Sonnet 138

Shakespeare Sonnet 138

WHen my loue ſweares that ſhe is made of truth,
I do beleeue her though I know ſhe lyes,
That ſhe might thinke me ſome vntuterd youth,
Vnlearned in the worlds falſe ſubtilties.
Thus vainely thinking that ſhe thinkes me young,
Although ſhe knowes my dayes are paſt the beſt,
Simply I credit her falſe ſpeaking tongue,
On both ſides thus is ſimple truth ſuppreſt:
But wherefore ſayes ſhe not ſhe is vniuſt?
And wherefore ſay not I that I am old?
O loues beſt habit is in ſeeming truſt,
And age in loue, loues not t’haue yeares told.
Therefore I lye with her, and ſhe with me,
And in our faults by lyes we flattered be.

The Passionate Pilgrime (1599)

WHen my Loue ſweares that ſhe is made of truth,
I doe beleeue her (though I know ſhe lies)
That ſhe might thinke me ſome vntutor’d youth,
Vnskilfull in the worlds falſe forgeries.
Thus vainly thinking that ſhe thinkes me young,
Although I know my yeares be paſt the beſt:
I ſmiling, credite her falſe ſpeaking toung,
Outfacing faults in Loue, with loues ill reſt.
But wherefore ſayes my Loue that ſhe is young?
And wherefore ſay not I, that I am old?
O, Loues beſt habite is a ſoothing toung,
And Age (in Loue) loues not to haue yeares told.
Therfore Ile lye with Loue, and Loue with me,
Since that our faultes in Loue thus ſmother’d be.

Sonnet 138 is one of the sequence’s wittiest, the quarto being a revision of an earlier version found in The Passionate Pilgrim, published by William Jaggard in 1599. 1 The volume’s authorship was wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, although five of the twenty poems in the volume are his. The 1599 version is found above. The sonnet’s wit is reinforced by the echoes of biblical injunctions against false swearing and of phrases from the Church of England’s “A Sermon against swearing and periurie,” the seventh in the Elizabethan “Book of Homilies.” (Shakespeare further uses the homily in Sonnet 152.)

The sonnet opens with the poet’s mistress swearing that she is “made of truth,” constituted of the oneness that characterizes “truth” or troth, but with a hint of “maid of truth,” virginal and intact (a ‘maid of joy’ was a courtesan or whore). 2 When she swears such, the poet believes her, or indicates he believes her, even though he knows “she lyes.” His reason: so that the mistress might think him a callow, gullible youth (“some vntuterd youth”), someone that appears younger than he is, because he is easily duped by one who would pass herself off as “made”/maid of truth. She will find him, as a gull, innocent (“Vnlearned”) of the “worlds false subtilties,” of the demimonde’s practice of passing off women as virginal to young men. In “vainely thinking that she thinkes me young,” “vainely” means both ‘in vain’ and ‘arrogantly.’ To swear vainely or to take God’s name in vain was sinful: the intent of the “Sermon against swearing” was to point out the “perill and daunger it is vainely to sweare.” 3 The mistress, however, knows the poet’s aged inadequacy (“my dayes are past the best”). He, then, “simply,” ‘straightforwardly’ or with the foolishness of a simpleton, will “credit her false speaking tongue.” The “Sermon against swearing” singles out those who lie to gain credit with their fellows: “a trustie man . . shall haue no neede by such vaine swearing, to bring himselfe in credence with his neighbours.” 4 Thus “on both sides,” on the part of the poet and his love, “simple truth [is] supprest;” “simple truth” is the ‘undivided’ truth that is pledged in marriage as well as ‘humble’ truth or truth not given to pride; “supprest” means kept secret or unvoiced. Shakespeare has changed the line found in The Passionate Pilgrim (“Outfacing faults in loue, with loues ill rest”) to make it accord with 2 Tim. 2.15-16, where the elect, “diuiding the worde of trueth iustly,” are instructed to “Suppresse . . vayne wordes.” 5 The Geneva version’s sidenote indicates such words derive from “the subtilitie of Satan.”

But why (“wherefore”) does the mistress not admit her deceit (“sayes she not she is vniust;” the “Sermon against swearing” identifies an “vniust” as “a deceitfull person”)? 6 Equally why does the poet not admit his age (“that I am old”)? His response is an aged response: “O loues best habit is in seeming trust.” Love to survive must sometimes not tell the truth but let what seems prevail, a “seeming trust,” either a pretending or a deceiving trust. The “best habit” of love is firstly that in which it attires itself; it is also that through which love manifests itself as behaviour or habit; finally “seeming trust” is love’s best possession (the category of “habitus”). In a quasi-chiastic line, “And age in loue, loues not t’haue yeares told,” he claims that aged lovers prefer to keep their ages suppressed; “told” means both ‘counted’ and ‘recounted.’ The couplet is centred on the pun on “lye,” ‘to speak falsely’ and ‘to lie beside.’ The poet ‘lies’ to and with the mistress as she lies to and with him. In so doing, and through their “faults” or failings in love (see The Passionate Pilgrim 8 & 14, “faultes in loue”), they are “flattered,” they are ‘deceived’ as well as ‘gratified’ by each other.


138.1. William Shakespeare (?), The Passionate Pilgrime. By W. Shakespeare (London: William Jaggard, 1599) A3r.

138.2. Compare Nicholas de Nicolay, The Nauigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay . . Translated out the French by T[homas] Washington (London: Thomas Dawson, 1585) 144, “a mayden of ioy or a common woman, or strumpet.”

138.3. Church of England, Certaine Sermons appointed by the Queenes Maiestie, to be declared and read, by all Parsons, Vicars, and Curates; euery Sunday and Holy day in their Churches (London: Christopher Barker, 1582) D6r-v.

138.4. Church of England, Certaine Sermons D8v.

138.5. The New Testament of Our Lord Iesus Christ. Conferred diligently with the Greke, and best approued translations (Geneva, Conrad Badius, 1557).

138.6. Church of England, Certaine Sermons D7v.