A Critical Analysis Of William Shakespeare
’s Sonnet 138 Essay, Research Paper
In order for a poem to be classified as a sonnet, it must meet certain structural requirements, and Sonnet 138, When my love swears that she is made of truth, is a perfect example. Shakespeare employs the traditional rhyme scheme of the English sonnet, the poem is made up of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, and iambic pentameter is the predominant meter. However, it would be an error to approach this poem as a traditional Shakespearean love sonnet. It is a love poem in the sense that a relationship between two lovers is the central theme, but the reader is offered a somewhat unexpected viewpoint. The stylistic constraints of the sonnet form are extremely advantageous here, for they serve as a backdrop against which the poem s content can be dramatically highlighted, as well as reinforcing the eventual impression that the poem describes an emotionally constraining relationship. In this essay I will investigate the tools with which Shakespeare constructs this unconventional love poem.
The sonnet has a definite sense of strophic development, and the frequent twists in the narration necessitate a close examination of this. The sonnet begins with a When clause, launching the reader on a sentence of indeterminate length and subsequently leaving us with expectation, in suspense, at the end of the line. The woman is emphatic: she does not merely tell the truth, she is made of truth. Both the nature of this truth, and the reason for her swearing it, are unknown to the reader. The immediate thought is that the speaker has challenged her in some way, and whether or not this is correct, it is certainly an unconventional way to begin a love poem.
The second line, I do believe her, though I know she lies, introduces the reader to the wry humour that is an important feature of this sonnet. The humour is produced by the comic contradiction between outward behaviour (since the speaker s belief in her words is a reaction to her speech and thus a social act) and inward: his knowledge that she is lying. The narrator s calm tone evokes confusion: he is not angry with the woman, nor does he seem at all embarrassed to make such an illogical statement. The fact that he states I do believe her, rather than simply I believe her, combined with the caesura that follows this statement, serves to reinforce his belief in the eyes of the reader, though his reasons for this are as yet unclear. However, they are answered in the final lines of the stanza. When That is read as so that, the reader learns that the speaker s own motivation is also one of deceit; he not only wants her to think of him as a youth, but also to see him as simple, na ve, unsophisticated, untutored. At the same time as he is deceiving himself by believing her lies, he is in effect mirroring her actions. He presents himself as made of truth by establishing himself as an innocent, Unlearn d in the world s false subtleties.
Shakespeare begins the second stanza with a wonderful pun. Vainly thinking refers not only to the narrator s own vanity (which is driving him to such a deception), but also to the futility of his efforts. He realises that, though he hopes she will deceive herself into thinking him young and unlearn d, his efforts are in vain, for she knows the truth about both his age and his experience. Another richly complicated word here is Simply, which begins the third line of this stanza. Given the paradoxes of the previous lines, it is
probably the last word one might have expected here: it begs the question, is it at all simple to believe a liar? The word is additionally reinforced because its meter shows the only deviation from iambic pentameter in the whole poem. Instead there is a spondee, forcing the reader to pay more attention to what is meant by the use of this word, by slowing down the reading. The phrase simple truth also holds a great deal of meaning. If the reader suspected a hint of painful regret among the logic games of earlier lines (particularly in the reference to false subtleties, which the speaker is so clearly not unacquainted with), now the tone is quite clearly regretful: the simple truth is repressed, held back. The phrase is also a paradox, for the poem has committed the reader to a world of intellectual complexity and sophistication, in which truth has become elusive and problematical: not simple at all. In this respect, the reader is able to feel the speaker s nostalgic yearning for an innocent world of simple verities.
The third stanza begins with questions from the speaker:
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
These questions are not asked out of curiosity but posed rhetorically, so that the speaker himself can answer them. Figurative language is used to achieve this: the speaker uses a clothing metaphor when he states that the best covering love can possibly wear (and the best routine behaviour to sustain love between lovers) is an appearance of trustfulness. Told in the next line draws on its more literal meaning as well, reinforcing the issue of youth by informing the reader of the older partner s reluctance to have their age discussed, even in private. Shakespeare also uses personification when referring to love in these two lines, making the statements seem universally pertinent and not just limited to a single relationship. The caesura within Oh, love s best habit is in seeming trust makes the line seem like a weary sigh, not unmixed with a sad humour: a contrast to the bitterness and cynicism of the first lines of the stanza.
The sonnet ends in the traditional way, with the turn in the final couplet being the end result of the calculated deceit that dominates the poem. Shakespeare uses another bitterly witty pun to achieve this: I lie with her and she with me has a double meaning. To lie with someone is to lie beside them in bed, but also to join them in telling lies. This leads the reader to ponder the meaning of lies as it is used elsewhere: perhaps, if the word holds a double meaning at the end of the poem, this is also true of the second line. It might well assist in an explanation of the speaker s reasons for wanting to be thought of as a youth, as well as acting as a justification (in his mind at least) of his own attempted deceit.
The use of assonance in the final line makes for another pun: faults sounds like false, a word which, in Shakespeare s day, occurred as a noun with the same meaning as lies, thereby allowing the reader to interpret its inclusion as a deliberate reinforcement of the speaker s previous statement. So the poem ends, in stasis and impasse and bitter wit, where the lying seems less an image of sexual union than of frozen immobility. The dry humour and logic-play are offered as the only true way of rendering uncomfortable truths about human complexity and duplicity.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare provides the reader with an inventory of the deceits that keep a love affair alive, and his use of the first person helps to make this an extremely poignant poem. It highlights a universal tenet: that deceits exist in every relationship, be they little white lies or instances of infidelity. At times throughout the poem the speaker seems to be trying to teach the reader something: take, for example, the rhetorical questions asked at the beginning of the third stanza. They are aimed at producing an effect on listeners, and contribute greatly to the sense that, in retrospect, the entire poem seems to be something of a performance: aimed at an audience, rather than at the speaker s love. Perhaps, then, the poem is partly a lesson in morality, taught by someone who has experienced firsthand the unseen, but potentially destructive damage that deceit in a relationship can cause.
Sonnet 138 William Shakespeare
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearn d in the world s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
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.
Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flattered be.