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Shakespeare’s Sonnets 109 – 126

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 109 – 126

Hundred Word Summary

The poet has been absent – physically, but not emotionally – and concedes that he has been unfaithful.  The result has been “vulgar scandal” (112), but this can be ignored: only the youth counts, and he seems to see his face everywhere. Meanwhile the poet’s love for him grows more intense (115), perhaps driven by absence.

True, he has been unfaithful (119) but he now bitterly regrets his infidelity and “unkindness” (120) whilst dismissing the views of others and pledging “I will be true” (123).  He has no interest in ambition, except in emotional matters, and admires the youth’s apparently timeless beauty.


Table of Contents

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 109 - 126

Sonnet 109

Summary: the poet admits he seemed to lose interest in the “fair youth” in absentia.  But he will always feel close to him, and always return to “my home of love”. He adds he could never abandon his “sum of good” since no-one else on the planet is “my rose”.

Note: the poet seems to confess to something more culpable than mere absence in this sonnet: in line 2 he concedes that his passion might have seemed qualified during separation.  But in lines 9 – 12, he asserts that his nature could not possibly be so “stained” as to abandon the youth altogether.

Question: how far do you agree that “rose” seems an incongruous term of affection for the youth?


Sonnet 110

Summary: the poet concedes he has let himself down in the eyes of others, and been unfaithful by giving “my heart [to] another youth”. Now he will no longer explore his appetites with lovers other than his “god in love, to whom I am confined”, and he asks to be given “welcome”.

Note: the sonnet’s structure is sign-posted in the opening phrase of each stage. “Alas, ‘tis true” anticipates a confession, and “Most true it is” suggests the confession will be confirmed. “Now all is done” implies that there will be no need for further confessions, and “Then” suggests that a conclusion may be drawn.

Question: identify the various possible meaning of “gave my heart another youth” (line 7).


Sonnet 111

Summary: the poet blames bad luck that he had to earn a living working for the public – “which public manners breeds”. He is naturally influenced “like the dyer’s hand” by his choice of work, but anything is bearable, he says, if he has the sympathy of his “dear friend”.

Note: in the closing six lines or “sestet”, the poet, having flirted with images of punishment (“a brand”) and work (“the dyer’s hand”), settles on an extended metaphor of illness and recovery: he sees himself as “a willing patient” suffering from a “strong infection”, imploring the youth to “cure me”.

Question: do you agree that the poet’s craving for “pity” (ll. 8, 13 and 14) is driven by self-pity?


Sonnet 112

Summary: the poet has been subject to “vulgar scandal”, but the “love and pity” of the “fair youth” are all that matters, and “right or wrong” are for him to judge.  All other opinions can be treated “with my neglect”, since only the youth’s views matter to him.

The sonnet is laced with binary oppositions – “well or ill” (3), “my bad, my good” (4), “shames and praises” (6), “right or wrong” (8), “critic and flatterer” (11) – implying that though the poet dismisses others’ criticisms, he unconsciously accepts the validity of those critics whose views conflict with his own.

Question: is there reason to think that the “vulgar scandal” may denote a professional rather than an emotional crisis.


Sonnet 113

Summary: the poet tells the “fair youth” how distracted he has become, obsessed not with the world that surrounds him but with thoughts of his love.  As a result he notices almost nothing of what he sees, whether beautiful or otherwise, since his imagination “shapes them to your feature”.

Note: the pronouns here tell their own story.  The first person appears four times in the opening two lines (“I … mine … my … me …) and twice in the last (“My … mine …”).  In the interim, reinforcing the central theme, the poet’s faculties are described entirely in the third person.

Question: Shakespeare’s Sonnets are often critical of hyperbole.  Is this poem guilty, in your view?


Sonnet 114

Summary: who is to blame, asks the poet, that he seems to be preoccupied with the “fair youth” and seems to imagine him in everything he observes, transforming things repulsive into things desired? He can only blame his own eyesight, he concludes, and is happy to do so.

Note: the poem explores an extended metaphor drawn from monarchy.  Obsession with the youth, because it is unrealistic but appealing, is glossed as a desirable but dangerous drink (his illusion “to his palate doth prepare the cup”).  The food-taster should intercept this cup, but this particular monarch thirsts for its contents.

