Shakespeare's Sonnet 129: The Joys and Tribulations of Making Love

by Marvin Krims

August 16, 2000


Problems with sexual intimacy, either difficulties which limit one's capacity for sustained romantic relationships or psychosomatic symptoms that affect performance, afflict everyone at one time or another during the life cycle and are therefore part of the psychopathology of everyday life. This essay offers a reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet #129, the so-called "Lust Sonnet," as an exploration of the causes of these vexious problems. On the surface, the sonnet presents the paradox that difficulties with sexual intimacy are as central to it as its delights. I offer a close reading of the sonnet that discloses some of unconscious conflicts that create this paradox. Shakespeare's capacity to represent inner mental life with words and metaphors that resonate with unconscious conflict is the basis for this effort.


Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme,
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe,
Before, a joy propos'd, behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

     Sonnet 129 stands apart from Shakespeare's other sonnets in that it does not address their frequent theme: the complex and often troubled relations between this sonneteer and two people he cares about, the "dark lady" and the "young man." Instead, it focuses on the powerful drive that often causes their difficulties: lust. However, the sonnet does resemble the others in that it explores the problematic and paradoxical elements of its central motif: in this case, the conflicting feelings and imagery associated with the pursuit and satiation of lust. It is this aspect of love-making, rather than its more tender aspects, that often causes difficulty between lovers.

     This sonnet--the so-called "Lust Sonnet"--presents us with a lust that is isolated from a meaningful relationship, a drive for satisfaction that is pursued with no interest in another person except as an object for sexual gratification. Instead of a real relationship, there is but a vaguely implied, shadow relationship with a sex object who is used only to slake carnal desire and then instantly repudiated. Thus, although I agree with Vendler's suggestion that this sonnet reflects "a wish to define lust" (p. 551), I read this sonnet as defining lust in a very special situation: lust stripped away from its interpersonal context.

     In this exclusive focus on lust as pure internal drive, this sonnet resembles Freud's early explorations of libido as a relatively isolated phenomenon, set apart from the context of the parent-child relationship, now acknowledged as essential for full development of libidinous desire and emotional well-being. Although Freud's interest, and that of his followers, soon expanded to include this interpersonal dimension, the knowledge gained from the initial concentration on libido alone retains its value for understanding many of the complexities and paradoxes inherent in human relationships. Similarly, I argue, this sonnet's exclusive focus on lust outside a love relationship can be useful in understanding the problems people have with lust within a love relationship. Accordingly, I intend to explore Sonnet 129 as a disclosure of problems with lust outside of a meaningful relationship and then to apply the knowledge thus gained to the problems--conscious and unconscious--that people experience with lust within the context of a fully developed love relationship. The basis for this exploration is Shakespeare's intuitive understanding of people as expressed in metaphors that resonate with inner conflict.

     Although one might argue that ideally lust should be assimilated into the sexual passion of a loving couple, this integration is not so easily attained. And once attained, the passion is even less easily sustained. It is therefore not surprising that it is precisely this aspect of loving that frequently causes difficulties in long term relationships. Indeed, difficulties of this kind are among the most frequent problems encountered in psychoanalytic practice, and this undoubtedly reflects their frequency in everyday life as well.

     On the surface, it may seem somewhat paradoxical that troubles with a drive whose goal is consummate pleasure are so very frequent. The entire sonnet may be read as stating and restating this paradox. From the initial pejorative portrait of lust as emotional exhaustion and orgastic offal ("Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action") through the concluding couplet, the sonnet delivers a dismal account of what the words also endorse as an exceedingly enjoyable and profoundly satisfying experience.

     This explicit, self-contradictory representation of sex may account for its mixed critical reception earlier in the last century. John Symonds judged it to be "one of the ... most completely powerful sonnets in our literature" (153), and Bernard Shaw considered it "the most merciless passage in English literature" (849). John Robertson, however, sought to banish it from Shakespeare's oeuvre by arguing that he did "not find here either Shakespearean diction or Shakespearean rhythm," dismissing it as the "evident product of a neurotic person" (219). Although these critics from a different era may have reacted to this sonnet's rather graphic depiction of sex, their thoughts underscore recent debate about explicit sexual words and images in print and visual media.

