William Shakespeare – Sonnet 129
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
This, one of the most famous sonnets, explores the reaction of the human psyche to the promptings of sexual urges. The folk wisdom of omne animal post coitum triste est, which is often quoted in connection with this sonnet, is banal in comparison to the ideas developed here. One has to look back to the ancient Greek world, and to the plays of Euripides, especially The Bacchae and Hippolytus, to find an equivalent. Particularly striking is the torrent of adjectives describing the build up of desire, and the imagery of the hooked fish which portrays the victim of lust as a frenzied animal expending its last vital energies in paroxysms of rage and futile struggle, even though it is inevitably doomed.
In relation to the sonnet sequence as a whole, it is worth noting that nothing like this is found in the series to the young man. The profound hatred of sexuality does not occur within that context, where the passions expressed are undying and lofty, although often intermingled with sexual humour and puns.
However readers from cultures other than the predominantly Western ones might find the sonnet puzzling. It gives essentially a phallo-centric view of sex, and its hatred of sexuality derives from the Christian imperative of the virginal life and the dislike of all bodily functions, a philosophy which finds few echoes in Eastern religions where sexuality is often gloriously celebrated. Perhaps it is because it chimes so harmoniously with much that is repressive in traditional Christian sexual morality that it has been so popular. It is of course very difficult to separate out culturally derived ideas from those which spring from an individual’s personality, and this sonnet provides no exception to the rule. The extreme sexual pessimism may be viewed as a temporary aberration on the part of the poet, or as an essential element of his personality, or simply as an expression of the prevailing opinion of the time. It is tempting to see this outbreak of sexual melancholia as stemming directly from the passions aroused by the dark lady. That would undoubtedly increase the fascination with her and has no doubt helped to fuel speculation as to her character. But the reality is that biographical details are entirely lacking, even if we knew for certain that she did exist.
Because of the sonnet’s setting between two relatively light hearted ones, I am more inclined to play down its inherent darkness. Despite its apparent ferocity it may have been written from a detached viewpoint. After all, its writer was capable of portraying the distorted lust of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece; he had looked at the machinations of Angelo in Measure for Measure, a man whose sexual passion had subverted entirely the supposed icy chastity of all his former life; he was to portray the mad sexual jealousy of Othello (if he had not already done so when the sonnet was written); and he was to look at the theme again with Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.
The fact that the sonnet is placed precisely here inevitably leads us to suppose that there is some direct link with his mistress, on whom his heart dotes, even though she is both morally and metaphorically as black as hell, as dark as night. But, as already mentioned, since we have no other biographical or historical details, we cannot even be sure that the woman is a real person or a fictitious creation. The sexual pessimism it shows, although extreme, is not alien to the Christian tradition, which from its earliest years adopted some of the harsher tenets of the asceticism of the ancient Greco-Roman world, with its doctrines of virginity and sexual abstention which date back probably to Pythagoras, and which were maintained as a continuous tradition through Plato and the Stoics long before Christianity took it over.
By the time he came to write Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare appears to have put this blackness aside and he was able to celebrate sexuality as a glorification of nature.
Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus, when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do’t. AC.I.1.35-8.
GBE (p.246) lists the following as potentially relevant examples of similar thoughts contemporary with Shakespeare, on which he might have drawn:
Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas
Et taedet Veneris statim peractae. attrib. Petronius, translated by Ben Jonson as
Doing a filthy pleasure is, and short,
And done, we straight repent us of the sport.
Ben Jonson, Underwoods 88.
Thou blind man’s mark, thou fool’s self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy’s scum and dregs of scattered thought,Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care,
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind thy worthless ware … Sidney, No.31, Certain Sonnets (1598).
In error’s mask I blindfold judgements eye,
I fetter reason in the snares of lust,
I seem secure, yet know not how to trust;
I live by that which makes me living die…
Ah Lorrell lad, what makes thee herry love? …
A heaven in show, a hell to them that prove …
A minute’s joy to gain a world of grief,
A subtle net to snare the idle mind
A seeing Scorpion, yet in seeming blind,
A poor rejoyce, a plague without relief;
Thomas Lodge, Rosalynde
(1590) GBE also mentions Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) and Robert Southwell’s Love’s servile lot and Lewd Love is Losse, and his description of sin in St. Peter’s Complaint (1595) lines 637 ff.
One should also probably include the following from The Tears of Fancie by Thomas Watson, 1593, Sonnet VIII:
O what a life is it that lovers joy,
Wherein both pain and pleasure shrouded is:
Both heavenly pleasures and eke hells annoy,
Hells fowle annoyance and eke heavenly blisse.
