Sometimes it’s delicious to watch a love affair blow apart with jealously, infidelity and threats, especially if you’re not one of the lovers. I give you Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnet Number 140:
Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
Lest sorrow lend me words and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;
For if I should despair, I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee:
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be,
That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.
So what’s going on here? The Poet accuses the Dark Lady of cruelty, but warns hers that she’d better wise up and at least pretend to love him, or he’s going to tell everyone what a philanderer she is.
I’ll speak ill of you: ‘Lest sorrow lend me words and words express’ and ‘And in my madness might speak ill of thee’
Dote on me, even though I know you’re cheating with others : ‘Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide’
And what would a Shakespeare sonnet be without a metaphor? Here the Poet talks about how a dying man begs his doctor to lie to him about how bad it is:
‘As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;’
Yes, this relationship is in deplorable shape. Despite that–despite the fact that the Dark Lady really doesn’t love him, and is cheating on him–the Poet threatens to spread the truth around if she doesn’t at least pretend.
Don’t miss some of the beautiful language: ‘My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;’ or ‘The manner of my pity-wanting pain’. Then there’s the little pun on ‘testy sick men’, hinting at the real reason why the Poet is so desperate to stay with his Dark Lady: lust. Though this sonnet–like so many of Shakespeare’s–throws the idea of Romantic Love on its head, it does embody one facet of that idea: that being in the throes of love is like a sickness. Here the sickness is nothing so lofty and unrequited love for a pristine and angelic mistress–it’s just lust, jealousy and payback.
The image is from a cover of an old Arden edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I’ve always found ironic. We associate the gift of a red rose with traditional Romantic love. The sonnets, however–both the Young Man and the Dark Lady ones–turned that notion on its head. At least roses have thorns.