Sonnet 150

Shakespeare Sonnet 150

OH from what powre haſt thou this powrefull might,
VVith inſufficiency my heart to ſway,
To make me giue the lie to my true ſight,
And ſwere that brightneſſe doth not grace the day?
Whence haſt thou this becomming of things il,
That in the very refuſe of thy deeds,
There is ſuch ſtrength and warrantiſe of skill,
That in my minde thy worſt all beſt exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me loue thee more,
The more I heare and ſee iuſt cauſe of hate,
Oh though I loue what others do abhor,
VVith others thou ſhouldſt not abhor my ſtate,
If thy vnworthineſſe raiſd loue in me,
More worthy I to be belou’d of thee.

The power of a petrarchist mistress was always uncurbed (“powrefull might”) and it is for this quality the poet seeks a source (“from what powre”). Furthermore hers is a power, that rules over his heart with or through “insufficiency,” causing him to come up short or reducing him to impotency. ‘Insufficiency’ from Roman times was used of impotency (Tertullian iuxtaposes cupiditas and insufficientia in his Ad Uxorem, while Montaigne cites Catullus speaking of a husband whose “sword/penis (“sicula”) hangs more limply than a soft beet, never raising the middle of his tunic,” when describing a gentleman neighbour who, in Florio’s translation, “was suspected of insufficiencie . [and] . to justifie himselfe, three or foure dayes after his mariage, swore confidently, that the night before, he had performed twentie courses.” 1 Insufficiency was considered grounds for annulment of marriage and a scourge of age; 2 its use here introduces the forthcoming sexual punnings at line 13, “raisd loue,” and the final “rise and fall” of Sonnet 151.14. Her unsurpassed power also forces the poet to contradict or prove the futility of (“giue the lie to”) what he truly sees. It makes him swear the opposite of what is: that the bright day is dark (“that brightnesse doth not grace the day”). From where, he asks, does she gain the ability to dignify or grace what is ill (“this becoming of things ill”), so that her most worthless actions (“the very refuse of her deeds”) display evidence of her skill and cunning, forcing the poet’s mind to conceive them as excelling the best actions (of others)? Who taught her to make him love her more, the more he finds “iust cause” to hate? Although he loves what others find repugnant (“abhor”), that is the mistress, she should not, as others do, find his position repugnant (“abhor”). Given the probable wordplay on ‘whore’ in “abhor” (compare Desdemona’s exclamation in Oth. 4.2.160-1, “I cannot say Whore, / It do’s abhorre me now I speake the word”), a further reading is possible: though he loves what others ‘name a whore,’ she should not, as others do, find his state whorish. If, finally, her lack of virtue (“vnworthiness”) caused love to swell up (“raisd loue”) in the poet (both physically and emotionally), then he is made the more worthy by being loved by unworthy her.


150.1. Tertullian, Ad Uxorem 1.4.6; Catullus, Carmina 67.21-22, “Languidior tenera cui pendens sicula beta / Numquam se mediam sustulit ad tunicam;” Michael Montaigne, The Essayes or Morall, Politike and Millitarie Discourses of Lo: Michael Montaigne . . First written by him in French. And now done into English By Iohn Florio (London: Valentine Sims, 1603) 520.

150.2. Compare Thomas Dekker writing of marriage, “you doe wrong to Time, inforcing May to embrace December: you dishonour Age, in bringing it into scorne for insufficiency, into a loathing for dotage” (The Seuen deadly Sinnes of London (London, E[dward] A[llde], 1606) 39).