Wherein vain hope doth feed the lover’s heart,
And brittle joy sustain a pining thought:
When black despair renews a lover’s smart,
And quite extirps what first content had wrought.
Where faire resemblance eke the mind allureth,
To wanton lewd lust giving pleasure scope :
And late repentance endless pains procureth,
But none of these afflict me save vain hope.
And sad despair, despair and hope perplexing,
Vaine hope my heart, despair my fancie vexing.
Shakespeare’s sexual pessimism is usually associated with the period of his darker plays, Lear, Othello and Timon (c.1604-8), and the following passage from Lear is often quoted in this context:
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure’s name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to ‘t
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends’;
There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet,
good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination:
there’s money for thee.
Glo. O, let me kiss that hand!
Lear. Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.
The 1609 Quarto Version
TH’expence of Spirit in a waſte of ſhame
Is luſt in action,and till action , luſt
Is periurd,murdrous,blouddy full of blame,
Sauage,extreame,rude,cruell,not to truſt,
Inioyed no ſooner but diſpifed ſtraight,
Paſt reaſon hunted, and no ſooner had
Paſt reaſon hated as a ſwollowed bayt,
On purpoſe layd to make the taker mad.
Made In purſut and in poſſeſſion ſo,
Had,hauing,and in queſt,to haue extreame,
A bliſſe in proofe and proud and very wo,
Before a ioy propoſd behind a dreame,
All this the world well knowes yet none knowes well,
To ſhun the heauen that leads men to this hell.
1. The expense of spirit in a waste of shameexpense = expenditure; disbursement of assets; riotous and thoughtless extravagance, as in the following:
No care, no stop! so senseless of expense,
That he will neither know how to maintain it,
Nor cease his flow of riot: Tim.II.2.1-3.
spirit = vital energy, sexual energy, inner vitality. The word has close links with sexuality, sometimes signifying semen, or sexual energy, or the penis. As for example in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, where Mosca proposes that his master, Volpone, requires a young girl to lie with him to restore his health: Volpone has already fallen in love with the girl, and is by no means as decrepit as he pretends to be, but Mosca makes out that he is impotent:
…. And a virgin Sir. Why alas,
He knows the state of’s body, what it is:
That nought can warm his blood Sir, but a fever;
Nor any incantation raise a spirit;
A long forgetfulness hath seized that part. Volpone.II.3.154-9.
Compare also from Romeo and Juliet:
This cannot anger him: ‘twould anger him
To raise a spirit in his mistress’ circle
Of some strange nature, letting it there stand
Till she had laid it and conjured it down; RJ.II.1.23-6.
Various mysterious fluids were thought to circulate in the body and they were believed to determine aspects of personality.
……yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: Ham.II.2.596-9.
Why, universal plodding poisons up
The nimble spirits in the arteries,
As motion and long-during action tires
The sinewy vigour of the traveller. LLL.IV.3.301-4.
In this sonnet spirit has a general signification as a life giving force within the psyche, and more specifically, sexual energy and male sexual functions. It was also widely believed that every male orgasm shortened the life of the enjoyer by one day.
A waste of shame = a wasteland, a desert of shameful moral decay, i.e, where no virtue flourishes. waste also meant a useless and extravagant expenditure or consumption, a squandering, (OED.5.a.). Probably also a pun intended on a waist of shame, i.e. a prostitute’s body.2. Is lust in action: and till action, lustlust in action – lust, personified, as it works towards the fulfilment of its aims; or, the physical act of intercourse, driven only by lust; or, the person seized by lust, performing such an action. action is sometimes used by Shakespeare as a synonym for sexual intercourse. As for example in Pericles when the Bawd discusses with Boult the need to acquire more women for the brothel, for the ones they have with continual action are almost as good as rotten Per.IV.2.8.
till action = until it achieves its goal.3. Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,bloody = willing to shed blood, bloodstained. The modern slang word meaning ‘very’ was not then in use.
full of blame = guilty, criminal, full of fault. The word blame tends not to be used as a noun in this way nowadays, except in phrases such as ‘No blame attaches to him’. Compare:
My high repented blames dear sovereign pardon to me. AWW.V.3.36.4. Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;savage = devoid of all civilised values, cruel, immoral.
extreme = Going to great lengths in any action, habit, disposition, or opinion; (OED.4.e.)
rude = coarse, brutish, uneducated. There are many examples of the word in Shakespeare, mostly in the sense of the modern word ‘crude’. As for example.
Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace: Oth.I.3.81-2.
