A lover torn: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 addresses two different subjects. In the sonnet, Shakespeare exposes the readers to both the Dark Lady, to whom most of his later poems are dedicated to, as well as a fair man, who might be the fair youth, the subject of the earlier sonnets. This poem does not hold a reverential tone, but rather conveys the bitter feelings and torment that Shakespeare feels towards this woman. Furthermore, the sonnet makes the readers aware that Shakespeare feels torn equally between both the man and the woman, possibly giving credit to the idea that Shakespeare was bisexual.

The sonnet adheres to the structure of all Shakespearean or English sonnets, with the basic form of three quatrains and a heroic couplet at the end. The volte preceds the couplet and will be addressed further in the paper. The sonnet distinguishes itself as an erotic form of poetry, most often used for purposes of wooing, so Shakespeare’s opening the poem with a description of two loves, or rather “two spirits” (1) is not necessarily surprising. However, the revelation of one of those loves as a man could be an atypical revelation, especially since sonnets primarily focus on Eros, or sexual love. Shakespeare calls the man his “better angel” in line 3 after having introduced him as his “comfort” in the opening line of the text. The poem contrasts this angel of light, who is “right fair” (3) with the darker character, a woman, “colored ill”, who holds Shakespeare’s affections in a toxic relationship of sorts.

Interestingly, Shakespeare takes both these sides in as pieces of himself. He claims them both, using the terms “my female evil” (5), and “my better angel” (6) respectively, indicating that while they are both individuals in real life, they also might be reflecting of his own inner workings.  Interestingly enough, the woman is identified with Eve, a temptress in her own right, who “tempeth the better angel from [Shakespeare’s] side” (6). The question that now comes into play is whether or not this is a case of jealousy. Shakespeare craves this woman’s attention and affection whether or not it hurts him, so the idea of her turning her attentions to his friend, his better half (whom he may or may not hold carnal desire for) causes a passionate vehemence in his expression of hatred towards her.

Shakespeare turns the tables, portraying the woman as corrupt, while the man is fair, and his biggest concern in the poem is that his fair friend will be tainted, turned into a “fiend” (9) by this dark female. It appears that Shakespeare is terrified the dark woman will choose his fair friend over him, or even worse, that his fair friend should willingly go to the dark woman. He claims that she will “corrupt [his] saint to be a devil” (7), and that she will woo over his purity with her pride. It’s fascinating that Shakespeare places all the blame entirely on the woman’s shoulders. This is perhaps indicative of his intense attachment to her. She’s hurt him, and he still wants her. He can’t bear the idea of anyone else having her, and he despises her as he loves her.

Shakespeare doesn’t know yet if she has succeeded in seducing his friend, which in one way could possibly have been an innocuous statement, regarding the “angel turned fiend” (9), were it not for the sexual tension underlying the tone. Shakespeare clarifies his relationship with the dark lady as carnal, but depicts his relationship with his fair friend in a tenuous, unclear manner. The imagery describing the friends shows him as an “angel” (3) and a “saint” (7), creates a strong golden contrast to the woman who Shakespeare has written about. While one might assume that the relationship between Shakespeare and his friend remained platonic, the tone and the focus on juxtaposition of light and dark indicates otherwise. It appears that the relationship between Shakespeare and the dark woman revolves around pure lust, not love. The fair friend’s lighter contrast appears as a relationship of mutual adoration, a pure angel who has not yet been corrupted. He wrote of his friend as “one angel in another’s hell”, implying that Shakespeare himself would be in hell should anything occur between his friend and the lady. However, the double meaning of the phrase, indicates a literal consummation, “another’s hell” (12) meaning  the lady’s private parts.

The sonnet might be indicating that Shakespeare himself has not corrupted his friend yet. Perhaps he wanted to bed his devotee himself, and that provides a reason for the bitter tone he writes in. Jealous of his fair friend’s transfer of affection, and anger at being spurned for another man by his mistress leads the readers straight into the volte. Shakespeare’s volte, or pause, can often mean a shift in tone, for better or for worse, but this volte verbalizes his exact wish for his friend, should he choose to succumb to the dark lady. Shakespeare says “Yet ne’er shall I know, but live in doubt, till my bad angel fire my good one out” (13, 14). While this might seem an innocuous phrase, merely meaning that his mistress shall run off his friend, but in actuality, it implies that Shakespeare’s friend would catch a sexually transmitted disease, and thereby confirm Shakespeare’s suspicions of infidelity and betrayal  on the parts of both his friend and his mistress. By writing such a sonnet, Shakespeare portrays his fierce emotions towards both his friend and his mistress.