‘Sonnet 138′ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It was published along with some other sonnets in 1599 in The Passionate Pilgrim. It is part of the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. They deal with the speaker (who is usually considered to be William Shakespeare himself) and his relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. This particular sonnet further elaborates on the difficult relationship the two have. They take comfort in one another’s lies rather than the love they should share.
Explore Sonnet 138
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 138,’ the speaker begins by saying he believes the Dark Lady when she tells him that she’s honest. Despite this, he knows on a deeper level that she is actually lying. This presents him in a certain light, as a naive man, something he thinks benefits him. She’ll think he’s young and inexperienced when he’s not. He’s actually aging, something she’s well aware of.
Continuing, the speaker wonders why the two can’t admit to one another that they’re lying. It seems to be an integral part of their relationship. The best thing, he decides, is to pretend to trust one another and continue to lie. No matter how strange and complicated this is, the two take comfort in one another’s deceit.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of truth/lies and relationships. Their complex and incredibly unhealthy relationship is built on lies. But, interestingly enough, lies they’re both aware of. The mutual deception appears to be what’s holding them together. He knows the Dark Lady has been unfaithful to him just as she knows he’s old and getting older. Without their lies, their relationship (whatever it might be) would fall apart.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 138’ by William Shakespeare is a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. This means that it contains fourteen lines that are divided into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one sestet, or set of six lines. They rhyme ABABCDCDEFEFGG as the vast majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets do. The poem is also written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The poem can also be divided into three sets of four lines and a final two-line couplet.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 138’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “faults” and “flattered” in line fourteen and “sides” and “simple” in line eight.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, line two reads: “I do believe her, though I know she lies.” This is an example of how punctuation is used to create an example of caesura. There is another example in line five in which Shakespeare uses a natural pause in the middle of the metrical line. It reads: “Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young.”
- Allusion: throughout this piece, the poet’s speaker alludes to the Dark Lady’s morality and the fact that she sleeps with a lot of other people.
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,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 138,’ the speaker begins by saying that his love “swears that she is made of truth,” and he believes her. Meaning, that whenever she says she’s telling the truth, he’s willing to take her at her word. But, the second line adds to this, complicating it. He adds that he believes her, even though he knows “she lies.” This sets the tone for the rest of the poem as the speaker outlines the crucial role that lies play in this relationship.
She’s not the only one who lies, he says in lines three and four. He lies too. He acts naive about her falsehoods so that she will think he’s inexperienced and naive, like a young person. His age is a weakness, he thinks, and therefore making himself seem younger will benefit him in her eyes. But, just like he knows she’s lying, she knows he’s lying about not understanding “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.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 138,’ the speaker reveals that the Dark Lady is well aware that he’s not young. His “days are past the best,” meaning that he’s old. This is indirectly connected to his age being unattractive to her. He knows that since she has her pick of lovers that he needs to appear as attractive as possible to keep her attention (or to gain it at all).
The speaker summarizes this situation with the next two lines. He says that he pretends to believe her lies just as she pretends to believe his act. This balances out the scales. Both sides are untruthful.
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.
The poem has the first of two turns between lines eight and nine. Here, the speaker asks two questions. He wonders why she lies to him and doesn’t simply admit the truth. Then, also why he doesn’t just say he’s “old.” It would certainly be easier that way. He says, as an answer, that the best thing about their love is pretending to trust one another. Plus, old people, like the speaker, don’t like sharing their “years.”
In the last two lines of the poem, the speaker reveals that these lies they share with one after aren’t an issue. In fact, they both take comfort in them.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare engages with themes of truth, lies, relationships, and love.
‘Sonnet 138’ is about the deceitful relationship the speaker and the Dark Lady are engaged in. They take comfort in their deception of one another.
In ‘Sonnet 138,’ Shakespeare used a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
It was written in the 1590s along with the other sonnets.
This sonnet was written for The Dark Lady, an unknown mistress.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 138’ should also consider reading some other William Shakespeare poems. For example:
- ‘Sonnet 92’ – discusses the fact that the speaker is going to live and die happily because of his relationship with the Fair Youth.
- ‘Sonnet 76’ – is an upbeat poem that discusses the speaker’s love for the Youth and explores the poet’s writing.
- ‘Sonnet 36’ – explores how the speaker and the Fair Youth are no longer going to be able to see one another.
- ‘Sonnet 103’ – describes how useless and feeble words are to describe his love for the Fair Youth.