The word does not have at this time the modern meaning of ‘impolite’.
not to trust = not to be trusted.5. Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;As soon as it is experienced hated immediately thereafter. To enjoy is often used of having intercourse as in:
REGAN Take thou my soldiers, prisoners, patrimony;
Dispose of them, of me; the walls are thine:
Witness the world, that I create thee here
My lord and master.
GONERIL Mean you to enjoy him? KL.V.3.75-9.
Neither call the giddiness of it in question, the
poverty of her, the small acquaintance, my sudden
wooing, nor her sudden consenting; but say with me,
I love Aliena; say with her that she loves me;
consent with both that we may enjoy each other: AYL.V.2. 5-9.
straight = immediately.6. Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,Past reason = beyond the control of reason.
hunted – the object hunted is the attainment of the imagined pleasure.
no sooner had = as soon as enjoyed, as soon as the sexual congress is finished. to have in this context is equivalent to ‘to have intercourse’, ‘to possess sexually’.7. Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,past reason hated – the subsequent hatred is as irrational as was the original pursuit.
as a swallowed bait = like a bait that a fish swallows. The bait causes the fish to react with frenzy akin to madness. Although bait is a term applied to any poisoned or hooked morsel used to entrap an animal, Shakespeare uses it mainly with reference to angling. E.g.:
URSULA. The pleasant’st angling is to see the fish
Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,
And greedily devour the treacherous bait:
So angle we for Beatrice; who even now
Is couched in the woodbine coverture.
Fear you not my part of the dialogue.
HERO. Then go we near her, that her ear lose nothing
Of the false sweet bait that we lay for it. MA.III.1.26-32.8. On purpose laid to make the taker mad.On purpose laid = laid or set as a bait, in order to entrap. Strictly speaking a bait is not laid ‘to make the taker mad’ but simply to catch or entrap the taker. The effect of it however can be to make the trapped creature react with frenzy.9. Mad in pursuit and in possession so;Mad – this is the generally accepted emendation of Q’s made. The description of Lust personified, or of the person afflicted by lust, continues. It is, or he is, mad in the pursuit of the object of his lust.
in possession so = equally mad when possessing sexually the object of desire.10. Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;Had, having – see note to line 6.
in quest to have – in pursuit of intercourse. A quest is a search.
extreme = exceeding all the boundaries of reasonable behaviour.11. A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;A bliss in proof = an ecstatic sensation while it is being experienced. to prove something is to try it out, to experience it (OED 3). As in:
You have seen and proved a fairer former fortune
Than that which is to approach. AC.I.2.32-3.
a very woe = an absolute, extreme sorrow.
The emendation of this line from Q’s A blisse in proofe and proud and very wo is generally accepted. See the extensive note by SB contra an article by Graves and Knight ‘A Study in Original Punctuation and Spelling‘ R.Graves & L. Riding, included in Graves’s The Common Asphodel London 1949. (SB. 447-452.) Note that proved looks like proud in the original, suggesting a visual if not an oral pun at least on proud = erect. The reading proved is confirmed more by the sequence of thought than anything else, from proof to proved, since the orthography would not in any case distinguish between proud or proved. The other uses of proved in the sonnets are :
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.110
If this be error and upon me proved, 116
for which Q gives prou’d and proued respectively.12. Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.Before = before the act, while it is still imagined.
a joy proposed = a delight which the doer envisages for himself i.e. proposes to himself that he will have, enjoy, do etc.
behind = afterwards, when it is past and over. The word is not often used in a temporal sense in Shakespeare. Frequently, when it has a temporal meaning, it seems to indicate ‘hereafter’, ‘what is to follow’. Compare for example the following:
……when I should see behind me
The inevitable prosecution of
Disgrace and horror, AC.IV.14.64-6.
…if you break one jot of your promise or come one
minute behind your hour, AYL.IV.1.170-1.
And thou shalt live in this fair world behind,
Honour’d, beloved; Ham.III.2.170-1.
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day, WT.I.2.62-4.
a dream – perhaps reminiscent of
So have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, and waking, no such matter. 88.13. All this the world well knows; yet none knows wellAll this = all this catalogue of woe and disgust.
the world = everyone in the world.14. To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.To shun the heaven = to avoid the tempting sense of delight.
that leads men – although men may be taken as mankind in general, there can be no doubt that the views expressed are written from a male perspective. Shakespeare may have had at times an equally jaundiced opinion of female sexuality, as for example in the King Lear extract given in the introductory notes above. But in the plays it is as easy to find as many passages showing a delight in sexual relations between men and women, as it is to discover the contrary.