IN louing thee thou know’ſt I am forſworne,
But thou art twice forſworne to me loue ſwearing;
In act thy bed-vow broake and new faith torne,
In vowing new hate after new loue bearing:
But why of two othes breach doe I accuſe thee,
When I breake twenty: I am periur’d moſt,
For all my vowes are othes but to miſuſe thee:
And all my honeſt faith in thee is loſt.
For I haue ſworne deepe othes of thy deepe kindneſſe:
Othes of thy loue, thy truth, thy conſtancie,
And to inlighten thee gaue eyes to blindneſſe,
Or made them ſwere againſt the thing they ſee.
For I haue ſworne thee faire: more periurde eye,
To ſwere againſt the truth ſo foule a lie.
Elizabethans were well instructed in the evils of swearing falsely: the Church of England’s “Book of Homilies,” a collection read regularly throughout the year, contained a homily, attributed to Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon against swearing and periurie.” Shakespeare shows familiarity with the homily in both Sonnet 138 and here. The sermon instructs that “no man should take his [God’s] name vainely in his mouth” and how dangerous it is “vainely to sweare, or to be forsworne.” 1 Justifiable swearing needed to fulfil three conditions, the first becoming the conceit of Sonnet 152: “First, he that sweareth, may sweare truely, that is, hee must . . haue the trueth onely before his eyes, and for loue thereof, saye and speake that which hee knoweth to bee trueth.” 2 In the end it is the poet’s failure to have the truth “onely before his eyes,” his “periurde eye,” which annuls his words’ truth.
The poet firstly acknowledges that he has perjured himself and that his mistress knows that in loving her he has been false and not kept his word (“In louing thee thou know’st I am forsworne”). She, however, is guilty of double perjury (“twice forsworne”) in swearing love to the poet. 3 The first perjury is that she has broken her “bed-vow,” an act of adultery not merely in thought but in “act” (“In act thy bed-vow broake”). Secondly by swearing love to the poet she has “torne” up her new pledge of faith (“new faith”), as one might tear up a signed oath, by bearing witness to her new love and declaring she hated her old love (“vowing new hate”). Just who the objects of her love and hate are is never specified, although it is clear that she and the poet are complicit in allowing words to mirror words and oathes to mirror oathes only to compound falsity rather than contradict it.
But, asks the poet, why should he level a charge of double perjury against the mistress (“two othes breach”), when he has broken “twenty” oaths. His claim that, “I am periur’d most,” introduces the homophones I / eye / aye that recur through the sonnet, all of which, self, organ, and word of assent will be found perjured and false. ‘Ay’ (‘aye’) was initially always written ‘I’ and only subsequently as ‘aye’ or ‘ey.’ 4 The principal injunction against forsworn ayes and noes was Matthew 5, where Christ lays down that “whosoeuer doeth put awaye his wyfe, except it be for fornication, causeth her to commit adultry. And whosoeuer maryeth her that is diuorced, committeth adultry.” The old law is abrogated, “ye haue hearde that it was sayde vnto them of olde tyme: Thou shalt not forsweare thy selfe, but shalt perfourme vnto the Lorde thine othes,” and people should swear neither by heaven or earth but simply, “let your communication be yea, yea, nay nay. For whatsoeuer is more then these, commeth of euyll.” 5 All the poet’s “vowes” are merely instruments to mistreat or take advantage of the mistress (“misuse thee;” to “abuse” is the purpose of perjured oaths in the “Sermon against swearing”). Either his belief (“honest faith”) in the mistress has disappeared or his honest principles have vanished because of her.
His faith is broken, because he has sworn, most avowedly yet falsely, “deepe othes” attesting to her love, truth and constancy. That he might make her fair or that he might remove the blindness of her eyes (or heart), he has sacrificed his “eyes to blindnesse;” either he has chosen to blind himself to her faults; or he has given up his ‘ayes to darkness:’ his false oaths are of the devil’s realm; or, finally, he has broken the sermon’s instruction to put the “trueth onely before his eyes,” so perjuring himself: “Or made them swere against the thing they see.”
The couplet begins as does the couplet of Sonnet 147, “For I haue sworne thee faire,” although here the words introduce the poet’s complicity in guilt. He has sworn her fair both in preceding sonnets and here when affirming her love, truth, and constancy. A “more periurde eye” is an ‘eye’ that has chosen not to see things as they are and is thus forsworn, an ‘aye’ that gives perjured assent to the mistress’ own forswearing, and an ‘I’ who is more perjured than the mistress. Since the perjury consists in his swearing “against the truth so foule a lie,” darkness and falsity now lie both with poet and with mistress.
The “Sermon against swearing” was adamant that perjury always came to light, even if at the final judgement (“although such periured mens falsehood be now kept secret, yet it shall be opened at the last day . then the trueth shall appeare, and accuse them”). 6 Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew that oaths were sworn by “laying their hands vpon the Gospel booke,” in which is portrayed “the euerlasting paine prepared in hell for . . false and vaine swearers, for periured men.” 7 Thus Sonnet 152, as well as the section of the sequence addressed to the mistress and the sequence itself (excluding the next two anacreontic sonnets), all finish by alluding to the final judgement, a conclusion parallel to the doomsday warning ending Sonnet 126, the last of the sonnets to the young man.
152.1. Church of England, Certaine Sermons D6v.
152.2. Church of England, Certaine Sermons D7r.
152.3. A long section of the “Sermon against swearing” cites biblical exemplars, such as the “fonde and vnaduised oth” of Jephthah (Judg. 11.30), which constitute a similiar “double offence.”
152.4. See Drayton, Idea 5.1, “Nothing but no and I, and I and no,” with its narcissistic complaint, “I say I die, you Eccho me with I;” or Golding’s rendering of Ovid, Met. 3.474, where to Narcissus’ question, “is there any bodie nie?” immediately, “Echo answerde: I;” or Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 69, “I I ô I;” or even Shakespeare’s Sonnet 136.6, “I fill it full with wils.”
152.5. Matt. 5.33-37 (BB). The “Sermon against swearing,” citing Heb. 6.16, also determines that a dispute where “one saith, Yea, and the other, nay” can only be resolved by an “oth.”
152.6. Church of England, Certaine Sermons E1v.
152.7. Church of England, Certaine Sermons E1r.