Behind the Lines: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 142
The sonnet is inextricably intertwined with the Renaissance, and stands as one of the most powerful and enduring legacies of that time. Its continued use across time, languages, and cultures and the enduring popularity of centuries-old sonnets reveals the form’s versatility and transcendent beauty capable of revealing eternal truth.
The form sprung from and grew with the revival of classical culture in Medieval Italy.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1194-1250) began his reign as king of Sicily, crowned in Palermo at the age of four. Upon his election by the German nobles as Holy Roman Emperor, a title his father had formerly held, he dreamed of restoring the Roman Empire by uniting his realms in Sicily and Southern Italy with those in Germany and Northern Italy, with Rome at its center once more. But the Papal States stood between the two realms, Frederick’s formidable obstacle. With help from the king of France, the popes wielded their spiritual and secular power against Frederick, ultimately dooming his ambitions for a united Italy and a restored Roman Empire. The dream of Italian unification would have to wait another six hundred years.
Frederick fancied himself a true Roman Emperor, and initiated what would become a prelude to the later Italian Renaissance. He patronized the arts and letters, and his court became renowned through the medieval world as an unparalleled center of art, culture, and learning, earning Frederick the sobriquet Stupor Mundi – the Wonder of the World.
At Frederick’s Sicilian court, the poet Jacopo da Lentini first developed the sonnet from Italian and Provençal troubadour songs. Indeed, its Italian name, sonetto – whence “sonnet” – means a “little song.” The Tuscan poet Guittone d’Arezzo (c. 1235-1294) adopted Lentini’s Sicilian form to his own Tuscan language. In Tuscany the form would flourish. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote in the form, but its undisputed first master and popularizer was Dante’s fellow Tuscan Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), known in English as Petrarch.
The Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet consists of fourteen verses, an octave followed by a sestet, with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDE CDE or some close variant of it. The sonnet takes the form of an “argument,” or interplay of conflict and resolution. The octave introduces and describes the conflict – an expression of desire, doubt, or inner strife within the speaker – then the sestet begins with a volta, or turn, changing the rhyme scheme and introducing resolution to the conflict.
By Petrarch’s time, the Italian Renaissance was beginning, and soon the art and culture of the Italian city-states and the revival of classical culture there would become the desire and envy of Europe. Culminating with the French invasion of Italy in 1494, the kingdoms of Western and Central Europe would import and adopt the Italian Renaissance to their own languages and cultures. England, ever the rival of France, was among the most eager to adopt the art and culture of the Italian Renaissance, including the sonnet.
The first sonnets appeared in English as translations from the Italian, mostly of Petrarch. And although English poets through the present would use the Italian sonnet form, a distinctly English form soon appeared, whose fourteen lines were composed instead of four quatrains and one couplet, with the usual rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The turn usually occurs in the third stanza, though it can also occur in the final couplet.
Just as Petrarch came to give his name to the Italian sonnet even though he did not originate the form, Shakespeare, too, did not originate the form that came to bear his name. The first English poet to use the new form was Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey (1517-1547). It was Shakespeare’s monumental cycle of 154 sonnets that firmly established the English form as every bit the equal of the Italian and gave Shakespeare’s name to the English form. It stands as one of the monuments of Shakespeare’s works and of English poetry in general.
Many of the great sonnets of this cycle – 18, 116, 129, 130, and 138, for example – as with all of Shakespeare, are the subject of multiple analyses by some of the most insightful scholars to have studied the Bard.
Here we will address only one of the cycle, one of the less frequently discussed of the cycle, but one which nonetheless reveals Shakespeare’s mastery of the form and of the poetic principle in general. Here is the hidden gem, Sonnet 142:
Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profan’d their scarlet ornaments
And seal’d false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robb’d others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lov’st those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows,
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
By self-example mayst thou be denied!
