Sonnet 144

Shakespeare Sonnet 144

TWo loues I haue of comfort and diſpaire,
Which like two ſpirits do ſugieſt me ſtill,
The better angell is a man right faire:                                 My (PP)
The worſer ſpirit a woman collour’d il.                                My (PP)
To win me ſoone to hell my femall euill,
Tempteth my better angel from my ſight,                          ſide (PP)
And would corrupt my ſaint to be a diuel:
Wooing his purity with her fowle pride.                               faire (PP)
And whether that my angel be turn’d finde,
Suſpect I may, yet not directly tell,
But being both from me both to each friend,                       For (PP)
I geſſe one angel in an others hel.
Yet this ſhal I nere know but liue in doubt,                         The truth I ſhall not know (PP)
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

(Another version of Sonnet 144 was printed by William Jaggard in The Passionate Pilgrime. By W. Shakespeare in 1599; the variants are minor, although the 1599 version has a more correct “side,” rhyming with “pride,” where the quarto has “sight,” while the quarto’s, “Yet this shal I nere know,” is stronger than 1599’s, “The truth I shall not know.” It is possible that Jaggard took his text for both Sonnet 138 and 144 from the one manuscript.) 1

Although Sonnet 144 is one of Shakespeare’s most violent, the conceit which he works, while not a frequent topos, was certainly an occasional one. In Michael Drayton’s 1603 sequence, Idea, with which Shakespeare seems to have been familiar (see Sonnet 107), Sonnet 23 contains similar vocabulary and rhymes and treats of a succubus, a demon in female form or a “wicked spirit, sweet Angel deuill,” who possesses the male poet while asleep:

An euill spirit your beautie haunts me still,
where-with (alas) I haue been long possest,
which ceaseth not to tempt me vnto ill,
Nor giues me once but one poore minutes rest.
In me it speakes, whether I sleepe or wake,
And when by meanes to driue it out I try
with greater torments then it me doth take,
And tortures me in most extreamitie
Before my face, it layes all my dispaires,
And hasts me on vnto a suddaine death;
Now tempting me, to drowne my selfe in teares,
And then in sighing to giue vp my breath;
Thus am I still prouok’d to euerie euill,
By this good wicked spirit, sweete Angel deuill.2

By contrast Shakespeare’s sonnet gives voice to the poet’s deep suspicions that his “better angel” has been corrupted by a “worser spirit.” His not knowing, furthermore, compounds his jealousy and leads him to suspect the very worst.

It was commonly believed that each person was awarded a good angel and a bad angel: John Salkeld, James I’s personal demonologist, explains that “there be giuen to euery man, one of the Angels, as helper and protector; as there is in like manner, a bad Angell designed also to euery one which allureth to wickednesse.” 3 The good or guardian angel’s primary function was to afford comfort as the angel did to Christ in his agony, “And there appeared an angell vnto hym from heauen, comfortyng hym” (Luke 24.33; BB; Henry Lawrence asserts in the History of Angels: “Angell Guardians . . comfort and strengthen us”). 4 The role of the bad angel was to induce despair, the lot of the infernally damned, as does Drayton’s evil spirit, who “layes all my dispaires.” Because both angels and devils operate in the realm of the imagination and phantasm, the technical term for their functioning was “suggest:” Perkins in his Foundation writes of “euill motions and lustes stirring in the heart” and of “Euill thoughtes in the mind, which come by the suggestion of the deuill.” Lawrence states that angels “in a spirituall way communicate themselves to our spirits, suggesting good things,” while devils apply themselves “to our fancies . . and stirring of the phantasmes,” so that they can “tempt, to pride, others to lust, others to covetousnes, &c, as being called in some places a lying spirit, in other a seducing spirit, in others a spirit of fornication, &c.” 5

