William Shakespeare – Sonnet 136
If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,
And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there;
Thus far for love, my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.
Will, will fulfil the treasure of thy love,
Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.
In things of great receipt with ease we prove
Among a number one is reckoned none:
Then in the number let me pass untold,
Though in thy store’s account I one must be;
For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold
That nothing me, a something sweet to thee:
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me for my name is ‘Will.’
�This sonnet continues the play on the word ‘Will’ begun in the previous sonnet, and expands it further into various puns on ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. As before, it is impossible to say how many Williams are involved, whether as lovers, or as husband, or when the poet himself is intended, except for the fairly unambiguous final line.
HV thinks that the poem, as many others, arises from a distinct antecedent situation, in this case a rebuttal of his sexual advances which the woman has recently made. Her soul rejects him physically, and this is his answer to that rejection, a request for her to consider him as being but a small item, a nothingness in the context of the many men she already enjoys. He is only a name, and a name has many meanings, all of which in this case coincide with her wishes and her secret sexual longings. She only therefore has to love his name and both he and she as a result will be fully satisfied.
The 1609 Quarto Version
IF thy ſoule check thee that I come ſo neere,
Sweare to thy blind ſoule that I was thy Will,
And will thy ſoule knowes is admitted there,
Thus farre for loue, my loue-ſute ſweet fullfill.
Will, will fulfill the treaſure of thy loue,
I fill it full with wils,and my will one,
In things of great receit with eaſe we prooue,
Among a number one is reckon’d none.
Then in the number let me paſſe vntold,
Though in thy ſtores account I one muſt be,
For nothing hold me,ſo it pleaſe thee hold,
That nothing me,a ſome-thing ſweet to thee.
Make but my name thy loue,and loue that ſtill,
And then thou loueſt me for my name is Will.
1. If thy soul check thee that I come so near,
thy soul = your inner self. Probably not intended here to have any distinct spiritual significance, as it does in the later sonnet 146:
Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth
Similar uses of the word, unladen with spiritual and religious import, or at least with only a minor admixture of it, are found elsewhere in the sonnets, of which I give most of the examples below. In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it; 26 Save that my soul’s imaginary sight 27 And all my soul and all my every part; 62 Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come, 107 As easy might I from myself depart
As from my soul, which in thy breast doth lie: 109 …a true soul
When most impeached stands least in thy control. 125 The word ‘soul’ is almost equivalent to ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’, or ‘inner self’, or perhaps ‘conscience’, but it has the advantage of sounding more weighty and philosophical than any of these.
check thee = should rebuke, or reproach you (i.e. if it should happen that your soul etc.). Alternatively it could mean ‘If your soul is at present actively rebuking you’. check also has the meaning of ‘to hold back’, a meaning which is partly activated here.
that I come so near = that I hit the nail on the head, that I manage to understand you so well. But, because of the content of the rest of the poem, the predominant meaning here seems to be the physical one of sexual intimacy, both in the sense of the speaker pushing himself upon the lover, and also in the sense of having an orgasm. Partridge (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, 1947, p.89) gives the following under come – To experience a sexual emission. …
Mar. Well, I will call Beatrice to you, who I think hath legs.
Ben. And therefore will come? MA.V.2.20-2.
He also gives examples under ‘come into my chamber’, ‘come to bed’, ‘come over’, and ‘do it’. The following is typical:
Bawd. We have one here Sir, if she would – but there never came her like in Mytilene.
Lys. If she’d do the deed of darkness thou wouldst say. Per.IV.5.27-9.
Evidently the sexual meaning of ‘to come’ was well established in Shakespeare’s time, although it was probably not as prevalent as in our own.2. Swear to thy blind soul that I was thy Will,thy blind soul = your soul which is (perhaps deliberately) not seeing what is going on. No entirely satisfactory explanation of the use of this phrase has been given. It links in with the idea that Cupid is traditionally thought to be blind, and with the blindness through infatuation of those who love, as in the next sonnet:
Thou blind fool love, what dost thou to mine eyes 137.
