Sonnet 118

Shakespeare Sonnet 118

LIke as to make our appetites more keene
With eager compounds we our pallat vrge,
As to preuent our malladies vnſeene,
We ſicken to ſhun ſickneſſe when we purge.
Euen ſo being full of your nere cloying ſweetneſſe,
To bitter ſawces did I frame my feeding;
And ſicke of wel-fare found a kind of meetneſſe,
To be diſeaſ’d ere that there was true needing.
Thus pollicie in loue t’anticipate
The ills that were, not grew to faults aſſured,
And brought to medicine a healthfull ſtate
Which rancke of goodneſſe would by ill be cured.
But thence I learne and find the leſſon true,
Drugs poyson him that so fell sicke of you.

Traditionally the administering of emetics, the trope worked in Sonnet 118, had three purposes: to renew the palate, to forestall the onset of sickness, and to counteract poison. Emetics were derived from various plants: Gerard, for example, writes that squill can be made into “vineger of Squill” and then into “an Oxymel . . to be used in vomits,” while scammony can be boiled with quince to form a sweet electuary to be used emetically. 1 Shakespeare, however, in Sonnet 118 seems to have had in mind hellebore, whose root, Gerard asserts, “procureth vomite mightily” and is “good against . . poison, and against all cold diseases that bee of hard curation.” 2 For his source Shakespeare could have drawn on common lore, on any number of apothecary sources, or even on Pliny’s discourse on hellebore in his Natural History (which Holland had rendered into English in 1601 and to which Shakespeare had recourse for Othello). According to Pliny white hellebore “by vomit upwards . . doth evacuate the offensive humours which cause diseases.” He reports that the philosopher, Carneades, was known to have “prepared his wits and quickened his spirits, by purging his head with this Ellebore.” Because the “best white Ellebore . . in tast is hot and biting at the tongues end,” it can be “given in any sweet liquor” as an oxymel or “drunke in some sweet wine.” Prior to taking it, “the Patient is to eat tart and sharpe meats and poignant sauces . . to assay by little and little to vomit gently.” 3

Sonnet 118’s octet comprises a common Shakespearean parallel construction with “Like as to” and “As to’ each introducing a couplet, and each couplet being balanced against corresponding couplets beginning “Euen so” and “And.”  The sonnet also picks up the motif of “pallat,” “cup,” and “poison,” left off at the end of Sonnet 114. The first pair of lines points to the way “we our pallat vrge;” “vrge” means ‘intensify’ or ‘sharpen’ the taste, but the word was used also of distillations which are ‘urged’ to a degree that a compound is yielded. “Appetites” are sharpened or made more acute (“more keene”) with “eager compounds.” A ‘compound’ is a medicinal concoction (an emetic, because it has been boiled or distilled, is a compound and not a simple medicine), in this case one that is sharp or “biting” like Sonnet 111’s “Eysell” or vin-egar, a wine that is made ‘eager’ or sharp. The second pair of lines treats of emetics that are taken (“we purge”) to ward off beforehand (“preuent”) illnesses yet to come (“malladies vnseen”). Emetics make us sick through vomit (“sicken”), so that we might avoid ailments (“shun sicknesse”).

The second quatrain applies the first’s general principles: “being full of your nere cloying sweetnesse, / To bitter sawces did I frame my feeding;” “nere” firstly means ‘ne’er’ or never (“nere” being a spelling of ‘ne’er’ in Sonnets 17.8, 19.14 & 144.13), thus the poet is never sated by the youth’s sweetness (he can’t get enough of him). But “nere” meaning ‘near’ or ‘almost’ can’t be ignored: the poet’s palate is “full” of the friend’s sweetness, that is nearly rich enough to cause gagging (“cloying”). To refresh his palate the poet has designed his diet to include “bitter sawces,” so observing Pliny’s instruction to “eat . . poignant sauces.” Secondly the poet has found himself inoculated against future ailments. He has been made “sick of welfare;” ‘welfare of meat and drink’ was standard, but the poet, made sick because of the friend’s wel-fare (with its connotations of good-eating), has found it appropriate (“a kind of meetnesse,” with echoes of ‘meat’) that he has become ill (“To be diseased”), before there was any cause to be so (“ere that there was true needing”).

The sestet applies the emetical trope to love: “Thus pollicie in love;” a “pollicie” is a course of prudent action: love, to be prudent and to forestall future ailings (“t’anticipate / The ills that were, not”), acquainted itself ahead of time with transgressions (“grew to faults assured”), which are to operate like a curative vomit. In so doing love submitted to medicine (“brought to medicine”) “a healthfull state,” a state reeking of goodness (“rancke of goodnesse,” which suggests the offensive smell of vomit as well as virulence, thus anticipating “poison”). The “healthful state,” with its surfeit of goodness, “would by ill be cured,” would as if by an initial, induced sickness be cured, clearly something not meet. The moral the poet has learnt and has proved by bitter experience (“thence I learne and find the lesson true”) is that “Drugs poyson him that so fell sicke of you.” The poet, love-sick for the friend, learns that potions (“Drugs,” in this case transgressions), rather than acting as an antidote to the disease of love, only act to poison love.


118.1. Gerard, Herball (1633) 174 & 868-9.

118.2. Gerard, Herball (1633) 441.

118.3. Pliny, The Historie of the Word. Commonly called, The Naturall Historie of C. Plinius Secundus. Translated into English by Philemon Holland (London: Adam Islip, 1601) 217-9 passim.

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