sonnetCXLIV

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
   Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
   Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

 

 

A sonnet that is considered by many to be the key to understanding Shakespeare's attitude to love. It plays out the old battle between spiritual and physical love, a subject which had been the jousting field of argument for centuries. The poet seems to ally himself with the traditionalists who believed that the nature of woman was such as to corrupt pure love. In Platonic terms she was the material dross of which bodies were made, but the spiritual ideal love was independent of her, and true love could really only subsist between males. In terms of Christian theology, woman was the devil and was responsible for the fall since she had tempted man to eat forbidden fruit. Any form of congress with a woman was corrupting, and the ideal life would always be one of chastity and abstention from sex. The doctrine was alleviated slightly by devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, but despite giving birth she was a virgin and worshipped as the Blessed Virgin Mary. A mitigation to this view was the reality of life itself, which always returned to insist that the majority of men would continue to desire women.

 

The poet here follows the traditional line that woman is the female evil, her sexuality being a threat not only to the poet who loves her, but also to the pure spirit of love of which his friend is the icon. The battle is between heaven and hell, between the spirit and the body, and the body seems to triumph over the spirit just as it does in Sonnet 129, and less agonisingly in 151. The net result is that the poet is flung into a rage of jealousy and, like Othello, his imagination runs riot as he thinks of what the lovers must have done together:
Lie with her? Lie on her? - We say lie on her when they belie her. - Zounds, that's fulsome. - Handkerchief - confessions - handkerchief! - To confess and be hanged for his labour - first to be hanged, and then confess! I tremble at it.
Oth.IV.1.36-41.
This is the fevered imagination which guesses one angel in another's hell and broods with frenzied misogyny on his sense of betrayal. But one presumes it had a less tragic outcome than the Othello story.

There is always some doubt about the autobiographical nature of these sonnets, although the majority of readers will inevitably take them to be personal accounts of suffering or elation. Even with a poem which we know to be based on an Italian or French original, such as Sidney's sonnet to sleep:
Come Sleep! O Sleep!. The certain knot of peace!
we are reluctant to discount entirely the element of personal experience which we feel it portrays. Simply because another poet has already written similar thoughts on a subject does not preclude a native poet from taking up the theme. And since love is so universal an experience, one should be willing to accept that a sincere account of it might be inspired by another's similar experience, even in different climes and countries. To a certain extent Shakespeare's portrayal of the dark lady as the villain of the piece, the one who dirties and corrupts the purity of his love, is similar to the reaction to Petrarchism which the continent had experienced, a reaction which denied that the beloved was a goddess and likened her instead to a Medusa, a Gorgon, or to other mythological murderesses. It is not so far a jump from that attitude to the one here portrayed, namely that the beloved mistress is a Circe who entraps all men and turns them into swine. The difference here is that of emphasis, in that the poet focuses on the effect on himself as the party in the middle. He loves a woman, but she has betrayed him like the worst of trulls. Not only that, but she now seeks to seduce from him the lofty and perfect ideal of love which, he is ready to declare, sustained his life and made it beautiful. Unfortunately the sense of loss is distorted by the jealousy which pervades it, the thwarted desire which is forced to concede that the woman no longer wants him, or his body, but she wants his companion, and him only perhaps for a time. So that the woman herself becomes personified as evil, the bad angel who is on the side of the devil and is responsible for all the world's woes.

This may be too extreme a view, and perhaps readers would prefer to believe that Shakespeare was writing in his usual mode of dramatic fiction, rather than to accept that he was a tortured misogynist with leanings to homosexuality. Yet commentators tend to think that this sonnet is deadly serious. (See for example HV p.605). I hope my illustration at the top of the page might in some way lighten the heaviness, and although I cannot offer an alternative interpretation, I think it important to remember that the mind can oscillate between extremes, and that a temporary despair of human redemption need not be a permanent and lasting feature of one's life. Shakespeare's women in most of the later plays were superb examples of humanity and few elements of the dark lady can be found in them. In fact one might say the same of most of the earlier plays, so that if the episodes here depicted were taken from his life we must not despair entirely, but take comfort from the fact that he lived through them and still retained his idealism.

