sonnet 151

A case can be made that Queen Elizabeth I ushered England into the Renaissance. That said, despite the Elizabethan explosion of Art, Science and Thought, it was an incredibly repressive society. And it was sexually repressive–to the point where it was dangerous to be too risqué. Shakespeare, though, knew just how far he could push it.

151

Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?
Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,
Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove:
For, thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross body’s treason;
My soul doth tell my body that he may
Triumph in love; flesh stays no father reason;
But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.
No want of conscience hold it that I call
Her ‘love’ for whose dear love I rise and fall.

This verse is all about how the Poet’s spiritual inclinations succumb to his bodily lust for the Dark Lady. Where it gets risqué–especially for Elizabethan society–is in its second half, where the Poet is reduced to nothing but a phallus, rising and lowering to the Dark Lady’s bidding. You see, it wasn’t permissible in the Elizabethan world of poetry to express sexual desire. But here Shakespeare takes it on. Re-read the start of the second half, it’s really quite explicit:

But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee
As his triumphant prize. Proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poor drudge to be,
To stand in thy affairs…

With Sonnet 151, is Shakespeare perhaps also addressing the conventions of the day? In the opening lines Shakespeare seems to be referring to Cupid, who’s too naïve to really understand the way of the world. I think this Sonnet might be taking aim at the Petrarchan ideal of Romantic Love as idolized in most love poetry of the day: grow up, kids, the way of the world is a lot different than what you’re writing about. This is what it’s like: Soul and lust and pleasure and guilt, all mixed up together.

Shakespeare’s plays were full of lovers, usually unhappy and always complicated. Today’s images is of the great Allan Rickman and Helen Mirren as Antony and Cleopatra from a live performance: certainly sexual, most definitely troubled.

 

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