I suspect that there is a link with the blind mole, perhaps for rhyme’s sake, perhaps because the mole works away underground in the same way that the soul tunnels underneath the mind. Compare the following:
Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast? Ham.I.5.162.
Pray you, tread softly, that the blind mole may not
Hear a foot fall: we now are near his cell. Tem.IV.1.194-5.
and the following from the sonnets to Laura by Robert Tofte II.2. (1597):
Marvel I do not, though thou dost not see
My griefs and martyrs; which I still sustain.
For thou, the Mole of Love dost seem to me;
But if a Mole, th’art only to my pain.
How comes it then that, seeing thou art blind,
Thou me consum’st, as if thou had’st thy sight?
Why, as thy nature by instinct doth bind,
Stayest not below? Pack hence, and leave this light!
Either those eyes still shut, not me to grieve;
Or under ground, in darkness, always live!
The Mole of Love was evidently something with which Elizabethans were familiar, but we are not, but it seems to be symbolic of something which undermines the persona.
thy Will = your William, your passion, your sexual desire, my penis (that is yours to use). Note that Q italicises this ‘Will’ and also capitalises it, as also the Wills in lines 5 and 14. One tends therefore to think that the primary meaning is the name William. However Q’s record of use of typeface is somewhat erratic, and one has to be cautious about relying on it entirely as a pointer to added meaning.3. And will, thy soul knows, is admitted there;will = wish, desire, lust, penis, William.
is admitted = is acknowledged as a fact; is allowed, is permitted (to enter).
there = in that place where I came too near, in your soul. The line has an obvious bawdy meaning.4. Thus far for love, my love-suit, sweet, fulfil.Thus far for love = to that extent, for the sake of love. I.e. permit me to be admitted there, for the sake of my love for you, or your love for me, or for the sake of love in general, for the sake of Cupid.
love-suit – OED 12 gives for suit ‘wooing or courting of a woman, solicitation for a woman’s hand’. It gives no entry for love-suit. The word suit has predominantly a legal meaning, which also shades into other meanings related to ‘pursuit’. It is a common idea in courtly love poetry, that one makes suit (pursues, courts, assails) the woman who is adored. Compare:
How canst thou tell she will deny thy suit,
Before thou make a trial of her love? 1H6.V.3.75-6. Well, Love, since this demur our suit will stay, Sidney, A&S.52.
Shakespeare does not use the word in this sense elsewhere in the sonnets.
sweet = sweetheart, my sweet one. Possibly it is an adjective referring to ‘love-suit’, possibly an adverb qualifying ‘fulfil’ – ‘sweetly fulfil my desire’.5. Will, will fulfil the treasure of thy love,Will = William; my penis; desire and its satisfaction.
fulfil = satisfy, comply with the wishes of ; fill up physically. The latter meaning, though more or less defunct in modern speech, is illustrated well by Shakespeare’s use of it in Troilus and Cressida, when the Prologue describes the gates of Troy: Priam’s six-gated city,
Dardan, and Tymbria, Helias, Chetas, Troien,
And Antenorides, with massy staples
And corresponsive and fulfilling bolts,
Sperr up the sons of Troy. TC.Prologue15-19.
The corresponsive bolts are well matched up to and aligned with the sockets, or metal hoops, into which they are inserted, thus ‘fulfilling’ those spaces which were formerly empty. The sexual meaning of the word is unavoidable here in this line of the sonnet, and in the next line where it becomes inverted to ‘fill it full’.
the treasure of thy love = the secret place where your treasury of love is stored; all your heaped up riches of fine qualities. Again with sexual innuendo, pudenda. As in the following from Linche’s sonnets to Diella:
O that I might but press their dainty swelling! (her breasts)
and thence depart to which must now be hidden,
And which my crimson verse abstains from telling;
because by chaste ears, I am so forbidden.
