sonnet 142

Our Romantic ideal of what love might’ve been like in Elizabethan times is pretty much hogwash. Certainly the kind of romantic love displayed in the move Shakespeare in Love is complete fantasy. Love and sex back then was little different than it is nowadays: it covers the spectrum from chaste and sweet to tawdry and cheap. Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets are remarkable for many reasons, but one of them is their unflinching honesty in portraying bad relationships. Case in point: 

142

Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O! but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profaned their scarlet ornaments
And sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robbed others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lov’st those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that, when it grows,
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
   If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
   By self-example mayst thou be denied!

This is a tough sonnet to parse out, for its psychological arguments are varied, tangled and complex. Let’s see if I can summarize it:

The Poet’s love for such an awful woman is his sin, and the Dark Lady’s only virtue is condemning him for the sin of loving her. But it doesn’t stop there! For she really has no right to condemn him for his bad choice in lovers (namely, her), since her sins are worse than any of his. Furthermore, it’s galling that these condemnations come from lips so tainted, considering where her lips have been. More than that, not only has she kissed almost every man that’s come her way, she lies with those very same lips. So the Poet begs her to be allowed to love her anyhow (he’s pathetic), so that she’ll pity him. He then will pity her! For the deal is, if she refuses to pity the Poet, he just might refuse to sleep with her. As if. 

There’s an entire soap opera wrapped up in these fourteen lines. My favorite line is: ‘And robb’d others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.’ Delicious stuff. 

The image comes from Shakespeare In Love, showing one of its many ridiculous scenes of post-coital bliss. Ms. Paltrow’s character never existed, and even if she had, she was nothing like the powerful, angry, sensuous and vengeful Dark Lady described in Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnets.

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