     What then is this sonnet: an unflinching, yet artful reflection of powerful and conflicting emotional forces or the rantings of a prurient neurotic? I will try to show that there is truth in both views: this sonnet is a candid description of the powerful drive for sexual pleasure together with a representation of the emotional troubles that people experience while engaging in it.

     To do this, I intend to explore this sonnet as speaking to us on three levels. On the surface level, the words-on-the-page, the sonnet simultaneously endorses and subverts the idealization of sex encountered in many texts--and in many people. The subversion is essential, for idealization of sex can obscure the many psychological problems people can encounter while attempting to engage in it. This subversion then prepares the way for the next level: an exploration of how problems with lust can manifest themselves consciously in the context of a loving relationship. Finally, I shall try to show how the subtext of this sonnet represents possible unconscious conflicts that can cause these problems.

Lust Despised

     The first two lines, "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action." dismantle what for some is the quintessential pleasure of lust, orgasm, proclaiming that it is but a shameful waste of vital energies and body fluids. (In early modern England, "spirit" also signified "semen," hence "expense of spirit" in this context represents orgasm as well as depletion.) And "shame" may refer to the genitalia, a reference that dates back to 1000 C.E and carried today by "pudenda," Latin for "things to be ashamed of."

The starkness of this disdainful declaration about orgasm is unrelieved by further elaboration in the quatrain; there is no shower of gold in Danae's lap here. The rest of the quatrain continues the attack on any possible positive expectation. We are told that from the beginning ("till action"), lust is "perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust." This adjectival assault undermines what might be considered an exciting prelude and insists that it is quite the opposite: an "extreme" danger ("extreme" is repeated twice in the sonnet), more an act of treachery and betrayal than an act of love. According to this language, the seducer does not try to please and tempt the person he or she wants but rather seeks to dissemble ("perjur'd, not to trust""). The driving force then is not seduction and excitation but destruction, "murd'rous, bloody, cruel." And, of course, under these circumstances we feel "full of blame"--or perhaps we are the intended victims! It is as if this sonneteer reneges on his promise to describe what lust is and disrupts our expectation by devoting the entire first quatrain to telling us precisely what lust is not.

     By continuing in much the same tone, the next two quatrains compound confusion. We are told that we no sooner enjoy sexual pleasure ("enjoy'd no sooner") than we despise what has just happened. We now feel that we were lured into a trap by "a swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad." Accordingly, satisfying lust is at once bliss and danger. ("A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe, / Before a joy propos'd, behind, a dream.") Sex is both desirable and dreadful, from seduction to final satiation. And the concluding couplet, in a tone of supreme irony, assures us that there is absolutely nothing we can do "To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell."

     At first, we might be moved to quarrel, to deny and attack what this sonneteer tells us: surely not all lust is so negatively charged, so ambivalent in feeling tone. Is not lust a part of the sexual passion that bonds a loving couple together? Perhaps his gloomy account simply indicates that this sonneteer has had personal difficulties with a love relationship and now is in a dark mood; we might note that the word "love" does not even appear in this sonnet! Perhaps then, because of some disappointment, this sonneteer has turned away from love and now speaks only of loveless lust and self-centered fornication.

But I think it questionable to speculate about how Shakespeare's inner life may have informed his sonnets or what the Sonnets as a whole might tell us about his inner life; we know so very little about Shakespeare as a real person. And what does it add to know that at times he was unhappy, had troubles with love and sexuality, perhaps even had problems with his parents, and his aggression--just like the rest of us? Stephen Booth seems to agree: "[The Sonnets] probably reflect a lot that is true about their author, but I do not know what that is."