The first verse leads boldly, inverting values, transforming love into sin and hate into virtue. But the second verse clarifies why: the hate is for the speaker’s love, and that love is sinful. Hate of the sin is therefore virtue. The nature of the sin within the speaker’s overtures is not clear; either the lady he addresses (the famed “Dark Lady”) is married or otherwise off limits due to a vow before God, or the speaker does not intend for his courtship to end in pure love – a distinct possibility given later revelations about the subject’s character. In this forbidden desire lies the conflict of the sonnet’s argument.
A turn then appears as early as the end of the first quatrain: if the lady examines her own sins, the forbidden love of the speaker does not seem so bad. The second quatrain goes into detail. The lady has no room to pass judgment. Her lips “have profan’d their scarlet ornaments / And seal’d false bonds of love” as often as the speaker’s. “False” here does not mean simply professing love knowing the words to be untrue. The lady’s sin is far worse: she has “robb’d other’s beds’ revenues of their rents.” She leads men to adultery, obtaining pleasure from the beds where other women were rightfully entitled to receive them.
The third quatrain then introduces the solution, modeling the Italian division into octave and sestet despite the English form. The lady’s affairs with married men make it “lawful” for the speaker to express his love – not lawful in terms of human laws, but in the sense of moral equivalence. If it is wrong for the speaker to “importune” the lady with his unwelcome advances, it is no less wrong for the lady’s eyes to “woo,” or attract the objects of their desire, which has led to robbery of the marital bed.
The solution then moves from the conceptual to the practical. The speaker exhorts the lady to “[r]oot pity” in her heart so that it may one day deserve to be pitied. If she will not receive the speaker’s advances, the least she can do is pity his unrequited love. The placement of the lady’s receiving pity in the future hints at the days when her looks will have faded and the wooing of her own eyes will no longer be received. The speaker reminds the lady that as she finds those she woos uninterested in her, she will one day herself need the pity he now seeks.
The final couplet injects this lesson with a tinge of bitterness. If the lady seeks to have the pity that she declines to show the speaker now, he wishes that her present pitilessness will result in her denial of future pity. The sonnet has come full circle, from a confession of sin to a final curse.
But the sonnet is not a curse. Rather, it is didactic, an instruction on and exhortation to pity. Indeed, it tacitly teaches the same lesson about pity (or compassion) that Saint Augustine (354-430) from the Christian perspective approvingly quoted the pagan Stoic Cicero:
Far better and more humane, and more consonant with pious sentiments, are the words of Cicero in praise of Cæsar, when he says, “Among your virtues none is more admirable and agreeable than your compassion.” And what is compassion but a fellow-feeling for another’s misery, which prompts us to help him if we can? And this emotion is obedient to reason, when compassion is shown without violating right, as when the poor are relieved, or the penitent forgiven.
It is also the same lesson that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) taught two centuries later:
If you want a safe compass to guide you through life, and to banish all doubt as to the right way of looking at it, you cannot do better than accustom yourself to regard this world as a penitentiary, a sort of a penal colony . . .
. . .
In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Socî malorum, compagnon de misères! This may perhaps sound strange, but it is in keeping with the facts; it puts others in a right light; and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life – the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbor, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.
The sonnet’s exhortation to pity speaks true not merely from an frustrated lover to the lady he courted four centuries ago, but universally, between all times and all souls “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” the saying goes. Pity is a virtue because of our common humanity. We share the same weaknesses and the same mortality. What one suffers today his detractor may suffer tomorrow. The lady who disdains her lover today will one day find herself disdained. Those who desire pity, therefore, in justice show pity.
Shakespeare uses the conventions of the Italian love-poem to give time and place to this universal truth. In his hands, it breathes life and adds poignancy to an otherwise abstract philosophical truth. Such is the power of art.
 St. Augustine. De Civitate Dei, ix.5, in Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. I, Vol. II, Tr. Alexander Robers & James Donaldson (1885) (quoting M. Tullius Cicero, Pro Ligario, c.12).  Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Sufferings of the World. Tr. Thomas Bailey Saunders.