Sonnet 129 | StageMilk
sonnet 129

Sonnet 129

Written by on | Shakespeare

Sonnet 129 is probably one of Shakespeare’s most sexually explicit sonnets. So this is coming in right at the start of the third phase of the sonnets. Throughout the second phase of the sonnets, we’ve seen the ever-growing disdain for the poet by the young person and for the young person by the poet. There’s betrayal, there are love triangles, there’s lots of downright romantic drama stuff going on throughout. The point I’m making is we’ve been through that and in this sonnet, you can feel an air of anger from the poet towards the young person, and you can hear the poet coming to terms with what love is, what heartbreak is and what exactly lust is. Now that’s exactly what we have going on here. This sonnet is almost an introspection on what exactly lust is, and what it does to us and those around us. Now it’s quite a puritanical view of sex, but it is from the perspective of a 16th-century poet. In England. Post-breakup? Either way, whether we agree with it or not, this is their thoughts on the subject.

Read More: Best Shakespeare Sonnets

Sonnet 129 (Original Text)

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd 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 proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

 

Verse Breakdown

Bold = Stressed
Unbold = Unstressed

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd‘rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd 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 proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
     All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
     To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

 

Modern Translation

The shameful expense of energy in sex is just lustful action in motion
And until you’re actually doing the deed lust is
Dishonest, violent, bloody, cruel, makes others blame each other,
Savage, extreme, low, cruel, untrustworthy,
Once its enjoyed it’s despised straight away
People look for sex past their own reasoning and they don’t have it any sooner
People hate sex when they’ve had it like they’ve taken a fish bait that was given to them to make them crazy on purpose
Crazy pursuing sex and crazy having it
People go to extreme lengths over sex whether they’ve had it, are having it, or are trying to have it
It’s blissful when you’re having it and afterwards you’re filled with sadness and guilt
Before you have it you think it’ll be joyful and afterwards it feels like a nightmare
Everyone knows this
But no one knows it well enough to stop them from doing it

Thought Breakdown & Analysis

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action

So it’s good to note here that the word spirit here is a double entendre, or that it has a double meaning. Spirit can mean energy, life, you know spirit of human beings! But it also is referring to the literal expense of ‘spirit’ in a waste of shame. Spirit being what babies come from. I won’t go into too much more detail, you’ll have to just figure that one out yourself. 

SO, with the double meaning in mind, what shakespeare is getting at here is that expending energy and literal ‘spirit’ in a waste of shame, meaning the wasteful, shameful act of sex, is lust in motion, personified.

And till action, lust is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame, Savage, extreme, rude cruel, not to trust

Essentially what Shakespeare is saying here is that until the deed is done, lust, ie. the human craving of sex, makes people all of these things. It kind of speaks for itself, this one.

Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight

No sooner have you enjoyed it than you hate the act itself and yourself for giving in to your carnal desires.

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

People will chase sex past their own reason, people go crazy for sex. And even so they don’t have it any sooner

Past reason hated as a swallowed bait on purpose laid to make the taker mad

People hate sex beyond reason. As though someone has baited them into it intentionally to make them crazy.

Mad in pursuit and in possession so

Basically, it makes people crazy whether they’re chasing it or if they’re having it.

Had, having, and in quest to have extreme

Again, we’re doubling down on what the act of sex does to people. Whether they’re having it, have had it or are trying to have it, it pushes people to their extremes. It makes them act out of character.

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe

You think it will be a blissful, joyous, wondrous experience, but in practice, it only serves to fill you with guilt, shame and sadness. Interesting to note, even if we’re not quite there this is the first ‘positive’? thing that’s been said about sex in the entire sonnet so far. 

Before a joy proposed, behind, a very dream

Before you have it, the proposition of the act seems like a joy, and afterwards, a nightmare.

So this is the end of the first sentence of the sonnet, we’ve had a twelve-line sentence, which is interesting to note. Why? Well, it tells us a few things depending on how abstract you wanna get with it. It tells us that this is quite a fiery and passionate speech because the thought continues to run. There’s no rest for the speaker or the reader. It tells us that the speaker feels quite strongly about what they’re talking about and that they’ve probably thought about this a fair bit. Dream is not used in the sense that we would today. It’s quite the opposite in fact. However, that doesn’t mean that’s how Shakespeare used it all the time. It was quite a flexible word in his lexicon. 

All this the world well knows

Everybody already knows this. They know it well apparently.

Yet none knows well to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell

Yet they don’t know it well enough apparently to give up sex to shun it as it were, which leads men straight to hell. That’s a pretty strong statement to close our already very strong and opinionated sonnet. Sex is a heaven that leads men straight to hell, and yet we still don’t shun it. When Shakespeare says men is he referring to males? Or to mankind? Well, that falls on the reader I suppose. It could be another double entendre. But I would think it is referring to mankind. 

Unfamiliar Language

Bloody (adj.)
Old form: blouddy: bloodthirsty, warlike, ferocious

Blame (n.): blameworthiness, culpability, guilt

Rude (adj.): violent, harsh, unkind

Straight (adv.): straightaway, immediately, at once

Proof (n.)
old form: proofe: experience, actual practice, tried knowledge

 

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

Leave a Reply

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

seventeen + 5 =