     Another voice within us, less interested in Shakespeare"s psychology and more interested in our own, might ask: by questioning this sonneteer's mental state, are we trying to dismiss what he tells us? And even if, for a moment, we grant that the sonneteer is in an unhappy state, we need also concede that his unhappiness may lead him to focus on those painful aspects of inner truth that can elude awareness in happier times. This sonneteer at this time sees only the shadows and not the sun. Since it is the shadows that often cause problems, by focusing our attention on the darker side of lust, his account might help us to understand better the more obscure causes of the problems people may have with lust and the difficulties these can cause in love relationships. Perhaps, then, we need to attend more closely to the sonneteer's words.

Conscious Problems with Lust

     I begin with the central metaphor of the second quatrain--perhaps the central metaphor of this sonnet: "a swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad." I argue that this metaphor can be read as a representation of the problems people may experience with sexual passion in a loving relationship:

Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

      The first line of the quatrain ("Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight") states a theme, which is then reiterated throughout this sonnet: after sexual pleasure, the delight at once gives way to revulsion and hate. The repetition of "past reason" at the beginning of the next two lines of the quatrain emphasizes the visceral, illogical, internally driven nature of these conflicting feelings.

     The first "past reason hunted" we can easily understand: our need for sexual gratification has little to do with reason. The compelling forces here are physical need and emotional drive. And since "reason" was pronounced like "raisin'" in Shakespeare's time, there may even be a bawdy pun on the engorgement of sexual tissues during sexual excitement. But both the hunt and the excitement are "past reason" only in that they do not originate in our intellect. They are not "past reason" in the sense of irrational or demented.

     But "Past reason hated as a swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad" presents problems. Whereas the first "past reason" simply affirms the urgency of sexual need, the second suggests that just as soon as we have taken our pleasure, we take leave of our senses: we now unreasonably hate what we so urgently pursued and so briefly enjoyed. The experience of intense pleasure thus undergoes a radical metamorphosis and now feels like the torment of a "swallowed bait." We feel caught (perhaps "hooked" or "snared" comes closer to this sonnet's trope) by an evil design, a trap purposely set to drive us mad ("mad" is also repeated twice). Accordingly, this "past reason hated" carries the meaning of irrational hatred: we hate the very thing we desired but a few moments ago. Perhaps now we can better understand Robertson's opinion of this sonnet as the "evident product of a neurotic person," although we need not share Robertson's belief that "neurotic" is a pejorative term.

     Perhaps "On purpose laid to make the taker mad" also carries a just a smack of paranoid psychosis, rather than mere neurosis: a paranoid psychotic's conviction of being purposely deceived by a bait rather than a neurotic's fantasy known to be unreal. This hint of psychosis might threaten us and thus tempt us to defensively dismiss the figure--perhaps even the whole sonnet--as not like our diction.

     I note, however, that the figure is presented as a simile with an elision: "Past reason hated as [if it were] a swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad." We may feel as if we had swallowed bait, even though we know there is no reality in the fantasy. Unlike the psychotic, we neurotics retain the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Nevertheless, the words may frighten us by their "feel" of a paranoid distortion of reality even as the simile structure simultaneously reassures us that it is all mere fantasy. To reinforce this simultaneous threat and reassurance, the next two lines tell us twice that we are "mad," yet maddened by a fantasy we know is unreal: "On purpose laid to make the taker mad: / Mad in pursuit and in possession so." And perhaps we ourselves wonder if one must be quite "mad" to feel persecutory anxiety in the midst of such pleasure.

