Sonnet 144

Let’s have some fun today. Some four hundred years Shakespeare evidently did, composing this delicious sonnet about the betrayals of a bisexual love triangle. Here the Young Man of the earlier sonnets intersects with the Dark Lady of the later sonnets. The Poet fears that the Dark Lady might have seduced the Poet’s sweet young boy away from him:


Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still;
The better angel is a man right fair, 
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill. 
To win me soon to hell, my female evil 
Tempteth my better angel from my side, 
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil, 
Wooing his purity with her foul pride. 
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend 
Suspect I may, but not directly tell; 
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell: 
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The Poet’s obviously furious that his better angel–the sweet Young Man–is in all likelihood inside (in a sexual way) the Poet’s other angel–the devilish Dark Lady: ‘I guess one angel in another’s hell:’.   But it almost feels that Shakespeare shows his hand a bit here, for despite the Poet’s pique, the nest of puns and turns in this poem are delightful.

Beyond the fun of it all, this sonnet sings on multiple levels: two angels, one of comfort, one of despair, signifying the common internal struggle all humans share.   The very Elizabethan notion that the two forces which influence us, angel and devil, are delineated by gender: men being good and fair, women being evil and dark:

The better angel is a man right fair, 
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill. 

Yet, amazingly so for the times, the Poet in this sonnet all but admits to bisexuality.

And while all this is going on, the sonnet itself is a superb example of the Elizabethan sonnet form, that in itself an achievement.   All of this makes Sonnet144 an enduring masterpiece: poetic, provocative, delicious, beautiful, insightful.  

The gorgeous image comes from a wood engraving by Isac Friedlander, circa 1931, created specifically for Sonnet 144.

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