Shakespeare’s Th’expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame
Where most poetry since Petrarch had been based on the unavailability of the love object, Shakespeare in sonnet 129 writes about exactly what happens when you get what you think you want. But contrary to expectations it is not an achievement devoutly to be wished, but rather an inevitable nightmare.
It’s quite hard to pin down Sonnet 129 to one specific speech situation. Neither is there any “I” – a clear reference to a particular, personal experience - , nor does it refer to a particular lover or relationship. Still I find it more likely to assume that the speaker is a male person, because 129 addresses an all-men audience. The sonneteer seems to lecture this audience on the three stages of lust and its binary impact on a person’s mentality: making one feel heavenly only whilst consummation and like hell all the other times. The natural conclusion of this would be to avoid lust, but even while arguing the speaker sees the futility in this request and, instead, tries to at least raise his “pupils’” awareness of lust’s true colors. There is even ground for arguing that sonnet 129 with its adopted impersonal tone is a form of self-persuasion rather than a young man’s guide to shun lust. Although it is never explicitly mentioned, lust means nothing more than sex. Many literary critics therefore argue that the “waste of shame” in line 1 puns not only on “squandering”, but also on “waist”, the middle of a woman’s body. And since during that time the chief English colloquial expression for the orgasm was “to spend”, “th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame” in line 1 can simply be seen as a metaphor for having sex with a woman. The fact that in the act of orgasm a male was thought to expend his vital energy and so to shorten his life also adds to this conclusion.
Formally seen, 129 is a typical Shakespearean sonnet with three quatrains and a final couplet. Lust is divided into three parts...