     I would guess, though, that few people have a conscious, postcoital fantasy of "swallowed bait, on purpose laid to make the taker mad." But a trope is just a trope, merely a symbolic representation of feelings and fantasies, not a literal description. In this reading, the figure of "swallowed bait" represents a feeling of inner discomfort that some people experience after sexual pleasure with a lover. This then might lead them (usually men) to wish to move away after sexual relations, to distance the lover whose attentions were so eagerly sought a moment ago. Those who must do this need to reassure themselves that they are not somehow caught or trapped in the relationship, that they haven't "swallowed bait." It is interesting to note that direct observational data on small children suggest that boys tend to avoid direct eye contact with maternal figures as a way to promote separation-individuation in contrast to girls, who seem to find eye contact reassuring, perhaps reflected later in life by wishes for close contact with lovers (Haviland and Maletesta).

     Others (often women) who experience this tension after love-making become concerned that they have been seduced, used by a false or deceptive lover. In this sense, they have "swallowed bait." This concern may manifest itself in a need for reassurance that they are truly, truly loved, another way to dispel the anxiety generated by the fantasy of the "swallowed bait." In both instances--the need to distance and the need to be reassured--the anxiety is irrational: the lovers have had exactly what they wanted, with the person they want, and by means they helped devise and enjoyed. This paradoxical tension is the "past reason" anxiety represented in this sonnet's imagery of the "swallowed bait."

     However, it seems possible, perhaps even probable, that some experience sexual pleasure with relatively few or no conscious difficulties. But these apparently sexually healthy people may have certain specific conditions that must be met. Perhaps they must structure their love relationship to maintain a safe distance; they might need an undemanding, submissive partner or a less committed--perhaps even habitually unfaithful--lover to assure them that they have not (or are not) "swallowed bait." Or they might need their lover's constant affirmation by words and deeds that they are loved and therefore not betrayed. In other words, those people who appear to be without problems may need a relationship with their lover that clearly demonstrates that no trap has been sprung and no deception taken place. If these special conditions are not met--if their lover becomes too demanding or constant and available, clings or distances too much, seems unsatisfied, guilty, or unloving--they are no longer protected from the fantasy of the swallowed bait. They then might experience the same "past reason" anxiety as others do. And, of course, if the anxiety is intense, it could preclude involvement in sustained love relationships under any circumstances.

     In addition to shaping the style of love relationships, there is another group of problems caused by anxiety about "swallowed bait": psychogenic physical symptoms that interfere with the ability to enjoy sex. These intrapsychic problems are more or less independent of the interpersonal field and can occur in a relationship that seems to meet most of one's needs, wishes, and special conditions--often especially then. Such symptoms include diminished pleasure in sex, perhaps combined with pain, impotence, or disgust. "Sexual nausea" was an earlier term for this disgust, and William Kerrigan reads Sonnet 129 as a representation of this feeling. In addition, and central to this reading, there may be difficulties with orgasm.

     Indeed, distressing feelings around the time of orgasm are the leitmotif of this sonnet and the central theme of all three quatrains: "th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame"; "Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight"; and "prov'd, a very woe." Accordingly, the sonnet may be read as containing commentary on psychogenic physical problems with sex as well.

     Thus this sonnet may be read as a description of the more lustful aspects of sexual intimacy, together with the many problems, interpersonal and intrapsychic, that people can encounter while trying to enjoy it. What then might this sonnet suggest as possible unconscious causes for these problems?

Unconscious Conflicts Associated with Lust

     In this reading, "Past reason hated as a swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad" not only represents conscious problems with sex but also contains references to the many layers ("pentimenti" is Vendler's felicitous term) of unconscious meaning that lies beneath these problems. Although I shall discuss the layers separately, they of course communicate, interact with, and reinforce each other.

