?" (9-10)
These questions present the primary conflict between the speaker and his lover. It's not just that they want to lie to one another, it is that they have to. Being honest would undermine their entire relationship, which they are so comfortable with because of the lies they are enabled to maintain. He enjoys lying about his age because at his core he is unable to admit that he is old. And she is "unjust" because the only kind of relationship she can have with the speaker is one based on infidelity. The only way they can be happy together, the only way their relationship can continue to function, is through the lies.
Rhetorical Question: a question asked to create dramatic effect or emphasize a point rather than to get an actual answer
The final couplet of the poem ends with a pun, adding humor to the poem but also expressing why the two stay together despite their dishonesty. The speaker says,
The couplet begins with a pun on the meaning of the word "lie." Here, "lie" means both a false assertion and to sexually lie in bed with one another. The speaker and mistress "lie" together in speech and in action. Their relationship is based purely on sex and they stay together because the lies allow each the flattery they crave. They are flattered that the other can overlook and ignore their faults, continuing the relationship based on sex and lies.
Pun: a play on words, where a chosen word has more than one meaning with the same spelling or on words that are phonetically similar
Is a relationship built solely on flattery, lies, and sex strong? If not, why does the speaker seem so intent on staying in it?
The entire sonnet is composed of end-stopped lines, where thoughts end at the end of a line (as shown by punctuation) instead of flowing freely into the next line. Because each lines is end-stopped, it gives the poem a heavy feeling. The punctuation shows how the speaker is struggling with his relationship, beneath the humor and easy tone. This is especially evident in lines 9-12:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?And wherefore say not I that I am old?Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,And age in love loves not to have years told."
End-stopped: a pause at the end of a line of poetry, using punctuation (typically "." "," ":" or ";")
The themes in the poem are the nature of love and lust and the intersection between truth and lies.
The speaker and his mistress have a complicated relationship because they accept one another's lies as truth, even as they know that the other is being dishonest. The speaker's tone and humor is intended to present the relationship as an easy, fun one. But the gravity of the situation is revealed as the speaker acknowledges that he is only satisfied in the relationship because he feels unable to be with anyone unless he is fundamentally able to lie about his age and who he is. He is unable to live with the truth, so he resorts to telling lies.
The speaker tells lies because he himself is unable to cope with his old age and mortality, pixabay
Paradoxically, the speaker's relationship with the mistress can never be truly fulfilling because they don't accept one another for who they are. Instead, they ignore the parts of the other that they don't like and pretend to be naïve to whom the other person truly is. They don't discuss heavy topics or the other's faults, simply sweeping everything under the rug. Each is flattered because they are allowed to hide who they truly are and claim that as love.
The speaker will never have a strong relationship because relationships necessitate truth and communication. He is unable to do either because he is terrified of his own age. He uses falsities as emotional protection, lying not only to his lovers but also to himself.
Although the speaker insists that his relationship is built on love, in reality it is based on lust and romanticizing ignorance. The speaker uses the word "my love" (1) to describe his mistress and repeats variations of the word love four times throughout the poem, including three times in two lines:
Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told." (11-12)
The speaker's entire concept of love comes down to dishonesty. If two people seem to trust one another—regardless of if they actually do—then he says that is the best love can offer. He also believes that not having his age really known is a prime example of love. Does it seem like he's asking for less than the bare minimum? That's because he is. He concedes that his relationship is built entirely on falsities and sex, meaning it is founded upon lust and idealization rather than loving who the other person truly is.
Sadly, the speaker probably will never know true love. He will never be able to truly connect with another person because he is constantly running from who he is, hiding his identity behind lies and lust.
The poem explores the nature of a physical relationship between an unfaithful mistress and older lover, as well as the various meanings of lying.
The tone of "Sonnet 138" is straightforward, light, and accepting. The mood of the sonnet is relaxed, as is evident from the playful pun.
"Sonnet 138" is from the series of sonnets addressed to the "Dark Lady," a woman the speaker had a contentious yet passionate relationship with.
"Sonnet 138" was likely written in the 1590s.
The relationship works because they do not question one another, and it is a mutually fulfilling arrangement because their needs are met: they are both flattered.
What is another term for an English or Shakespearean sonnet?
What is the rhyme scheme of "Sonnet 138"?
ABAB CDCD EFEF GG
The tone of the poem can best be described as...
The description of the mistress suggests that she is
unfaithful but accepting of the speaker's age.
The final couplet suggests that...
The are happy to accept one another, faults and all.
The pun in lines 13-14 indicates...
the pair lie down together in bed, and also lie together.
The purpose of the poem is to express
a love that is flawed but still accepting and comfortable.
The words "she is made of truth" in line 1 is an example of
The line "simply I credit her false-speaking tongue" is meant to communicate
the speaker validates her lies because of his vanity.
What is the meter in "Sonnet 138"?
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