Sonnet 151

Shakespeare Sonnet 151

LOue is too young to know what conſcience is,
Yet who knowes not conſcience is borne of loue;
Then gentle cheater vrge not my amiſſe,
Leaſt guilty of my faults thy ſweet ſelfe proue.
For thou betraying me, I doe betray
My nobler part to my groſe bodies treaſon,
My ſoule doth tell my body that he may,
Triumph in loue, fleſh ſtaies no farther reaſon,
But ryſing at thy name doth point out thee,
As his triumphant prize, proud of this pride,
He is contented thy poore drudge to be
To ſtand in thy affaires, fall by thy ſide.
No want of conſcience hold it that I call,
Her loue, for whoſe dear loue I riſe and fall.

Cupid (“Loue) is conventionally a babe (“Loue is a Babe” in Sonnet 115.13 and a “little loue-God” in Sonnet 154) and so is too young to have right reason – the age of reason juridically being seven years – or to have a conscience that is fully informed (“to know what conscience is”), this despite Falstaff’s claim, “now is Cupid a child of conscience.” 1 Elizabethan divines saw conscience as a God-given faculty which not only assisted in determining good and evil, but which assisted in discerning God’s election in one’s heart: Antonio in The Tempest calls conscience, “This Deity in my Bosome” (2.1.278). The question, “who knowes not conscience is borne of loue,” is ironic: Elizabethans knew well that love is born of conscience, the Pauline instruction being that, “loue [is] out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience.” 2

Recent commentators, following Booth, who draws on Archer Taylor’s The Proverbs, cite here the classical adage, “Penis erectus non habet conscientiam,” an ‘erect penis has no conscience.’ 3 Although no evidence exists that such an adage was known in classical times or indeed in Shakespeare’s, “conscience” in the context of Cupid does carry fescennine associations which persist throughout the sonnet, beginning here with the customary Elizabethan pun on “conscience” as con + science. The French ‘con,’ which Cotgrave translates, “A womans &c.” (compare the entry for “Noc:” “Noc. Con, Turned backward (as our Tnuc) to be the lesse offensiue to chast eares”), was used as the basis of extensive word-play as in “contented,” below, with its pun on cunt + entered. 4 The sonnet’s subtext plays on cunt-science, cunt-knowledge and to know carnally.

In light of the opening lines’ principles the mistress is instructed not to press charges against the poet (“vrge not my amisse”). She is addressed as “gentle cheater” or ‘escheator,’ an official appointed to register and report to the exchequer an ‘escheat,’ the forfeiture of inheritance or land which reverted to the crown or Lord for specific reasons including lack of succession. The estate of an attainted person (see Sonnet 88.5), or one condemned to death particularly for betrayal and treason, automatically suffered escheatment: not only was any inheritance forfeited but, frequently, the offender’s title or name became obliterate. Here the mistress is instructed not to register the poet’s crime, firstly because love has yet to arrive at the age of reason and lacks the full consent required to make any “amisse” a capital one. Secondly she is urged not to record the poet’s crime lest by doing so she “proue” her “sweet selfe” guilty of his faults, those of treason and betrayal: if she were to act as an escheator she would, in registering his crime and reporting him to the authorities, be betraying him and so would make herself subject to attainder through escheatment: specifically her name would be adjudged attainted or obliterate. The remainder of the sonnet comprises a torturous attempt to resurrect and preserve the name of “loue.”

To prevent her betraying him (“For thou betraying me”) the poet has betrayed his “nobler part,” his soul, to his treasonable part, his corpulent body (“my grose bodies treason”). The soul, imbued with right reason, authorizes the body to “Triumph in loue.” The flesh needs no further excuse (“staies no farther reason”) and “rysing at thy name,” as her name might be called in a court, identifies the beloved (“doth point out thee”) as that which he has conquered (“his triumphant prize”). The sonnet’s bawdy subtext allows “flesh . . rysing” to be read as a penis being aroused at the mistress’ name, while “point out thee” is suggestive of a ‘prick.’ The flesh is “proud of this pride:” either it is ‘proud’ of its glory or tumescence (“pride”) or, more likely, has ‘proved’ or experienced this pride, glory or tumescence (as in Sonnet 129.11 lust is “proud” or ‘prov’d’). Being “proud,” it is satisfied to remain a menial servant (“drudge”), who in love’s service will be upstanding (“To stand in thy affaires”) and who will be steadfast to the end (“fall by thy side”). (A bawdy reading would gloss “stand” as erect flesh and “fall” as flesh that is flaccid, anticipating the sexual hint of, “I rise and fall.”) Since the poet’s conscience is clearly informed by reason, his final counsel is not to think it is because of a lack of conscience (moral or physical) that he doesn’t disallow the mistress the name of love, for his rising and falling (in service and in loving) are only for her (“for whose dear loue I rise and fall”).


151.1. Wiv. 5.5.28-29.

151.2. 1 Tim. 1.5 (BB) with its gloss, “loue . . can not be without a good conscience.”

151.3. Archer Taylor, The Proverb and an Index to the Proverb (Cambridge, Mass.: 1931; Hatboro, Penn.: Folklore Associates, 1962) 171.

151.4. Cotgrave, Dictionarie Con & Noc.