Shakespearean Sonnet Shenanigans

By Alex Mika

William Shakespeare may be seen as high-minded and pretentious, but he wrote for the common man. Today the common man experiences that post Valentine’s Day slump the same as everyone else. (illustration by author)

It’s been two weeks since Valentine’s Day appeared on our tear-away calendars, and as the pink dust settles and the flowers start to wilt, you may be wondering, “What did I get myself into?” You may even begin to think that the comedy of errors that is your love life is something Shakespearean. Dear reader, you may be right. Here are five sonnets in which the the course of true love did not run smoothly for the man who put the “I” in “Iambic Pentameter.” 

That Time He Wasn’t Sure How He Got Here

In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note;
But ‘tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who, in despite of view, is pleased to dote;
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue’s tune delighted,
Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,
Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone:
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee,
Who leaves unswayed the likeness of a man,
Thy proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.
   Only my plague thus far I count my gain,
   That she that makes me sin awards me pain. (Sonnet 141)

This sonnet is part of the Dark Lady sequence, a series of poems known for being more overtly sexual as the speaker describes their physical relationship with a woman with dark hair. It lies in contrast to the Fair Youth, a sequence on a relationship that is more spiritual. Here, Shakespeare’s speaker cannot come up with a logical reason as to why he is so infatuated with the Dark Lady, as all senses seem to protest this relationship, and yet he submits himself to her as a “proud heart’s slave and vassal wretch to be.”

That Time He Tried to Seduce Someone With His Name

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine?
Shall will in others seem right gracious,
And in my will no fair acceptance shine?
The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou being rich in Will add to thy Will
One will of mine, to make thy large Will more.
   Let no unkind, no fair beseechers kill;
   Think all but one, and me in that one Will. (Sonnet 135)

Let’s take this one apart for a second. First, he suggests that his subject’s desire is stronger than a wish, she has a “will” to be with him in an intimate setting. Then, he also says that she in her possession his will, but also himself, as he, too is a Will, so there’s plenty of “will” to go around. Then, he takes a break from this method of seduction, and goes for a tried-and-true method: insults, and suggests that she is promiscuous. If she allows others to share their “will” with her, then she must allow him to, as well. This seemingly fails, as he returns to his original argument, proposing that the more “will” she accepts, the better, and they can thus satisfy their own desires together in this manner. Proud with the case he has presented, he begs her not to reject him in the final couplet, believing it to be a “fair” proposal.  Oh, Will… 

That Time They Cheated on Each Other

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 farther 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. (Sonnet 151)

What better way is there to cope with a messy situation than to write a sonnet about it and include as much phallic imagery as one can? Here, the speaker asks his “sweet cheater” not to judge him for his infidelity, since she is probably guilty of the same. However, he not only betrays his lover, but notes that he also betrays himself by being with her, allowing his reproductive parts to overtake the rest of his body and actions (and the subject of this poem). 

That Time He Was in a Triangle?

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 coloured 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, yet 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. (Sonnet 144)

In the only sonnet to feature both the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth, it seems Shakespeare’s speaker is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The promiscuous woman of the poem is trying to seduce and “corrupt” his innocent friend, and he fears that this will lead his loves to hell. The rhyming couplet at the end suggests that he will never know whether his suspicions are baseless or not unless the “bad angel fire my good one out:” a euphemism for the the love of “despair” giving the love of “comfort” a venereal disease.  

That Time He Insulted His Lover to Prove His Love

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
     As any she belied with false compare. (Sonnet 130)

One of his most popular sonnets, Sonnet 130, makes fun of Shakespeare’s contemporaries as much as it insults his “mistress.” As it was the fashion to compare eyes to the sun, lips and cheeks to roses (and this fashion has lived on in the greeting card community), Shakespeare, a sober wit, decided to ridicule the practice of pedestal-placing in this comedic reversal. He notes the plainness of his mistress’ features, recognizing that she is anything but a goddess. By this point, when it seems he is beyond redemption in his mistress’ sunless eyes, he presents the final couplet, a revelation that his love is a human and honest one; he sees her and accepts her for what she is, and loves her all the more for it. 

Alex Mika is the Long River Review nonfiction panel editor. He can be reached at


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