English Literature
Sonnet 138

Sonnet 138

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The Complexities of Love and Lies in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 138"

Is it possible to maintain a relationship with a partner who is unfaithful, solely based on the intense passion between them? Can one ignore the fact that their significant other constantly deceives them about their true nature? These questions are at the heart of William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 138" (1609), which delves into the complexities of a romantic relationship between the speaker and his unfaithful lover. Through exploring themes of truth and lies, and love versus lust, the poem challenges the idea of whether love can truly exist without honesty. The word "sonnet" originates from Italian, meaning "little song," which sets the tone for the lyrical and emotional exploration of love in this poem.

The Structure and Form of "Sonnet 138"

"Sonnet 138" follows the traditional English, or Shakespearean, form with 14 lines consisting of 3 quatrains and one couplet. Quatrains are four-line stanzas with alternate end rhymes, while a couplet is two lines that are often the same length and rhyme, expressing one unified idea. The rhyme scheme of this sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, and it follows the pattern of iambic pentameter, with each line consisting of five poetic feet or "iambs." An iamb is a metrical foot with two syllables, where the first is unstressed and the second is stressed. Shakespeare's "Sonnet 138" is a perfect example of this meter, with five iambs in each line, following the pattern of "daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM."

The Deceptive Nature of Love in "Sonnet 138"

The poem explores a relationship built on lies, where the lovers take comfort in the falsehoods they tell each other instead of acknowledging the love they share. The speaker and his mistress both accept each other's lies as truth, despite knowing that their partner is being untruthful. The speaker is content to believe his lover is faithful and truthful, as it makes him seem inexperienced and naive. Similarly, the mistress agrees to the lie that the speaker is younger than he really is, even though she is fully aware of his true age. Thus, they continue their cycle of dishonesty, and the speaker questions why they resort to lies in the first place. He realizes that they both take comfort in keeping their true selves hidden, and lying creates an illusion of trust between them. The lies also allow them to maintain their passionate physical relationship, as they feel flattered that the other believes their falsehoods.

The Ethics of Deception in Relationships

  • What is your stance on lying in a relationship? Is it ever justifiable, or is it entirely situation-dependent?
  • Does it always lead to pain?

Shakespeare's last set of sonnets (127-154) revolve around an unnamed woman known as the "Dark Lady." Not only is her physical appearance dark, but her personality is also considered dark. The Dark Lady is portrayed as sexually promiscuous and unfaithful, as shown in "Sonnet 138." Some scholars speculate that she is a married woman who engages in affairs with the speaker, other men, and possibly even Shakespeare's Fair Youth (the young man addressed in most of the sonnets). The true identity of the Dark Lady is still debated among scholars, with some believing that she is simply a fictional character created by Shakespeare. Nonetheless, she is the subject of "Sonnet 138," which touches upon themes of dishonesty and the distinction between love and lust.

The Tone and Literary Devices Used in "Sonnet 138"

The tone of the poem is direct, amusing, and light, despite the somber subject matter. The speaker uses humor and acceptance to cope with the harsh reality of his situation - he is an older man who not only has to face his own mortality but also deal with his lover's infidelity. The tone of "Sonnet 138" starts off confident, as the speaker declares, "I do believe her" (2), but as the poem progresses, it becomes increasingly uncertain as the true nature of their relationship is revealed. The speaker uses rhetorical questions to express his doubts about why they feel the need to hide their true identities from each other. Despite the lighthearted tone of the poem, the speaker's revelation raises important questions about the genuineness of their supposed happiness.

Through the clever use of literary devices, such as metaphor and paradox, Shakespeare presents a humorous yet meaningful exploration of love and deception. The speaker compares his lover to the very embodiment of truth, stating, "When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her, though I know she lies" (3-4). This paradox highlights the central tension of the poem - the conflict between the desire to trust his partner and the awareness of their mutual dishonesty.

