William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 138” presents an aging man’s rationalization for deceit in an affair with a younger woman. The speaker of the sonnet realizes his mistress lies to him about being faithful. He in turn, portrays himself as younger than he actually is: “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies, / That she might think me some untutored youth…” (1-3). “Sonnet 138” allows the reader a glimpse into the speaker’s mind, and what one finds is a man suffering from what is commonly known as a midlife crisis. In an effort to reverse “the downslope [sic] of age” (Kermode “Millions”), he takes part in a duplicitous affair with a promiscuous woman possibly “in her early twenties” (Hubler 107). Three main themes permeate the speaker’s “tissue of rationalization” throughout the sonnet (Moore “Shakespeare’s”): dishonesty, aging, and lust.
“Sonnet 138” is written in the first-person voice in iambic pentameter. According to Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, “iambic pentameter produce[s] sensations of comfort” (45). In this particular sonnet, though the speaker and his mistress lie to each other, they both find comfort, in the form of sexual gratification, from the affair: “Therefore I lie with her and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be” (13-4). The sonnet has three parts: the first two quatrains, the last quatrain, and the couplet. The first two quatrains express two distinct, yet complementary ideas (Dunton-Downer and Riding 461). In “Sonnet 138,” the two ideas are the speaker and his mistress’ individual deceits and their mutual deceits (1-8). The last quatrain is signaled by the word “But” (9)....
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...ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 138.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square, 2004.
Smith, Gordon Ross, ed. Essays on Shakespeare. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1965.
Swisher, Clarice, ed. Readings on the Sonnets of William Shakespeare. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997.
Traversi, D. A. An Approach to Shakespeare. Garden City: Doubleday, 1956.
Traub, Valerie. “Sex without Issue: Sodomy, Reproduction, and Signification in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Critical Essays. Ed. James Schiffer. New York: Garland, 1999. 431-52.
Webster’s New World Dictionary of the English Language. 2nd ed. 1970.
Willen, Gerald and Victor B. Reed, eds. A Casebook on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Crowell, 1964.
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