‘Sonnet 139‘ is one of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. It is part of the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. They deal with the speaker, perhaps William Shakespeare himself, and his relationship with his mistress, the Dark Lady. This particular sonnet returns to a melancholy mood that can be found throughout the earlier sonnets in this series. The speaker is once more pleading with the Lady to be kinder to him.
Explore Sonnet 139
’Sonnet 139’ by William Shakespeare is a poem about the Dark Lady’s continuing infidelity and the speaker’s suffering.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 139,’ the speaker begins by expressing his exasperation at the fact that the Dark Lady continues to lie to him. He wishes she’d just tell him the truth about her relationships. That way, he wouldn’t have to think about her secretly meeting other men. He’s frustrated by her lack of transparency and her cruelty towards him. But, he knows he’s trapped by her beauty. He gives up in the end, asking her to kill him quickly.
Throughout ‘Sonnet 139,’ the poet engages with themes of love and deceit. The person he loves, an unknown woman, is beautiful. So much so that he’s become obsessed with her looks and is willing to mostly ignore how cruel she is so that he might spend more time with him. Lies and deceit are themes that run throughout the sonnets in this series. The relationship the two are engaged in is built on falsehoods.
Structure and Form
‘Sonnet 139’ is a traditional Shakespearean sonnet that follows a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. Readers will likely notice the imperfect rhyme between lines “wrong” and “tongue.” It depends very much on how the two words are pronounced. The poem is also written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. There are a few moments in which the stresses have to be creatively altered to keep the pattern. But, line six is a good example of iambic pentameter at its best.
Readers should also note the “turn” between lines twelve and thirteen. The final rhyming couplet stands out from the rest of the lines.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 139’. These include but are not limited to examples of:
- Alliteration: the repetition of words with the same consonant sound. For example, “thine” and “thy” in line three as well as “face” and “foes” in line eleven.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “Let me excuse thee: ah, my love well knows.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two as well as lines seven and eight.
O, call not me to justify the wrong
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart;
Wound me not with thine eye but with thy tongue;
Use power with power, and slay me not by art.
In the first lines of ‘Sonnet 139,’ the speaker changes his tune once more. Now, rather than expressing acceptance in the face of his insecurities (see ‘Sonnet 138’), he’s once more begging the Dark Lady to be honest with him. This is a surprising transition considering how happy he seemed with their mutual lies in the previous sonnet. He wants the Dark Lady to tell him directly what she’s thinking and doing. That is, confess her infidelities to him. He’s annoyed by how she flirts with other people in front of him and makes it obvious she has other lovers. The fact that he’s returned to this plea once more suggests that the Dark Lady hasn’t changed at all. She doesn’t seem capable of giving him what he needs.
Tell me thou lov’st elsewhere; but in my sight,
Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside;
What need’st thou wound with cunning when thy might
Is more than my o’erpressed defense can bide?
In the next four lines, the speaker adds onto this saying, pretty clearly, that she loves “elsewhere.” This is an allusion to her multiple lovers. He seems to struggle with how to contend with her infidelities in the next lines. He pleads with her, asking why she has to wound him so deeply with “cunning.” He can’t deal with her “might.”
Let me excuse thee: ah, my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been mine enemies;
And therefore from my face she turns my foes,
That they elsewhere might dart their injuries—
Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,
Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.
In the third and final quatrain, the speaker says that he thinks she’d like him to give her another pass. She knows that it’s her beauty that attracts him to her, not her kindness or morality. Her personality isn’t really part of the equation or a part of his infatuation. He asserts that his love knows “Her pretty looks have been mine enemies.” This very clearly informs the reader that he’s well aware of his weaknesses.
In the last two lines, the speaker gives up once more, suggesting that he’s fine with her continuing to treat him this way. There doesn’t appear to be anything he can do about it. If she’ll just “Kill [him] outright,” she’ll also end his pain.
In this sonnet, Shakespeare engages with themes of deceit and love.
‘Sonnet 139’ is about the unhealthy relationship the speaker has with the Dark Lady and his attempts to convince her to become faithful to him.
In ‘Sonnet 139,’ Shakespeare used a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG.
Shakespeare used iambic pentameter in ‘Sonnet 139.’
His sonnets were written for an unknown young man, the Fair Youth and an unknown woman, the Dark Lady.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sonnet 139’ should also consider reading other William Shakespeare’s other poems. For example:
- ‘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.