Question: which other details add to the extended metaphor of monarchy in this poem?


Sonnet 115

Summary: in the past, says the poet, he felt he could not love the “fair youth” any more intensely. But Time, which challenges and changes everything, teaches that nothing is permanent, and love itself “is a babe” continually growing and developing. Saying so is merely to prepare for its “full growth”.

Note: the poem references various writing and speaking acts (“writ … lie … said …” etc, 1 – 2).  Puzzled by love and how to describe it, the poet develops “Might I not then say” in line 10 to “then might I not say so” in line 13.  Ironically, love is not only blind but also, being “a babe”, inarticulate.

Question: what is the effect of the sequence of subordinate clauses, and the absence of a main clause, in lines 5 – 8?


Sonnet 116

Summary: clarifying the previous sonnet, the poet proclaims love’s permanence.  Love’s independent existence, being “ever-fixed”, is unaffected by the love it receives. Rather, its position is fixed like a star, and its character impervious to Time, “even to the edge of doom”. Everything he has written is proof of this, he claims.

Note: love, says the poet, is “an ever-fixed mark”, a star in the heavens whose permanence is impervious to “tempests” and enables “every wand’ring bark” [= ship] to chart their course through life.  Calculating the “height” of the star (9) is the means by which position at sea can be ascertained.

Question: how far do you feel this piece clarifies or challenges the thinking of Sonnet 115?


Sonnet 117

Summary: the poet accepts that he has been slow to repay the “fair youth” for his love and affection, spending time with “unknown minds” and defaulting on the youth’s “dear-purchased right” to his company. But his absence has also delivered the chance to prove the youth’s “constancy and virtue”.

Note: Three metaphorical fields emerge here: a legal field (“Accuse … right … proof … appeal …”), a financial field (“scanted … repay … bonds … dear-purchased … “) and as in the preceding sonnet, a nautical field (“sail … winds … transport …”). The thinking behind the poem is appropriately labyrinthine.

Question: summarise the four accusations the poet may face, identified in the octave, lines 1 – 8.


Sonnet 118

Summary: in everyday life, says the poet, we sharpen our palate with aperitifs and reinforce our health by purging our system.  In just the same way, he argues, I sought out “bitter” company and “diseased” experiences. In doing so, he admits that the very separation he sought to avoid has come to pass.

Note: the poem begins with notice of extended metaphors (“Like as ….”) drawn from food (1-2) and medicine (3-4). The second quatrain (“Even so …”) extends these analogies with a developing narrative. Line 9 introduces the volta (or pause) with a moment of reflection, before the conclusion (“the lesson”) of the closing couplet.

 Question: do you agree that these analogies serve to obscure rather than confront the poet’s infidelity?


Sonnet 119

Summary: the poet concedes he has cried bitter tears at being deceived by hopes of falling in love with partners other than the “fair youth” – desires now glossed as “wretched errors” that “my heart committed”.  But the youth’s forgiveness is implied in the sestet, where the poet’s “ruined love” has been “built anew”.

Note: the octet ranges widely to convey the poet’s “madding fever” caused by his “wretched errors”: “Siren tears” are drawn from Greek myth, “limbecks” from alchemy. After such hyperbole, the sestet is comparatively opaque, constructed around abstract nouns – “benefit … ill … better … evil … love … content … ill …”.

Question: does the mix of masculine with feminine rhymes undermine the poet’s conviction in the closing couplet?


Sonnet 120

Summary: the poet recalls the pain he once felt at the youth’s infidelity, and accepts he has caused similar pain now. This gives him no pleasure. It would have been easier for the youth, he reflects, if he had shown remorse (the “humble salve”).  They have much to forgive in one another.

Note: the poem defaults in its closing couplet to a metaphor drawn from legal and financial fields: the youth’s “trespass” or infidelity ceases to be an injury to the poet and becomes “now” the means by which this more recent infidelity may be redeemed. 

Question: does the closing couplet undermine the heartfelt regret expressed in, e.g., lines 6 and 9-10?


Sonnet 121

Summary: the poet resents that others take a negative view of his conduct.  If he’s to gain an unjustified reputation for “vile” or “sportive” behaviour, let him at least enjoy the fun first. But in practice such judgements are mere projection, he believes – unless his accusers simply believe that all human conduct is “bad”.