The sonnet’s opening “Two Loues” of  “comfort” and “dispaire” suggest initially states interior to the poet, an impression that persists throughout. Only later are two persons revealed. The “Loues” are like two angels (“two spirits”), who continue to work on the poet’s imagination (“sugiest me still;” Shakespeare normally uses ‘sugggest’ negatively, for example R2 3.4.75-76, “What Eue? what Serpent, hath suggested thee, / To make a second fall of cursed man?”). The angel of comfort (“better”) is a “man right faire,” both ‘honest’ and ‘upright’ as well as ‘fair-complexioned’ and not black. The poet’s “worser spirit” is a woman “collour’d il,” of dark or devilish make-up: her outward appearance is symptomatic of her inner ugliness. As the poet’s “femall euill” her intention is quickly (“soone”) to win him to “hell,” to make him of the devil’s haunt, the state of despair to which she belongs. She does this by alluring the youth (“my better angel”) from the poet’s side, similar to Desdemona’s father who on seeing her dead would “do a desperate turne: Yea, curse his better Angell from his side, / And fall to Reprobance.” 6 She would corrupt the youth (“my saint”) to become a devil by “Wooing his purity with her fowle pride.” The sin of “pride” was a hallmark of the devil.

Devils were strongly active in the fleshly realm; they could move humans to love carnally and take advantage of their corruption. James I warns: “[The Deuill] can make men or women to loue or hate other, which may be verie possible to the Diuell to effectuat, seing he being a subtile spirite, knows well inough how to perswade the corrupted affection of them whome God wil permit him so to deale with.” 7 Salkeld endorses the traditional view that sins of the flesh belong to the devil (“the first sinne of the Angels was lust after women”), because the angelic essence is one of purity and chastity and to fall from chastity is to become a devil: “Chastitie made Angels; hee that will keepe it, shall be an Angell; hee that hath lost it a Diuell.” 8 The poet’s suspicions now become dominant: he may “suspect” the worse, that his “angel” has “turn’d” into a fiend (“finde”) or devil, but is unable to “directly tell,” to know immediately or without hesitation. The fact, that each is absent from him and a friend to each other, preys on his mind until finally he speculates (“gesse”) “one angel in an others hel.” The suspicion is all-encompassing, because it is not established which is the saint and which the inhabitant of hell.

Within the sonnet the sexual tenor remains strong, culminating in the cant use of “hel” as a vagina, a usage also found in Sonnet 129, “To shun the heauen that leads men to this hell,” and in Lear’s outburst against his daughters, “beneath is all the Fiends. There’s hell, there’s darkenes, there is the sulphurous pit” (Lr. 4.6.124). As well, there is a possible reference in “hel” to the game of barley-break where two couples from each end of a field attempt to traverse its length without being caught by a couple in the middle; if they are caught, then they take their place in “hell.” The game could become highly charged sexually.

The poet’s uncertainty continues to haunt him and will allow him no comfort (“liue in doubt”), until such time as “my bad angel fire my good one out.” Angels, whether guardian or fallen, are creatures of fire: Ps. 104.4 pictures them as a “flaming fire” (“He maketh his angels spirites: and his ministers a flaming fire;” later developed in Heb. 1.7), while Salkeld, who explains they use “a kinde of purging fire,” awards them a “ministery of purging and inflaming.” Lawrence requires that the devil’s flame be quenched: “the fire is ours always though the flame be his, quench the fire . . then yee defeate and vexe him.” 9 The poet must wait for his fears to be allayed, until the bad angel cast aside an already used, and tainted, good angel. The conclusion retains the suggestion of an animal being smoked out from its burrow as from a hell (compare Lr. 5.3.22-23, “He . . shall bring a Brand from Heauen, / And fire vs hence, like Foxes”) and a hint of the good angel being infected by the burning pain of venereal disease (as in the conclusion of Lear’s outburst above, “there is the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption”).


144.1. Shakespeare (?), Passionate Pilgrime A4r.

144.2. Drayton, Idea 23 in The Barrons Wars P5r.

144.3. Salkeld 262.

144.4. Henry Lawrence, An History of Angels, Being a Theologicall Treatise of our Communion and Warre with them (London: M[atthew] S[immons], 1649) 53.

144.5. Perkins, Foundation 7; Lawrence 42, 79, 80.

144.6. Oth. 5.2.210-12.

144.7. James I, Daemonologie 45.

144.8. Salkeld 324, 331.

144.9. Salkeld 281, 317; Lawrence 78.