Below are shown the Passionate Pilgrim version of this sonnet, and Drayton's Sonnet 20 from his 'Idea' sequence of sixty three sonnets, which has many similarities to this one. I have also included sonnets 41 and 42, which are addressed to the youth and probably relate to the same relationship which is discussed here. They are given at the bottom of this page.

DRAYTON SONNET 20

An evil Spirit (your Beauty) haunts me still,
Wherewith, alas, I have been long possessed;
Which ceaseth not to attempt me to each ill,
Nor give me once, but one poor minute's rest.
In me it speaks, whether I sleep or wake:
And when by means to drive it out I try,
With greater torments then it me doth take,
And tortures me in most extremity.
Before my face, it lays down my despairs,
And hastes me on unto a sudden death:
Now tempting me, to drown myself in tears;
And then in sighing to give up my breath.
  Thus am I still provoked to every evil,
  By this good wicked Spirit, sweet Angel-Devil.

From Michael Drayton's sonnet sequence Idea. This sonnet was published in 1599, the same year as The Passionate Pilgrim, a pirated edition of some of Shakespeare's poems. It printed the version of Sonnet 144 which is shown below.

FROM THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM   
Based on the version given in Booth, SB.p.496, which is taken from the Rollins Variorum edition: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare The Sonnets, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 Vols, Philadelphia, 1944. I do not have access to the original PP version, but I presume that all the s characters, other than capitals and terminal letters, would have been elongated s, as in the Q version.

Two loues I haue, of Comfort and Despaire,
That like two Spirits, do suggest me still:
My better Angell, is a Man (right faire)
My worser spirite a Woman (colour'd ill.)
To win me soone to hell, my Female euill
Tempteth my better Angell from my side:
And would corrupt my Saint to be a Diuell,
Wooing his purity with her faire pride.
And whether that my Angell be turnde feend,
Suspect I may (yet not directly tell:)
For being both to me: both, to each friend,
I ghesse one Angell in anothers hell:
  
The truth I shall not know, but liue in dout,
  
Till my bad Angell fire my good one out.

 

The 1609 Quarto Version

TWo loues I haue of comfort and diſpaire,
Which like two ſpirits do ſugieſt me ſtill,
The better angell is a man right faire:
The worſer ſpirit a woman collour'd il.
To win me ſoone to hell my femall euill,
Tempteth my better angel from my ſight,
And would corrupt my ſaint to be a diuel:
Wooing his purity with her fowle pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd finde,
Suſpect I may, yet not directly tell,
But being both from me both to each friend,
I geſſe one angel in an others hel.
   Yet this ſhal I nere know but liue in doubt,
   Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

