Sonnet 120

Shakespeare Sonnet 120

THat you were once vnkind be-friends mee now,
And for that ſorrow, which I then didde feele,
Needes muſt I vnder my tranſgreſſion bow,
Vnleſſe my Nerues were braſſe or hammered ſteele.
For if you were by my vnkindneſſe ſhaken
As I by yours, y’haue paſt a hell of Time,
And I a tyrant haue no leaſure taken
To waigh how once I ſuffered in your crime.
O that our night of wo might haue remembred
My deepeſt ſence, how hard true ſorrow hits,
And ſoone to you, as you to me then tendred
The humble ſalue, which wounded boſomes fits!
But that your treſpaſſe now becomes a fee,
Mine ranſoms yours, and yours muſt ranſome mee.

Sonnet 120 looks back to Sonnets 33-35, especially Sonnet 34. The “once” of its opening, “That you were once vnkind,” intends ‘in the past’ rather than a singular act, while “vnkinde” carries its standard double meaning of ‘hurtful’ and ‘out of character.’ The unkindness now gives the poet solace (“be-friends mee now”): because of the sorrow he once felt, he would now be beaten down or become bent (“bow”) under the weight of his offence (“transgression”), if his sinews and muscles (“Nerues”) weren’t made of brass or beaten (“hammered”) steel. ‘A man of steel’ was proverbial (compare Antony’s farewell, “Ile leaue thee, / Now like a man of Steele”) and Shakespeare uses “hammerd steele” of antiquity in The Rape of Lucrece. 1

If his friend were to be disturbed (“shaken”) by the poet’s “vnkindnesse,” as the poet has been by his friend’s, then the friend too would have undergone (“y’haue past” or ‘you would have passed’) a time of unending pain (“a hell of Time,” a paradox because hell like heaven has no time). Taking to himself time’s role as a “tyrant” (compare Sonnet 16.2, “bloudie tirant time”), the poet would work ceaselessly (without “leasure”) to remember (“weigh”) how he was once hurt by the friend’s offence (“your crime”). His wish is that their shared “night of woe,” the dark period of present sorrow rather than a moment of earlier transgression, might remind his innermost “sense” (of the five inner senses) how fiercely sorrow hammers (“hits”) one as on an anvil. As once the youth offered his sorrow to the poet, so the poet’s sorrowfulness (“woe”) must quickly offer to the youth relief (“humble salue”), which suits or treats well (“fits”) afflicted hearts (“wounded bosomes”); “tendred” means ‘offered’ as well as ‘applied’ to a wound, while a “humble salue” is a household balm as well as the balm of humility, that softens a proud wound. The youth’s earlier offence recalls that of Sonnet 34 with its christic subtext: “For no man well of such a salue can speake, / That heales the wound, and cures not the disgrace . . Ah but those teares are pearle . . And they are ritch, and ransome all ill deeds.” 2 Here the youth’s offence becomes the means (“fee”), which enables the poet to accept his sorrow and forgive or redeem his debt to him (“ransome,” a contraction of redemptionem or a buying-back). Reciprocally the youth must accept the poet’s sorrow and offer him atonement.


120.1. Ant. 4.4.33-34; Luc. 951.

120.2. See Sonnet 34.7-14, commentary.