     In a Sonnet whose major movement is sexual, it makes sense to begin with the swallowed bait as an upward displacement of copulation: a penis enters and is clasped by a vagina. (I elect a genital, heterosexual reading of this sonnet although other styles of sexuality also might be represented here. For an overview of attempts to bowdlerize the homoerotic out of the Sonnets, see Stallybrass and de Grazia.) But more than the agreeable experience of sexual union is being represented here. We note that the "swallowed bait" is introduced by "no sooner had" in the line before: orgasm has just occurred, and perhaps some of the passion begins to fade. An unconscious fantasy, previously obscured by the excitement and pleasure, can now rise closer to the surface of consciousness: a bait is taken, a hook is set, a trap is sprung. This imagery of capture serves equally well to represent a phallic man tricked into entering a vaginal trap or a vaginal woman deceived into taking in a phallic bait. ("Bait" could also signify "light refreshment" in early modern England, another reflection of the contrasting feelings of pleasure and pain represented in the sonnet.) According to this reading, we are no longer dealing with loving intercourse: unconsciously, one genital organ has seized the other, and there is no escape. This is the fantasy that produces the anxiety that causes some to require distance and others to need reassurance. And if the anxiety is not contained by these defensive measures, psychogenic symptoms may also develop.

     The manifest content of "swallowed bait" refers to the mouth, however, not the genitalia. Thus, still deeper anxieties are represented here, anxieties from the earliest stage of development: the mother-infant relationship. Since this relationship, along with its conflicting desires and fears, serves as a base for all later emotional experiences, we should not be surprised to find resonance with this stage in a sonnet about lust. Thus, the figure of the swallowed bait also alludes to hunger for the breast and the wish for union--really re-union--with the mother, along with the threats that are associated with these wishes: oral incorporation, loss of boundaries, and even possible obliteration of the self as a separate person. Thus, at this most primitive developmental level, there is no need for a trap or a hook to hold the taker; bait and taker are one. Accordingly, the experience of oneness with a lover can bring a mixture of profound satisfaction and primordial terror; the proportions depend on life"s earliest experiences. Further, in Shakespeare's time, "swallow," as a noun, also carried the meaning of "pit, deep hole, abyss, gulf, or whirlpool"; for the early modern reader, this meaning further underlined the dangers of the early, mother-child relationship.

     In addition to conflicts associated with genital and oral libidinous drives, the "swallowed bait / On purpose laid to make the taker mad" represents another group of unconscious conflicts: those associated with aggression. The bait, we are told, is laid with a single, cruel purpose: to torment the taker ("On purpose laid to make the taker mad"), without thought of obtaining food or possession. The lust that drives the love-making then is sadistic, motivated by hatred and dominated by a cruel wish to harm another. At this level, the bait-penis is a tempting lure, a ruse designed to conceal a hook that lacerates, pierces, and finally impales tender tissue. Similarly, a woman's genital is not a soft, receptive organ that embraces, excites and gratifies: it clamps down, holds fast, and crushes. Lovers do not love; they hurt and, in the extreme, they destroy each other. ("La petite mort," as a euphemism for orgasm has relevance here and death as a metaphor for orgasm appears throughout Shakespeare"s plays. See Farrell and Krims.) Love therefore is deliberate treachery ("on purpose laid," "perjur'd," "not to trust"), a malicious act of aggression ("murd'rous, bloody, savage, rude, cruel") in which one lover deceives and then inflicts terrible damage on the other.

     This misperception of love as aggression can be caused by the (perhaps necessary) suppression of aggression imposed on a child at an early age. The repressed aggression would then express itself by casting its shadow on love-making and result in the misperception of the act of love as an act of destruction--and we have another discontent of civilization.

     The sonnet's representation of all these frightening fantasies associated with lust helps us to understand why a lover might be threatened in a situation of such delight; he/she unconsciously contacts imagery of sexual entrapment, oral engulfment, and, finally, destruction.