There, in the crystal paved Vale of Pleasure
Lies locked up, a world of richest treasure. Linche, Diella 32. 1596.
Also in sonnet 6, urging the youth to find some willing dame:
………treasure thou some place
With beauty’s treasure, ere it be self-kill’d. 6
Beauty and treasure were often allied, because beauty is rich with so many wonderful things. Compare also this from Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella: Toward Aurora’s court a nymph doth dwell,
Rich in all beauties which man’s eye can see:
Beauties so far from reach of words, that we
Abase her praise, saying she doth excel:
Rich in the treasure of deserved renown,
Rich in the riches of a royal heart,
Rich in those gifts which give th’eternal crown; 37. Also, from the same: Nor debarred from beauty’s treasure,
Let no tongue aspire to tell,
In what high joys I shall dwell, A&S Tenth Song.6. Ay, fill it full with wills, and my will one.See note above.
Ay = indeed; yes, certainly.
and my will one = and (let) my will, desire, lust, penis, be one among the many which fill you up, occupy your mind totally, fill your vagina.
Note also that the Q spelling of Ay is ‘I’, giving momentarily the meaning ‘I alone am capable of shafting you to your satisfaction’. The Renaissance spelling of I for aye was usual and context decided the meaning. Compare: I! I! O I may say that she is mine. Sidney A&S.69.
where the meaning ‘Aye’ is also intended for the first two Is.7. In things of great receipt with ease we provethings of great receipt = matters of great moment, stores of great quantity, sexual organs of great capacity. The bawdy innuendo continues, leading to the play on something and nothing in the third quatrain.
we prove = we demonstrate mathematically, we know by experience.8. Among a number one is reckoned none:Since numbers were plurals, the number one could not be considered to be a number. Alternatively, where large numbers were concerned, adding one to a great heap made effectively no difference. The idea is ultimately traceable back to Aristotle. KDJ quotes
One is no number, maids are nothing then,
Without the sweet society of men. Marlowe, H&L.255-6.
reckoned = counted as, considered to be.9. Then in the number let me pass untold,
in the number = in the list of all those wills which (or whom) you entertain.
let me pass untold = let me be unnoticed and uncounted. Do not pick me out (so as to reject me). untold refers to ‘telling’ meaning both counting and relating a story, possibly also to the tolling of a bell.As in :
So is my love still telling what is told. 7610. Though in thy store’s account I one must be;in thy store’s account = in the strict account and record of what your storeroom holds, i.e. in the list of those you accept.
I one must be = I would have to be counted as an object, my presence would have to be recorded. There is possible a visual pun intended here, viz. ‘1 one must be’, i.e. one must be equal to one, (since the letter I looks so much like the number 1).11. For nothing hold me, so it please thee hold11 and 12. Nothing and something were slang terms for sexual organs, both male and female. These two lines, 11 and 12, also play on the dual meaning of hold, to think or consider (that such and such is so) and to take physically into one’s hands. Hence there are at least two concurrent meanings ‘Consider me to be of no value, a worthless thing, so long as you also take pleasure in thinking me to be a sweet thing in your company’, and ‘Take me to be a mere sexual object, and hold my dick, letting it be a sweet experience for you’.12. That nothing me, a something sweet to thee:that nothing me – see the note above.
sweet – this may also be a vocative, as in line 4. ‘sweetheart’ or ‘my sweet one’.13. Make but my name thy love, and love that still,still = always.14. And then thou lovest me for my name is ‘Will.’And then thou lovest me = and then you effectively love me, the person (rather than just a name). The conclusion is hardly conclusive, and is not likely to have won the poet any sexual favours, since one assumes she new his name already, and punning on Will = William, or Will = penis, or Will = your voracious sexual appetite, would not be calculated to endear him to her. The poem may be read in several ways, as a witty sexual joke, as a dream of what he longs for, or as a last desperate throw of the dice in hoping to win more attention from her waywardness.