In conclusion, "Sonnet 138" by William Shakespeare challenges our understanding of love and its relationship with honesty. Through the speaker's exploration of his unfaithful lover, the poem raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of relationships and the role of deception within them.

The Complexities of Love and Deceit in "Sonnet 138"

In Shakespeare's "Sonnet 138," the speaker grapples with a relationship built upon flattery, lies, and physical gratification. Despite recognizing the dishonesty at its core, they choose to stay together, indulging in the false praises and promises they receive from each other. This dynamic sheds light on themes of love, lust, and the blurred lines between truth and deception.


The mistress's "false-speaking tongue" is not only a metaphor but also a symbol of their troubled relationship. In Shakespeare's time, the tongue was seen as a representation of language and the words one speaks. Therefore, the fact that the mistress's tongue prevents her from speaking the truth indicates that their communication is fundamentally flawed. Additionally, during the 16th century, a woman who spoke her mind was often regarded as promiscuous and immoral, adding another layer to their relationship.

Rhetorical Questions

As the speaker reflects on their relationship, they use rhetorical questions to ponder why they struggle to be honest with each other. They ask, "But wherefore says she not she is unjust? / And wherefore say not I that I am old?" These questions are not meant to be answered but rather highlight the paradoxical nature of their dynamic.


The poem concludes with a pun, injecting humor into the situation while also revealing the reason why they stay together despite their falsehoods. The speaker states, "Therefore, I lie with her and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be." The word "lie" holds a double meaning, both as a false statement and to physically lie together in bed. This reveals that the speaker and their lover are bound by their lies, in both words and actions.

In Conclusion

In "Sonnet 138," Shakespeare seamlessly weaves literary devices to create a clever yet thought-provoking exploration of love and deceit. Through metaphor, paradox, symbolism, rhetorical questions, and puns, he conveys the complexities of relationships and the constant struggle between truth and deception. Though a mere 14 lines, "Sonnet 138" stands as a testament to Shakespeare's mastery of language and storytelling.

The Intricate Themes of Love, Lust, Truth, and Lies in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 138"

"Sonnet 138" is one of the most intriguing poems by William Shakespeare, known as the "Dark Lady" sonnets. Published in 1609, this 14-line poem is a prime example of Shakespeare's mastery of the Elizabethan sonnet form, with its 3 quatrains and one couplet. With an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter structure, the poem's simplistic and accepting tone is a stark contrast to its weighty themes.

The poem delves into the consequences of building a relationship solely on flattery and falsehoods. It centers around a speaker and their unfaithful mistress, known as the "Dark Lady." The speaker muses over their tumultuous yet passionate affair, acknowledging their mutual deception and infidelity.

Written in the 1590s, "Sonnet 138" reflects the societal norms and expectations of that time, where extramarital affairs were deemed acceptable as long as they were not questioned or confronted. The relationship between the speaker and the Dark Lady thrives on this understanding, with both parties indulging in each other's flattery and upholding the facade of love and loyalty.

An Exploration of a Deceptive Love Affair

In this sonnet, Shakespeare skillfully navigates the complexities and pitfalls of a relationship built on lies, lust, and physical attraction. The use of end-stopped lines, where each line ends with a punctuation, creates a deliberate pause, emphasizing the intersection between truth and lies. The poem's playful tone and clever wordplay highlight the speaker's acceptance of their deceptive relationship.

Through this sonnet, Shakespeare also examines the nature of love and lust and their powerful influence on our actions. The speaker and the Dark Lady are both aware of their deception, yet they continue to indulge in the flattery and physical pleasures of their affair. This highlights the damaging effects of relying on falsehoods for emotional security and the thin line between love and lust.

A Timeless Reflection on Human Relationships

Despite being written over 400 years ago, "Sonnet 138" remains a thought-provoking piece that continues to resonate with readers today. It offers a unique insight into the human psyche, where we often seek validation and security through lies and flattery. This sonnet serves as a reminder of the consequences of building a relationship on falsities, and its relevance still holds true in contemporary times.

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