The Theologian Post-Machiavelli: Shakespeare on Love and Lust in Sonnet 129

Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame…”

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, 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 swallow’d 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.


The whole poem is based around the list of 9 given to us in lines three and four. That list of nine divides into a list of 4 and 5, and all things in that list are “pre-action:” nothing regarding lust has actually been done yet.

The first item is “perjured,” which has one definition only, unless one has an OED and therefore a million other uses for this word. To have committed perjury is to have taken an oath to tell the truth, and then lied. There’s a double lie going on, at the very least: not only has one lied to everyone else, but one has denied there can be anything which compels one to tell the truth. To perjure yourself is to assume that one has one’s hands on the greatest Truth, that one is in the right no matter what one does. So one is lying to oneself in a deep sense when one commits perjury.

I think if we use that as a starting point, we can see those first four elements in line 3 linked. The perjured condition and a murderous mood create an atmosphere where one feels one is drenched with blood, and full of blame. There could be a link between perjury and murder, aside from the obvious courtroom-drama metaphor: it could be that the lie one tells oneself and everyone is a killing of sorts, the killing of the Truth that man is social, and that one cannot just exert oneself on the world (this Truth reaches refinement in the Golden Rule and the “New Commandment” all of you know from Leviticus). Lust probably works the same as love in its possessiveness, and probably assumes itself to be the greatest good for oneself and maybe even another, when in reality it is situated in the darkness of the imagination. Like all things love and relationship related, lust is a really difficult thing to ascribe to others, or even oneself, as having.

In my life, there were one or two who were obsessive about others in a way I thought innocent, once, but I’m convinced now that even when their desire wasn’t manifest wholly as sexual, it was lust. There was just no ability on their part to appreciate anything else the “beloved” had to offer or that anyone else, for that matter, had to offer. Their lives were just focused on having that one person, and it was really scary to behold, and even more difficult to talk them out of. For not only do all of us, good and bad, make mistakes, but love can look an awful lot like lust. Real concern for another can be seen as wanting to control another sometimes. The line is really fine between these things.

And yet Shakespeare uses very bold imagery to discuss where lust is: it is not merely love making a mistake, or indulgence in a sinful pleasure. It is a state that is an untruth, and that is murderous. “Bloody” and “full of blame” seem to indicate that someone external to the lustful one could identify their condition, but given that no actions have occurred, I lean toward saying that the drama is internal. Only one who is lusting can know they are lusting, and the tip-off is seeing the dark brooding one engages in, and where that brooding is directed.

The next five in the list, though, make it pretty clear that recognizing one’s own dark brooding is a Herculean task: if the list is taken as a whole of nine, the central word is “savage.” Savage man doesn’t think – he is beast, he just acts. The central element of the list of 5 is “rude,” and it bridges “savage” and “extreme,” qualities of man prior to civilization, with “cruel” and “not to trust,” qualities of man that the some of the most refined utilize to great extent (contrast with Sonnet 94 here). Now those “most refined” we would probably not characterize as “rude,” so in what sense does Shakespeare mean rude? – We have seen the word “murderous” used, and one could take “rude” to be short for “crude,” that lust is the action which in desiring the beloved will kill the beloved, in a sense. –

But perhaps the rest of the poem can help give an answer. To (c)rudely march through: “Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight” almost begs one to change the ‘but’ to ‘than.’ One cannot do that, though, because if that is done, the next two lines about “past reason” mean the exact same thing as that line. I think Shakespeare’s point has to be that one never enjoys lust, it is only “hunted” and “hated.”

You’re probably seeing, at this point, what I saw before: the list of nine above repeats in the rest of the poem: something “enjoyed” just as soon as it is despised is something we’re lying to ourselves about; “hunting” evokes murder; the image of the swallowed bait driving the taker mad recalls both the word “bloody,” as poison gets into the blood, and the phrase “full of blame,” as both the trap and the taker can both be blamed for the occurrence. Some editors have “mad” as “made,” and the idea that a savage would make madly, or make madness in pursuit and possession is exactly correct. Savagery isn’t art, and if it imitates art, it does so only in execution. “Extreme” is the most direct link to the list of nine, and it is tied to possession in the past, present and future, and the unlimited nature of the desire underlying the possession/quest for possession. “A bliss in proof” absolutely corresponds to “rude:” rudimentum is Latin for a trial or attempt; rudo is the Latin verb meaning “to roar.” “Rudis,” is directly cognate with our word “rude,” and means raw and uncultivated, that power which also disgusts. “Cruel,” I think, corresponds to the woe occurring from the proof, and finally, “not to trust” is the hope for joy that is only a dream when all is said and done.

So what hinged on the word “rude” that made it, like “savage,” so central? The issue is that of action stemming from love. Action and love aren’t enough to overcome the problem of lust: in fact, they can feed the fire of lust, as the perception of joy, of an immediate good, can not only cause ignorance of the bigger issue but result in the confusion of the issue. We wouldn’t be lustful if we didn’t feel there was some good in it, and lust does push us to action. Now is there another use of the spirit we can conceive of, one that is more noble, that carries us away from shame and waste? That possibility isn’t really discussed in this poem: instead is emphasized the failure of knowledge and perhaps even the failure of religion on this count (“heaven”/”hell”). I submit that Shakespeare is taking us through lust before action to show how problematic it is, and yet how we are defined by it, each and every one of us. He probably also wants to show us that if we think this is bad, “lust in action” is a heck of a lot worse: the natural condition of man is man as savage, and this might not be able to be transcended.

Yet the ability to see the negative conclusion above rests on a lot of observations about “love” in accordance with theology and with actually knowing another and oneself that I have gone through, also above. The fundamental condition of man, as awful as it is, still divides the world into two groups, although those groups aren’t “those who lack lust” and “those who have lust.” There are those who want to want to be defined by lust and like the fact it might spur them to action. And then there are those of us who want to get beyond it. The poem inspires reflection that is an “expense of spirit,” and an “expense of time,” certainly. But a “waste of shame?”

1 Comment

  1. Sorry Ashok,

    I haven’t read the whole passage on the sonnet. I was never a huge fan of them. I will when things calm down though.

    Right now I am at home waiting for my new bed to be delivered. They first said between noon and 2, so I took the day off. Now they say between 3 and 5. I could have gone to work and not waisted a day off. Oh, well.

    Thanks for the verses. i was being lazy and did not wish to look them up. Although I suspect that you didn’t have to look them up. I will edit the post accordingly, maybe find an online version.

    Give me a call, or come over. Heck, you could even possibly come to dinner.



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