Note: the poet’s argument is wide-ranging: he suggests that allegations of infidelity are groundless, before rejecting accusations of infidelity from others guilty of the same offence. Besides, he argues, I don’t share the moral codes of my accusers – who are anyway guilty of projection. And since they condemn all human conduct, their judgement is redundant.

Question: do you feel that the poet’s somewhat unfocused rejection of criticism increases or dilutes his credibility?


Sonnet 122

Summary: the poet concedes he no longer has the notebook (“thy tables”) the “fair youth” gave him.  But his love for the youth doesn’t need mementoes, “so long as brain and heart” retain his memory.  Indeed, to have kept the book might imply that without it, he would have forgotten him.

Note: evidently a gift of sentimental value has gone missing.  This trivial incident gives the poet the chance to reaffirm the permanence of his regard for the youth – and in the closing couplet to invert the argument and claim that to have kept the book might suggest a lack of emotional commitment on his part.

Question: are there any flaws in the argument advanced in this poem, in particular in its closing couplet?


Sonnet 123

Summary: evidence of the ancient world does not impress the poet.  We invest in such things, he says, because our own lives are brief, and we’re conditioned by the speed of change.  But I do not change, the poet claims, and I’ll remain “true” – though death (“thy scythe”) is inevitable.

Note: all love poetry, we are told, is overheard by the reader, and indeed, the great majority of the sonnets are addressed to the poet’s lover, so the reader eaves-drops on their affections. This poem, reflecting perhaps an estrangement between poet and lover, is addressed to Time, and the familiar pronoun is used throughout.

Question: the poem issues a defiant challenge to Time, but is this more than mere rhetoric?


Sonnet 124

Summary: if his feelings were as variable as the ebb and flow of politics, says the poet, there’d be no constancy in them. But his love is a stranger both to “pomp” [= power] and to “thralled discontent” [= prison], to “heat” and to “showers” – and different therefore from those “fools of time” whose fate was unexpected.

Note: the closing couplet seems to refer to those who, for different reasons, fall out of favour with the state – recusant Catholics, perhaps, Gunpowder plotters, or even such figures as the Earl of Essex, once a favourite, later executed for treason.  The general principle is that the poet’s love does not change.

Question: how successfully does this sonnet explore the contention of the opening couplet?


Sonnet 125

Summary: rejecting the significance attached to external appearances, the poet doubts those who pretend to permanence. He dismisses those obsessed with protocol (“form and favour”), and rejects those who overcomplicate or strive to overachieve. Instead, he offers the youth his straightforward affection, rejecting duplicity (“thou suborned informer”) while asserting that challenging him will prove counterproductive.

Note: the closing couplet refers to “thou” and “thy”, but it’s unclear who’s being addressed.  The octet does not address any specific audience, but after the volta, the addressee is clearly the youth (“thy … thou … thee …”).  The closing couplet is dismissive (“Hence” – an instruction) and may indeed address the youth.

Question: is it possible to imagine the circumstances that might have provoked this sonnet?


Sonnet 126

Summary: the poet’s lover, who possesses both youthfulness (“time’s fickle glass”) and maturity (“his sickle hour”), has grown as he has matured. For Nature is using his enduring beauty to illustrate her power over Time.  The poet closes with a reminder that, “treasure” though he may be, Nature cannot keep him young indefinitely.

Note: the poem has no closing couplet – an oblique reference, perhaps, to the youth’s enduring beauty, or else a comment on the continuing love the youth inspires.  Instead the poem ends with a sequence of empty brackets – waning and waxing moons, perhaps, or else an hourglass.  Other interpretations discern a vacuum, or perhaps a silence.

Question: how convincing is the argument that the closing brackets and missing lines are deliberate and indeed eloquent?


One Hundred Word Endnote:

Shakespeare seems to have composed his 154 sonnets largely for private entertainment, circulated and appreciated among friends.  Their existence was first revealed in a book by Francis Meres in 1598, and two were published in 1599, probably without their author’s permission. 

The entire collection appeared in 1609, but there the certainties end. The identity of the dedicatee (“Mr W.H.”) is disputed, and anyway he is not necessarily the subject of the poems; at least two lovers are addressed, and probably more than two; and it is highly unlikely the poems were written in the order in which they are printed.

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