Sonnet 140

Shakespeare Sonnet 140

BE wiſe as thou art cruell, do not preſſe
My toung-tide patience with too much diſdaine:
Leaſt ſorrow lend me words and words expreſſe,
The manner of my pittie wanting paine.
If I might teach thee witte better it weare,
Though not to loue, yet loue to tell me ſo,
As teſtie ſick-men when their deaths be neere,
No newes but health from their Phiſitions know.
For if I ſhould diſpaire I ſhould grow madde,
And in my madneſſe might ſpeake ill of thee,
Now this ill wreſting world is growne ſo bad,
Madde ſlanderers by madde eares beleeued be.
That I may not be ſo, nor thou be lyde,
Beare thine eyes ſtraight, though thy proud heart goe wide.

Mistresses from Petrarch onwards are notoriously cruel (“crudele”) and treat their lovers with disdain (“disdegno;” compare Petrarch, Canzionere, 44, 1-6

Ma voi che mai pietà non discolora,
et ch’avete gli schermi sempre accorti
contra l’arco d’Amor che ’ndarno tira,

mi vedete straziare a mille morti:
né lagrima però discese anchora
da’ be’ vostr’occhi, ma disdegno et ira.

[But you [Laura], whom pity never makes pale and who always uses wise defences against Love’s bow, which he draws in vain, look on me racked by a thousand deaths: no tear has yet fallen from your beautiful eyes, but only disdain and anger.]

The elements of wit, pain, pity and grace are found, famously, in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella 1.)

Sonnet 140 advises caution, counselling the mistress to be as “wise” as she is normally “cruell;” she must not exert pressure on or push beyond limit (“presse”) the poet’s “patience,” his long-suffering, which he cannot render into words (“toung-tied;” in Sonnet 1 Astrophil finds “wordes came halting out”). Otherwise (“Least” or ‘Lest’) sorrow might afford him words and words might give expression to his pain which finds no pity (“pittie wanting paine”). Lack of pity was a hallmark of petrarchist mistresses. If he could instruct her in wisdom (“witte”), it would be better if he was told she loved him, even if she didn’t, much like “testie sick-men” like to be deceived; “testie” means ‘tetchy’ or ‘ill-tempered’ and was used proverbially of the elderly (compare Harrington’s “testie with old age”) and of sickness and madness (Thomas Drant writes in his translation of Horace’s Satires, “Testie anger [is] a kynde of madnes”). 1 Those who are short-tempered, when facing death, want no news from their physicians other than false, good (“healthy”) news; so also the poet wishes to be falsely consoled.

If the poet in his testiness were to despair (“dispaire,” with a hint of ‘un-pair’ or ‘depart from’), a condition not allowed on a death-bed, he would “grow madde” and in his “madnesse” slander the mistress (“speake ill of thee”), especially given that this “ill wresting” world has now so degenerated that mad slanderers are believed by people disposed to hear madness (“mad eares”). An “ill wresting” world is one which twists or perverts the meaning of anything (Florio has under peruertito, “wrested to an ill sense,” while H5 1.2.14 has “wrest, or bow your reading” and La Primaudaye points out that the slanderer is particularly prone “to wrest in ill part whatsoever was well meant”). The slanderer and madness where long associated through Eccles. 10, which states that the “backbiter” or “sclaunderer” is “like a serpent” and that “the last worde of his mouth is starke madnesse” (BB). To avoid his going mad and to avoid her being made the subject of detraction (“nor thou be lyde”), the mistress must not look askance at others (“Beare thine eyes straight;” compare Sonnet 139.6, “forbeare to glance thine eye aside”), even if her heart in its pride stray from the straight and narrow (“though thy proud heart goe wide”). The archery image of taking straight aim (“Beare . . straight”) and shooting wide (“goe wide”) is retained from Sonnet 139’s darting eyes.


140.1. Ariosto 8.42.5; Horace, Drant P1r; compare Lyly, Sapho E1v, “Sicke foles are testie, who though they eate nothing yet they feede on gall.”

140.2. Peter de la Primaudaye, The French Academie, wherin is discoursed the institution of Maners (London: George Bishop, 1589) 434.