‘Sonnet 120′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is directed towards a young man known as the “Fair Youth” and picks up where the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 119,’ left off. This person has never been identified in real life, nor has the true nature of the poet’s relationship with him been uncovered. This has led many readers and scholars to speculate about Shakespeare’s sexuality or if the poet is meant to be the speaker in these lines at all.
Explore Sonnet 120
The speaker spends the lines of ‘Sonnet 120’ considering what he did to the Youth. He remembers how sorrowful he felt when the Youth cheated on him and realizes that this is probably what the Youth felt when their roles were reversed. This is something that brings him sorrow and makes him feel regretful of the entire affair. He wishes he’d taken the time to consider the Youth’s feelings.
Throughout ‘Sonnet 120,’ the poet engages with themes of love and infidelity. He also considers his own regret and what role it has to play in his life now. When he looks back over his previous actions and the fact that he was unfaithful to the person he loves most in the world, he feels nothing but sorrow. He realizes now how much he’s hurt the Youth and , as he has in previous sonnets, he’s asking for the young man’s forgiveness. This poem is one of the few that mark the transition between the Fair Youth sonnets and the Dark Lady sonnets. Their relationship is damaged, and it’s unclear at this point where it’s going to go next.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 120’ by William Shakespeare is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows a consistent rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It is written in iambic pentameter, the most common of all English meters. In iambic pentameter, each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed, and the second is stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The fourth line of the poem is a great example of iambic pentameter at its best/most accurate.
The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet. The last couplet usually comes after the turn or volta. This is the pattern that most Shakespearean sonnets follow, although there are always a few instances in which the meter or rhyme is broken.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 120’. These include but are not limited to examples:
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse, for example, “And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “tyrant” and “taken” in line seven and “sense” and “sorrow” in line ten.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines seven and eight.
- Allusion: the speaker alludes to previous sonnets, the fact he cheated on the Fair Youth, and the broader state of their relationship that’s played out over the previous 119 sonnets.
That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow, which I then did feel,
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammer’d steel.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 120,’ the speaker begins by alluding to the fact that he was hurt by the Youth’s infidelity. Now that he’s looking back over his own choices, he’s aware of how painful it must’ve been for the Youth when the speaker was unfaithful. This was unless his nerves were made of “brass” or “steel,” which he suggests they weren’t. He continues to apologize for what he did that damaged their relationship. The speaker acknowledges that they’ve both suffered at one another’s hands.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you’ve passed a hell of time;
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
In the second quatrain, the speaker says that the youth must’ve “passed a hell of a time” if he’s suffered as the speaker did in the past. His “unkindness” probably shook him just as hard. The speaker notes that he’s acted like a tyrant. He hadn’t taken the time to consider how he felt when the Youth cheated on him. He went ahead and slept with a woman without considering what his beloved would feel. The speaker wishes he’d been paying better attention and had thought about the Youth’s feelings before sleeping with someone else.
O! that our night of woe might have remembered
My deepest sense, how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me, then tendered
The humble salve, which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker exclaims over the fact that all of this was avoidable. If only he’d remembered the feeling of “true sorrow,” he would’ve acted differently. He would’ve offered the Youth love rather than the grief he’s given out. He hopes, in the final lines, that this “trespass” and the Youth’s balance one another out. The Youth was unfaithful, and so was the speaker. Their mutual crimes should cancel one another out, and they should, as the last lines of the previous sonnet stated, go back to how things were and be stronger than ever.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 120’ should also consider reading some other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 17’ – the last of the procreation sonnets in which the speaker makes a plea to the Youth. He speaks about how his writing is only going to go so far.
- ‘Sonnet 94’ – suggests that the Fair Youth is on the verge of losing his admirable nature. The speaker describes who is in God’s good graces and who is not.
- ‘Sonnet 50’ – is a depressing poem that details the speaker’s temporary separation from the Youth. Shakes