Justifying Mutual Deceit
A common conception of William Shakespeare’s poetry entails complex language and hidden meanings. Shakespeare is famous for his ability to author a web of images that creates layers of interpretations and understandings. In Sonnet 138 however, Shakespeare is more direct in describing his relationship with his lover by avoiding imagery and metaphors, explaining to the reader that this seemingly unconventional relationship is indeed justified. Shakespeare constructs a persona of the speaker in a way that establishes a casual and conversational relationship with the reader. This allows for an open disclosure of the mutual hypocrisies between himself and his lover while leaving his steadfast candor to convince the reader that Shakespeare’s affirmations concerning love are acceptable. Shakespeare’s elimination of imagery allows for a reliance on diction that he takes advantage of by selecting words with double meanings, creating a reflexive manner about the poem for the reader to explore. Shakespeare conveys the meaning of the poem, that mutual deceit is compatible with love, with the seemingly straightforward language that connects the reader to the speaker while forcing the reader to think twice about certain words that deepen the surface understanding.
As in all Shakespearean sonnets, the structure of the poem plays an important role, as the three quatrains and final couplet often represent transitions in tone, language and meaning. However, Sonnet 138 differs from the norm as the first two quatrains do not provide a shift, but are rather a continuation of one another, and the shift comes in at the end of that first octave, as the third quatrain explains how this situation has come about and why it works. Finally, the couplet provides an overall conclusion of the preceding lines and gives a definite ending to the poem. The speaker depicts the story of himself and his lover in the first three quatrains with curt language that allow less of the reader’s personal imagination than do imagery and metaphors. This serves to simplify the powerful role of structure, allowing the speaker to fully pull the reader into the sonnet and clearly focus on the characters and the overall message. Shakespeare begins 138 with a bold formation of the speaker’s character. The speaker has an almost omniscient quality about him as he claims that he “know[s] she lies” (2) and that he is well versed “in the world’s false subtleties” (4). However, at the same time, the reader questions how wise this speaker actually is because of his confused relationship with his lover. The speaker willingly accepts her lies by feigning his own simple-mindedness so that his love “might think me some untutored youth” (3), in other words, believe that he is younger than he actually is. The speaker then explores the assertions made in the first quatrain in the second as the speaker questions his own decision making process, referring to it as “vain” (5) and saying that “she knows” (5) of his true age. The speaker goes on to say that “on both sides thus is the simple truth suppressed,” still leaving the reader wondering how and why the relationship between the speaker and his lover continues. Shakespeare justifies both the reader’s and the speaker’s qualms in the third quatrain. He posits the same questions that the reader is already thinking in lines nine and ten, as to why she does not admit that she is unfaithful and why he continues to lie about his age. The speaker provides the answer by frankly saying that it is best in love to seem to trust, which is the overall justification for his relationship. Thus, the speaker concludes in the final couplet that he and his lover are still together because they are “flattered” (14) and soothed by the lies they tell one another.
The omniscience the speaker exhibits in the first quatrain reappears in the third quatrain as he is able to make important conclusions about the nature of love, and how a...
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