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;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised 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.
This, one of the most famous sonnets, explores the reaction of the human psyche to the promptings of sexual urges. The folk wisdom of omne animal post coitum triste est, which is often quoted in connection with this sonnet, is banal in comparison to the ideas developed here. One has to look back to the ancient Greek world, and to the plays of Euripides, especially The Bacchae and Hippolytus, to find an equivalent. Particularly striking is the torrent of adjectives describing the build up of desire, and the imagery of the hooked fish which portrays the victim of lust as a frenzied animal expending its last vital energies in paroxysms of rage and futile struggle, even though it is inevitably doomed.
In relation to the sonnet sequence as a whole, it is worth noting that nothing like this is found in the series to the young man. The profound hatred of sexuality does not occur within that context, where the passions expressed are undying and lofty, although often intermingled with sexual humour and puns.
However readers from cultures other than the predominantly Western ones might find the sonnet puzzling. It gives essentially a phallo-centric view of sex, and its hatred of sexuality derives from the Christian imperative of the virginal life and the dislike of all bodily functions, a philosophy which finds few echoes in Eastern religions where sexuality is often gloriously celebrated. Perhaps it is because it chimes so harmoniously with much that is repressive in traditional Christian sexual morality that it has been so popular. It is of course very difficult to separate out culturally derived ideas from those which spring from an individual's personality, and this sonnet provides no exception to the rule. The extreme sexual pessimism may be viewed as a temporary aberration on the part of the poet, or as an essential element of his personality, or simply as an expression of the prevailing opinion of the time. It is tempting to see this outbreak of sexual melancholia as stemming directly from the passions aroused by the dark lady. That would undoubtedly increase the fascination with her and has no doubt helped to fuel speculation as to her character. But the reality is that biographical details are entirely lacking, even if we knew for certain that she did exist.
Because of the sonnet's setting between two relatively light hearted ones, I am more inclined to play down its inherent darkness. Despite its apparent ferocity it may have been written from a detached viewpoint. After all, its writer was capable of portraying the distorted lust of Tarquin in The Rape of Lucrece; he had looked at the machinations of Angelo in Measure for Measure, a man whose sexual passion had subverted entirely the supposed icy chastity of all his former life; he was to portray the mad sexual jealousy of Othello (if he had not already done so when the sonnet was written); and he was to look at the theme again with Leontes in The Winter's Tale.
The fact that the sonnet is placed precisely here inevitably leads us to suppose that there is some direct link with his mistress, on whom his heart dotes, even though she is both morally and metaphorically as black as hell, as dark as night. But, as already mentioned, since we have no other biographical or historical details, we cannot even be sure that the woman is a real person or a fictitious creation. The sexual pessimism it shows, although extreme, is not alien to the Christian tradition, which from its earliest years adopted some of the harsher tenets of the asceticism of the ancient Greco-Roman world, with its doctrines of virginity and sexual abstention which date back probably to Pythagoras, and which were maintained as a continuous tradition through Plato and the Stoics long before Christianity took it over.
By the time he came to write Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare appears to have put this blackness aside and he was able to celebrate sexuality as a glorification of nature.
Kingdoms are clay. Our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. The nobleness of life
Is to do thus, when such a mutual pair
And such a twain can do't. AC.I.1.35-8.
GBE (p.246) lists the following as potentially relevant examples of similar thoughts contemporary with Shakespeare, on which he might have drawn:
Foeda est in coitu et brevis voluptas
Et taedet Veneris statim peractae. attrib. Petronius, translated by Ben Jonson as
Doing a filthy pleasure is, and short,
And done, we straight repent us of the sport.
Ben Jonson, Underwoods 88.
Thou blind man's mark, thou fool's self-chosen snare,
Fond fancy's scum and dregs of scattered thought,
Band of all evils, cradle of causeless care,
Thou web of will, whose end is never wrought;
Desire, desire I have too dearly bought,
With price of mangled mind thy worthless ware ...
Sidney, No.31, Certain Sonnets (1598).
In error's mask I blindfold judgements eye,
I fetter reason in the snares of lust,
I seem secure, yet know not how to trust;
I live by that which makes me living die...
Ah Lorrell lad, what makes thee herry love? ...
A heaven in show, a hell to them that prove ...
A minute's joy to gain a world of grief,
A subtle net to snare the idle mind
A seeing Scorpion, yet in seeming blind,
A poor rejoyce, a plague without relief;
Thomas Lodge, Rosalynde
(1590) GBE also mentions Wilson's The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) and Robert Southwell's Love's servile lot and Lewd Love is Losse, and his description of sin in St. Peter's Complaint (1595) lines 637 ff.
One should also probably include the following from The Tears of Fancie by Thomas Watson, 1593, Sonnet VIII:
O what a life is it that lovers joy,
Wherein both pain and pleasure shrouded is:
Both heavenly pleasures and eke hells annoy,
Hells fowle annoyance and eke heavenly blisse.
Wherein vain hope doth feed the lover's heart,
And brittle joy sustain a pining thought:
When black despair renews a lover's smart,
And quite extirps what first content had wrought.
Where faire resemblance eke the mind allureth,
To wanton lewd lust giving pleasure scope :
And late repentance endless pains procureth,
But none of these afflict me save vain hope.
And sad despair, despair and hope perplexing,
Vaine hope my heart, despair my fancie vexing.
Shakespeare's sexual pessimism is usually associated with the period of his darker plays, Lear, Othello and Timon (c.1604-8), and the following passage from Lear is often quoted in this context:
Behold yond simpering dame,
Whose face between her forks presages snow;
That minces virtue, and does shake the head
To hear of pleasure's name;
The fitchew, nor the soiled horse, goes to 't
With a more riotous appetite.
Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
Though women all above:
But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
Beneath is all the fiends';
There's hell, there's darkness, there's the
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie,
fie, fie! pah, pah! Give me an ounce of civet,
good apothecary, to sweeten my imagination:
there's money for thee.
Glo. O, let me kiss that hand!
Lear. Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality.
The 1609 Quarto Version
TH'expence of Spirit in a waſte of ſhame
Is luſt in action,and till action , luſt
Is periurd,murdrous,blouddy full of blame,
Sauage,extreame,rude,cruell,not to truſt,
Inioyed no ſooner but diſpifed ſtraight,
Paſt reaſon hunted, and no ſooner had
Paſt reaſon hated as a ſwollowed bayt,
On purpoſe layd to make the taker mad.
Made In purſut and in poſſeſſion ſo,
Had,hauing,and in queſt,to haue extreame,
A bliſſe in proofe and proud and very wo,
Before a ioy propoſd behind a dreame,
All this the world well knowes yet none knowes well,
To ſhun the heauen that leads men to this hell.