Scene by Scene by Shakespeare:

A Self-Help Website for Students of All Ages

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 127 – 140

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 127 – 140

Hundred Word Summary

Darker hair and complexions are now the fashion. But the poet has mixed feelings: he craves the Dark Lady’s attention, while denouncing his own lust, praising her looks but resenting her domineering personality.  Perhaps she will notice his anxiety, and feel some sympathy for him.

But now she has taken up with his friend, leaving him abandoned by both – though he predicts she will be just as cruel to him.  He feels let down, and begs her to level with him – just as, at other times, he values their mutual dishonesty and hopes she’ll at least pretend to love him.


Table of Contents

Shakespeare’s Sonnets 127 - 140

Sonnet 127

Summary: time was, says the poet, fair hair and complexion were regarded as an aesthetic ideal. But now darker colours are more fashionable, and anyway, with cosmetics pervasive, beauty is somewhat artificial anyway. Now if his mistress’s eyes and brows are mourning black, it’s widely accepted that “beauty should look so”.

Note: the sonnet juxtaposes “fair” with “black”.  In lines 1 and 11, “fair” is adjectival, and in line 6 “Fairing” is a verb.  Similarly, “black” is adjectival in lines 1 and 9, but a noun in line 3.  In general, “fair” has positive connotations in Shakespeare, “black” negative.  “Macbeth” provides numerous examples.

Question: how convincing is this poem as a statement of one person’s devotion to another?


Sonnet 128

Summary: the poet watches the Dark Lady as she plays the virginals, envying the keys her dainty fingers command, wishing instead that they might play with “my poor lips” that “by thee blushing stand”. This being impossible, he concludes, perhaps she should continue to play while allowing him to kiss her lips.

Note: in contrast with 127, Sonnet 128 focuses on the lover’s hands: she plays with “sweet fingers” (3), leading the poet to imagine “the tender inward of thy hand” (6).  In 9, he imagines being “tickled” by her fingers and in 11 evokes “their gentle gait”. Ironically, the closing couplet focuses on her lips.

Question: can the poet’s envy of the virginals’ keys be anything more than a      literary convention?


Sonnet 129

Summary: sandwiched between two light exercises (Sonnets 128 and 130), this frenzied denunciation of lust strikes an urgent, even a jarring, note.  Irrational, dangerous, misleading and vicious but as irresistible as “a swallowed bait”, lust leaves the poet no option but to conclude that “none knows well” how to avoid “this hell”.

Note: the closing line may conceal a distasteful ambiguity in the final image, since “hell” is a Tudor slang word for the female reproductive organ.  Other examples of this include “rose”, “wound” and “nothing”, all of which have strong Shakespearean associations.  The same word reappears in Sonnets 144, 145 and 147.

Question: what in your view is denoted by “the heaven that leads men to this hell” in line 14?


Sonnet 130

Summary: the poet seems to imply that the Dark Lady’s physical features – her eyes, her lips, her breasts, her hair, her complexion, her breath, her voice and her gait – are nothing special.  But in the closing couplet, his purpose becomes clear: to praise “my love as rare” and to celebrate her human qualities.

Note: the poem is less about the Dark Lady than about the tendency of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (and predecessors) to exaggerate – beyond credibility – the apparently divine qualities of their lovers.  Here the poet affirms that it is enough to be human – though he claims his love to be “as rare / As any”.

Question: what do we learn about the poet’s lover from this poem?


Sonnet 131

Summary: the poet acknowledges his lover’s “tyrannous” power over him, the result of his “doting” devotion to her.  Others may think she lacks this power, but not so: rather, their love-making (a “thousand groans”) illustrates how much he admires her – though her behaviour may at times merit the description “tyrannous”.

Note: for the first time the poet begins to explore his lover’s personality for the reader: she is evidently assertive, perhaps even at times cruel; she is conscious of her value, her appeal; she is privately (even perhaps secretly) highly sexual; and finally – to repeat – she is active and powerful.

Question: to what extent is this sonnet a companion piece with Sonnet 130?


Sonnet 132

Summary: the poet believes his lover’s eyes are dark as if in mourning for him in his frustration, the result of her apparent indifference to him.  Indeed, he believes nothing in nature compares with “those two mourning eyes” – since “mourning doth thee grace”.  Her eyes persuade the poet that “beauty herself is black”.

Note: many of these sonnets address the art of sonnet-writing itself. Sonnet 130 is an example, with its scepticism of hyperbole.  Here in lines 5 to 10, a satire on analogies with nature is presented, and in general this sonnet and others may parody the convention of the cruel, disdainful mistress.

Question: do you agree that the spirit of this sonnet is satirical rather than (as it appears) admiring?


Sonnet 133

Summary: evidently the Dark Lady has taken up with his friend, and so extended the range of her “torture” to both: the poet feels lost, as he has lost friend and lover besides. He pleads with her to release (“bail”) his friend, though he himself can never be released from her power.

