Sonnet 128

Shakespeare Sonnet 128

HOw oft when thou my muſike muſike playſt,                     deere, deer’st (R)
Vpon that bleſſed wood whoſe motion ſounds                       motions (R)
With thy ſweet fingers when thou gently ſwayſt,                 swaies (R)
The wiry concord that mine eare confounds,                        conſoun[d]es (R)
Do I enuie thoſe Iackes that nimble leape,                            o how / kies / leapes (R)
To kiſſe the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilſt my poore lips which ſhould that harueſt reape,        reped (R)
At the woods bouldnes by thee bluſhing ſtand.                    wood (R)
To be ſo tikled they would change their ſtate,                      touched the faine (R)
And ſituation with thoſe dancing chips,
Ore whome their fingers walke with gentle gate,                 thy (Q misreading); youre (R)
Making dead wood more bleſt then liuing lips,
Since ſauſie Iackes ſo happy are in this,                                 then those keyes (R)
Giue them their fingers, me thy lips to kiſſe.                         thy (Q misreading); youre (R)

There exists another version of Sonnet 128 (Bodleian Rawlinson MS. Poetry 152, Fol. 34r; the variants are signally above as (R)), which, Kerrigan and Taylor convincingly argue, is of a date earlier than the 1609 quarto. Two features stand out: the manuscript’s use at line 11 of “youre,” which antecedes the mistaken “their” of the quarto. (In the series of sonnets 127-154 the mistress is always addressed as “thou;” the possibly early Sonnet 145 uses “you,” but of the poet not the mistress.) The other feature is the change in lines 5 and 13 from “keies” to “Iackes.”

The sonnet pictures the poet’s mistress playing on the virginals, an instrument like a spinet, contained in a box, sometimes with and occasionally without legs as depicted in the frontispiece to Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that euer was printed for the Virginalls, a compendium of music by Byrd, Bull and Gibbons: 1

Shakespeare Parthenia

The strings of the virginal were plucked by jacks; a jack was a piece of wood (in Latin virga = a wooden twig, hence ‘virginal’) fitted with a plectrum or quill, which plucked (but didn’t strike) the wire string as the jack rose while a key was being pressed down. By transference jacks came to be used of the keyes themselves. 2 The sexual suggestiveness of “Iackes that nimble leape” was already hackneyed: besides the play on virginals, Shakespeare would need go no further than Florio who gives the Italian for jack as “Saltarelli, the iacks of a paire of virginals.” Shakespeare’s “leape” echoes Florio’s derivation of “Saltarelli” from “Saltare, to leape . . or leape on another as males do on the females in the act of generation.” The associative word-play was extensive: Florio further defines a spinet as “Spinetta, a paire of virginals . . also a prick.” Playing the virginal and the conceit of the virginal’s jacks kissing the palm of the hand that plays them were familiar tropes: see Leontes’ outburst against Hermione, “But to be padling Palmes, and pinching Fingers, / As now they are,” and his subsequent aside, “Still Virginalling / Vpon his Palme?” (WT 1.2.115-6 & 125-6) or the picture of Lavinia whose “Lilly hands, / Tremble like Aspen leaues vpon a Lute, / And make the silken strings delight to kisse them” (Tit. 2.4.44-7). 3

The sonnet’s opening quasi-chiastic line, replicates the structure of Sonnet 8’s opening, which addresses the youth as “Musick to heare.” Here the mistress is “my musike.” (The two sonnets share the same vocabulary.) She is playing “Vpon that blessed wood,” either the wooden virginal itself or its wooden keys. The wood is made “blessed,” both ‘holy’ and ‘fortunate,’ because of her touch (the explanation is found in line 12, where her fingers make “dead wood more blest then liuing lips”). The movement of the keys (“motion”) that produces the music (“sounds”) is the result of her “sweet fingers” as she “gently,” ‘without force’ and ‘with decorum,’ “swayst / The wiry concord;” “swayst” gives an initial impression of the mistress swaying back and forth as she plays, an impression immediately qualified by the transitive use of ‘sway’ meaning to control or have mastery over the “concord” that is produced. As in Sonnet 8 “concord” means ‘with cords or strings together,’ though its primary meaning is harmony (con + corda = with hearts together). The “concord” is “wiry,” both emanating from the virginal’s wires, and ‘wiry-sounding,’ since the sound produced by lutes and virginals was considered twangy, as in Hortensio’s “twangling Iacke” (Shr. 2.1.157). On such occasions the poet feels jealous of the jacks (“Do I enuie those Iackes that nimble leape”) as they agilely spring back up to “kisse the tender inward of thy hand.” (There is no evidence the nursery rhyme “Jack be nimble” existed in Shakespeare’s time, but ‘nimble jacks leaping’ as in virginals was current; see Thomas Dekker, who in The Guls Horne-booke compares the chattering of teeth from the cold: “so that thy teeth as if thou wert singing prick-song, stand coldly quauering in thy head, and leap vp and downe like the nimble Iackes of a paire of Virginals”) 4 While “blushing” is natural to lips (and cheeks), the poet’s “blushing” grows from embarrassment at the jacks’ effrontery (“at the woods bouldnes”). Musically a chord or note was said to “stand” in a score, compare Barley, “in what line or space each note . . dothe stande.” 5

That the poet’s lips might be “so tikled,” they would change places with the virginal’s keys or “dancing chips.” To ‘tickle’ or play an instrument was normal (a quill was sometimes used to strike the strings) and was used often bawdily; Saviolina is pictured in Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour playing on the viol de gambo: “You see the subject of her sweet fingers there? Oh shee tickles it so, that shee makes it laugh most Diuinely . . I haue wisht my selfe to bee that Instrument.” 6 Over the “chips” the mistress’ fingers walk with a refined gait (“gentle gate”), which makes “dead wood more blest than liuing lips.” The impudence of jacks (“sausie Iackes”) was conventional, a ‘jack’ being a common or unrefined fellow. Since the jacks find happiness in being kissed by the mistress’ fingers, the poet requires that she should “Giue them their (thy) fingers,” but offer her lips to the poet, “me thy lips to kisse.”


128.1. William Byrd, John Bull, and Orlando Gibbons, Parthenia or The Maydenhead of the first musicke that euer was printed for the Virginalls (London: Dorothy Evans, 1613-6).

128.2. The Oxford English Dictionary wrongly claims that Shakespeare “erroneously” applied the term ‘jack’ to the key: see the quotation from Dekker above, where the term is also transferred to the keys.

128.3. For Shakespeare the palm of the hand seems to have been particularly erogenous, see also Iago’s question, “Didst thou not see her paddle with the palme of his hand?” (Oth. 2.1.259).

128.4. Thomas Dekker, The Guls Horne-booke (London: Nicholas Oakes, 1609) C3r.

128.5. Barley A2r. Compare Morley 72, “and so by marking where the notes stand.”

128.4. Jonson, Euery Man Out Of His Humour 3.3.102-4.