The Worst of the Best

     In addition to sounding a general alarm about the dangers of making love, this sonnet singles out a particular part of sex for opprobrium: orgasm. The opening statement, "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame / is lust in action," is an outright declaration that lust is a shameful dissipation of body fluids. Presented almost as a simple declarative sentence, lacking only the final period, these words, more than any others in the sonnet, seem to reflect what Vendler describes as the Sonnets' "wish to define." And since there is no redeeming simile structure to reassure us, the words have a literal feel to them, as if we were not dealing with a figurative expression at all. But this "definition" (let's call it that for the moment) is, of course, incomplete: it overlooks the procreative potential of semen and the facilitating lubrication of vaginal fluids. And it ignores the profoundly satisfying emotional components, choosing instead to focus exclusively on the hydraulics. Thus, in the first quatrain, there is no mention of the mutual desire, the lubricious delight in the blending of body fluids with its life-creating potential, and the profound intimacy. For mention of these, we need to wait until the second quatrain

     When these pleasures are finally acknowledged, grudgingly, it seems to me, in glancing references, they are presented as a turning point in which there is an instant metamorphosis of pleasure into revulsion. Enjoyment turns into loathing ("Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight"); love into hate ("no sooner had, past reason hated"), and happiness into sorrow ("a bliss in proof, prov'd a very woe"). Thus there is but momentary relief, immediately followed by shame and hatred for what has happened ("a waste of shame"). This striking change in feeling tone seems to suggest that orgasm is an unwanted, undesired and undesirable release of body products--"spirit". But this is no definition of orgasm: it is far closer to a description of an entirely different happening, although in the same anatomic area: urinary and fecal incontinence. Accordingly, "waste" here also carries the meaning of excreta, and "shame" then becomes a reference to the humiliation caused by an unconscious fantasy of losing control of one's urine and feces. It is as if this sonnet were "defining" this instead of orgasm.

     In this reading, then, the sonnet represents an unconscious confusion between an undesired and involuntary loss of excretory control and the desired, voluntary loss of control that is part of the pleasure of orgasm. This confusion could be caused by trauma during childhood toilet training, perhaps the harsh suppression of its "dirty" pleasures. This suppression causes the child to repress these pleasures and the anxiety and guilt connected with them. When this repressed conflict returns in the adult, the conflict is projected on to the superficially similar experience of orgasm--and we have still another discontent of civilization. "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame" then, is a figure after all: the figure of bowel and bladder incontinence stands for problems with orgasm. As in the case of the "swallowed bait," this trope contains a reference to a possible unconscious cause of the problem. Perhaps this kind of shame contributed to the medieval tradition of courtly love and the style of spiritual love advocated by the 17th-century antifruition poets, like Donne and Jonson. (See Kerrigan, p.181. For a different view of postponement of orgasm, see Breitenberg's essay.)

The Universality of This Sonnet

     Who has not experienced difficulties during childhood with some--if not all--of these developmental areas? Childhood quandaries about sexual matters are common in the suppressive child-rearing atmosphere many of us endured. Problems with the mother-child relationship are inevitable; these may be simply having to share one's mother with a sibling, or with one's father, or allowing her to attend to her own personal needs. And certainly children need to develop constraints in matters of aggression and toilet training. The concluding couplet, "All this the world well knows, yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell" can thus be read as an acknowledgment that we all suffer from emotional problems (as if we need to be told) that cause us to misperceive the desirable heaven of love-making as our personal version of hell.

     But if this is so, why is it that so many of us do not shun a love relationship but rather seek it out and do all within our ability to sustain it? In part, the answer is that this sonnet's insistence that "none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell" exaggerates to create its effect: it overlooks those who in fact do shun the heaven that leads to their own personal or philosophical hell. But this answer begs the question. A more satisfactory response might be that lust within the context of a loving relationship can be a pleasure even in the presence of unconscious conflicts, even though these conflicts may limit the passion or constrict the frequency, creativity, and diversity of the loving. The impact of this sonnet on so many readers suggests that this may well be a common--if not universal--situation. If this is true, then the entire sonnet may indeed reflect a wish to define: it defines sexual love in terms of both its pleasures and its problems--conscious and unconscious.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Marvin Krims "Shakespeare's Sonnet 129: The Joys and Tribulations of Making Love". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: April 27, 2000, Published: August 16, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Marvin Krims