Note: the closing lines (9 – 14) explore an extended metaphor of imprisonment possibly anticipated earlier (“torture … slavery …”, 3 – 4).  The poet effectively offers a prisoner exchange – himself for his friend’s freedom – in the hope of neutralising the Dark Lady’s cruelty.  But such hopes, he accepts, are vain.

Question: how far do you feel this sonnet helps to elucidate the emotional crisis implied in Sonnets 40 – 42?


Sonnet 134

Summary: the poet acknowledges he has lost his friend to the Dark Lady’s charms, and though he’d welcome his release from her embrace, he knows better than to hope for this.  Instead he believes she will prove demanding to both her lovers, while he is left to regret the loss of his friend.

Note: the extended metaphor of legal / financial terms (“mortgaged … will … surety … bond … statute … usurer … sue … debtor … pays …”) is both complex and vague, though the implication is (a) that both men are “bound” to the Dark Lady, and (b) that the arrangement is far from idealistic. 

Question: how far do you feel that this extended metaphor clarifies and illuminates the poet’s thinking?


Sonnet 135

Summary: other women may dream, says the poet, but the Dark Lady has what she craves and desires, since she has the poet himself, and “More than enough am I”.  Many phenomena in life have rather more than they need – the poet asks that the Dark Lady should find him a sufficient paramour.

Note: the poem is sexually (and verbally) playful, and “translation” is unsatisfactory. The word “Will” (or “will”) appears thirteen times, denoting inter alia the poet, his sexual organs, the Dark Lady’s desires and her own sexuality.  Much of this poem is obscene – for example the reference to her “will” as “large and spacious”.

Question: summarise the thinking behind the poem in ten words or less.


Sonnet 136

Summary: the poet claims he is entitled to know the Dark Lady well, though it seems she resents his intimacy. But he also acknowledges that he is not the only one to know her closely, since “one is reckoned none”.  He calls on her to focus on having her will, and he will feel loved.

Note: the poem extends the verbal and sexual playfulness of its immediate predecessor, though the scene it describes seems a touch melancholy: the poet’s exclusion from the company (or sexual intimacy) of the Dark Lady – reflected, perhaps, in the profusion of “wills” in the opening lines followed by their near-disappearance thereafter.

Question: is there a suggestion in this sonnet that another of the Dark Lady’s lovers is also called Will?


Sonnet 137

Summary: the poet berates his own judgement in forging so inappropriate a romance. In particular his eyes betrayed him, despite his love’s promiscuous behaviour, deceiving him into believing her chaste, and engaging his emotions in the process. In the closing couplet there is a suggestion of venereal infection.

Note: the Petrarchan tradition embraces poetic appeals to lovers as modest as they are unattainable.  This poem and others like it subvert this tradition in ways that are close to shocking: here the Dark Lady is accused of having a “bay where all men ride”, a garden that is the “wide world’s common place”.

Question: suggest possible interpretations other than infection for the “false plague” in line 14.


Sonnet 138

Summary: the poet describes a compromise he and his lover have struck. She is not always to be trusted as chaste, and he pretends to an innocence that is less than genuine. Both know the shortcomings of the other, but neither confronts them with the truth, thus enabling them to “lie” together in peace.

Note: the poem turns on the two meanings of the verb “to lie”. A similar – though more bitter – ambiguity occurs in “The Winter’s Tale”, where Leontes explores the implications of “play”, and in “Othello”, where the word “lie” is interpreted.  On both occasions, the accommodation of Sonnet 138 is elusive.

Question: what is the mood of this sonnet? Is it entirely devoid of rancour, in your opinion?


Sonnet 139

Summary: it’s not for the poet to excuse the Dark Lady’s interest in other men. But he begs her to refrain from gazing longingly at others when they’re together. If he must excuse it, however, he accepts her glances have not always been friendly to him – let her fix on him, then, and end his pain.

Note: the sonnet is built around two contrasting imperatives, at lines 1 and 9.  Perhaps the poet has the model of a court of law in mind in line 1, when he exclaims “O! call not me to justify …”.  After the volta, however, he reverses his earlier stance: “Let me excuse thee …”.

Question: what in your view is the appeal of the Dark Lady, given the price the poet pays for her company?


Sonnet 140

Summary: the poet calls on the Dark Lady to restrain her cruel self and let herself sympathise with him – even to tell him she loves him, much as doctors encourage sick men with good news.  Otherwise, he says, I cannot stop myself defaming you. So whatever your real feelings, he concludes, do not stray.

Note: a small proportion of the Dark Lady sonnets are addressed to the reader, but most (like 140) address the lover herself.  These invariably use the intimate “thee / thou / thy” form.  The contrast is lost on the modern reader, but this rather detached appeal is conveyed using the intimate pronoun.

Question: how persuasive is the poet’s argument that the Dark Lady should be more charitable towards him?



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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *