Sonnet 143

Shakespeare Sonnet 143

LOe as a carefull huſwife runnes to catch,
One of her fethered creatures broake away,
Sets downe her babe and makes all ſwift diſpatch
In purſuit of the thing ſhe would haue ſtay:
Whilſt her neglected child holds her in chace,
Cries to catch her whoſe buſie care is bent,
To follow that which flies before her face:
Not prizing her poore infants diſcontent;
So runſt thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilſt I thy babe chace thee a farre behind,
But if thou catch thy hope turne back to me:
And play the mothers part kiſſe me, be kind.
So will I pray that thou maiſt haue thy Will,
If thou turne back and my loude crying ſtill.

Sonnet 143 combines elements of a barnyard chase with a courtly setting to produce a poem of mock-epic proportions. It consists of a long extended metaphor (“Loe as . . “So”), opening with the image of “carefull huswife;” “carefull” suggests full of care – a feature later disproved – as well as economically prudent. A “huswife” or ‘hussif’ is a woman who manages her household with care and thrift, but there is present a strong suggestion, made explicit later, of a ‘light huswife’ or promiscuous woman, as in Iago’s description of Bianca as “A Huswife . . selling her desires,” who is “a Creature / That dotes on Cassio, (as ’tis the Strumpets plague.” 1 The woman “runnes to catch, / One of her fethered creatures.” A first reading is of a fowl or even a cock. (A cock as a penis was current slang in Shakespeare’s day: Nathan Field, a playwright (and actor in Shakespeare’s plays) and author of Amends for Ladies, which was probably performed around 1611-12 has the Widow exclaim, “Oh man what art thou? when thy cock is vp?” 2 A play on cock would anticipate the “Will,” the woman later hopes to catch.) A “creature” was also used at court of one whose position was created out of nothing by a patron and actuated by his will (compare Prospero’s description of courtly “creatures:” “who t’aduance, and who / To trash for ouer-topping; new created / The creatures that were mine”). Since plumes graced hats in the Tudor court, a “feathered creature” is a courtier or lesser retainer. (The image probably extends to a plumed popinjay, associated through its etymon with a parrot.) Finally a ‘creature’ as the quarry in a chase is used by Lear: “And the creature run from the cur.” 3

Once the bird has “broake away,” the woman lays aside her child (“Sets downe her babe”) and straightway starts off (“all swift dispatch” is tautological) after the escaping bird that she wishes would remain (“would haue stay”). In the meantime her “neglected child,” now uncared for, “holds her in chace.” To ‘hold in chase’ was a hunting term meaning ‘to give chase.’ 4 The child “Cries to catch her,” clamors for the mother, but the word is appropriate to the chase, dogs being said to ‘cry’ after their prey. 5 The woman, absorbed in her “busie care,” is inclined toward or intent upon (“bent”) pursuing “that which flies before her face.” To ‘flie before the face of’ was a biblical hebraism intending to ‘flee in advance of,’ although “flie,” also suggests a cornered bird flying up in the woman’s face. (The phrase, ‘to fly in the face of,’ intending not to heed a command or be defiant, was used originally of a hunting dog.) The woman ignores or doesn’t value (“Not prizing”) the discontent of her “poore” infant, strictly one without voice (in + fans = un + speaking).

The sestet shifts the focus to the courtly. The mistress is seen as chasing after her quarry, (“that which flies from thee”), while the poet identifies himself as “thy babe,” who, neglected, “chase thee a farre behind.” His wish is that, if she were to catch “her hope,” that which she desires, she will “play the mothers part,” act as a mother or, since she is involved in courtly games, play the role of a mother. She must “kisse” the poet. She must be “kind,” ‘generous’ as well as ‘natural’ as a mother must be.

The couplet extends the poet’s prayer: “So will I pray that thou maist haue thy Will.” The multiple meanings of “Will” link the poem to Sonnets 135 and 136, which, with their similar capitalization and italicization of the word, suggest that the compositor at least also saw a connection. “Will” firstly intends that which is hoped for or desired; secondly ‘that male organ that you desire;’ thirdly this poet whose name is “Will;” fourthly (possibly but unlikely) another person called “Will;” and finally ‘that which is granted to you as a dependent “creature.”’ All the possibilities are contingent upon her returning to the poet and either calming him or making him silent (“my loude crying still”): kissing will stop the poet’s mouth, so rendering him a voiceless “infant.”

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143.1. Oth. 4.1.94-5.

143.2. Field B4r.

143.3. Tmp. 1.2.79-81; Lr. 4.6.156.

143.4. Compare Cor. 1.6.18-20, “Spies of the Uolces / Held me in chace.”

143.5. Compare Ham. 4.5.109, “on the false Traile they cry . . false Danish Dogges.”

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