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Literary Analysis of Sonnet 138

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William Shakespeare is known for his ability to use literature, and to use his words in a way many meanings can be drawn. Because of the beauty of his work and many interpretations of his literature, he has stood the test of time. William Shakespeare simultaneously used tone, word choice, and structure to make each sonnet unique.

All of Shakespeare’s sonnets are coordinated to have fourteen lines divided into three quatrains and one couplet. The quatrains are usually different ideas with separate tones and a couplet at the end of the sonnet binding the three quatrains together. However Sonnet 138 is slightly different because its first two quatrains are the same in tone. The first quatrain and second quatrains tell the reader of each lover’s dishonestly to the other. The third quatrain is where the tone begins to change. Shakespeare uses rhyme in the sonnet so that it can be read in a more comprehensive and fluid way. The sonnet is devised in ABAB format to give the poem a better sound when read aloud.

Shakespeare’s work has been famous for many reasons and will continue to be great, but the way he uses words may be what he most famous for. In Sonnet 138, he used word plays, paradoxes, and metaphors to give depth to the meaning of the poem. There are so many different possibilities for interpretation of the same poem that many individuals will use their imaginations and take what they want from it.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138

Then my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned 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 suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, 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 flatter’d be.

Line 1 in the sonnet begins with an interesting surprise to the reader. These first two lines imply that there is a problem in the relationship and it needs to be fixed, because “swear” was used, it suggests that she, who we know as the dark lady, may not be “made of truth”. The next few lines in the sonnet suggest that the character may be afraid of losing the dark lady because he says in line 3 he is an “untutored youth.” These first two lines of the sonnet use a paradox and words with double meanings to make the reader think twice about what the character is really saying. Immediately, it is obvious that the character pretends to believe her though he knows she lies, but “lies” can have a double meaning. It can either mean that the dark lady is sleeping with someone else or that she is not telling the truth.

The interpretations for the first two lines are up to the reader. In lines 3 and 4, the character tells the reader that he has lied about his age. In line 5 of the sonnet, “thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young”, Shakespeare slightly slips that the dark lady knows of the character’s lie when the poem says “vainly”. Line 8 takes away any of the readers doubt that each of the lovers knows about the others lies, saying “on both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.” As the verse continues, the tone of the sonnet changes for the first time where the character rationalizes about staying in the flawed relationship. The metaphor in line 11 “loves seeming trust” talks of how love is putting on a disguise, meaning that the two lovers are pretending to trust each other. Shakespeare communicates the idea of the two lovers pretending as human nature to relate to the reader.

The couplet at the end of the sonnet is where it becomes clear that the relationship is based on a sexual relationship. The word “lie” in line 13 can mean either “sleep with” or “not tell the truth”. Either interpretation of the couplet still puts the two lovers together as one unit, where as in the beginning the two were made to be distinct separate people. “Therefore I lie with her and she with me, / and in our faults by lies we flattered be”(14). What may have begun as a sexual relationship seems to now be a way to find flattery with each other.

Because the persona and the dark lady are both aware of the unspoken agreement to not say the other is lying, they both flatter each other with what they want. She wishes to be truer and he wishes to be younger.

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