Commentary

1. Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
loves = loved ones, beloveds.
of comfort and despair = who offer both comfort and despair. At this stage, both loves could be giving this mixture of pain and consolation, although, because of what follows, we automatically interpret it as saying that one of them is the comforter, the other the destroyer.
SB points out that comfort and despair are also theological terms, harmonising with the theological idioms of the poem. (SB p. 497.n.1). OED gives 'Comforter' as one of the titles of the Holy Spirit, as for example in Matthew:
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another
Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
Matt.4.14.16
but the notion of Christ, or God as the comforter was just as common. As for example in Psalm 19:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
A belief in Divine Providence and in the consolation of religion was much more widespread then than it is nowadays, and it was almost the only protection the majority of people had against disease, famine, and all the other disasters which threatened communities.
OED does not give any help with the theological meanings of 'despair'. The teaching of the time was that despair of God's mercy was akin to disbelief and one of the greatest sins in the Christian catalogue of sin, if not the greatest. It was a sin against the Holy Ghost (who might loosely be equated with truth), for which no forgiveness was possible. Thus the two qualities, comfort and despair, are equivalent to a trust in the Holy Spirit, or a disbelief in him and his efficacy, tantamount to a tryst with the devil, the opposing evil spirit.
2. Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
two spirits = a good spirit, and an evil spirit, corresponding to a guardian angel and the devil. Catholic belief was that each individual had his or her own guardian angel to protect him or her. The corresponding evil angel was less of a personal attachment, but was more likely to be one of Satan's vast army of spirits which roamed the earth always hoping to tempt and lead astray any human whom they chanced upon. There is also a reference to the Morality Plays, and the tradition of psychomachia (fighting of spirits) in which personified Virtues and Vices fought for the control of a man's soul. In Marlowe's Dr. Faustus The Good Angel and the Evil Angel try to influence Faustus' actions, the latter winning the contest.
G. Ang. Sweet Faustus, leave that execrable art.
Faust. Contrition, prayer, repentance - what of them?
G. Ang. Oh, they are means to bring thee unto heaven.
E. Ang. Rather illusions, fruits of lunacy,
That makes men foolish that do trust them most.
G. Ang. Sweet Faustus, think of heaven and heavenly things.
E.Ang. No Faustus, think of honour and of wealth. Fau.452-9.
Spirits were normally invisible, but would on occasion reveal themselves to humans.

suggest me still = continually tempt me; continually lead me on (to good or evil).

3. The better angel is a man right fair,
The better angel = the better of the two spirits. Note that 'angel' was a term usually applied only to good spirits, creatures who normally inhabited heaven, but had an additional role of helping to ensure that things went well on earth. The 'Fallen Angels' were those who inhabited hell, their leader being Lucifer, but they were normally referred to as devils or evil spirits. They were all formerly blessed angels in heaven until they revolted. (See Milton's Paradise Lost Bk. 1).
right fair = truly beautiful, both physically and spiritually. Just, honest, gentle and trustworthy. Probably the same person referred to as the friend in 133-4, and the youth addressed in the former sequence 1-126.
4. The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
The worser spirit - note that the word 'spirit' is used of the woman, in contrast to 'angel' for the man. Spirits were more often evil than good.
a woman coloured ill - the poet's mistress, the subject of most of sonnets 127-152. Possibly also the same woman is referred to in 41-2. The fact that she is coloured ill is a reference to her dark complexion, mentioned in 127, 131and 147, but also to her moral darkness.
5. To win me soon to hell, my female evil,

To win me soon to hell = to tempt me to take the broad and swift road to damnation. soon = swiftly, without delay. No doubt also a reference to the hell on earth which he anticipates suffering when he loses the 'fair youth'. It is noticeable however that the theological imagery begins here to break down. The two guardian spirits are not tempting or provoking him directly, as is their usual custom, but they seem to be attacking each other, for the worse one is tempting the better one to sin.
Commentators see here a reference to the village pastime of Barley-Break of which I give the OED definition: An old country game, varying in different parts, but somewhat resembling Prisoner's Bars, originally played by six persons (three of each sex) in couples; one couple, being left in a middle den termed ‘hell,’ had to catch the others, who were allowed to separate or ‘break’ when hard pressed, and thus to change partners, but had when caught to take their turn as catchers. It seems to have been a variation on the simple game of tig, but the fact that it was played by couples, resulting often in a change of partners, may have allowed it to develop into a game of sexual romps as the evening wore on. It is not certain that the mere use of the word hell is proof that Shakespeare was alluding to this game, although the fact that it was described by Sidney in his Arcadia, and that its alternative name was 'Last-in-Hell' may be significant. KDJ thinks that references to the lower part of the stage in the theatre, or to part of the old law courts at Westminster, or to a debtor's prison, are all just as probable. (KDJ p.404). I am not aware that the custom of Barley-Break survives anywhere in England now, and it probably died out in the 19th century. Further details are given at the bottom of this page. The sexual connotation of 'hell' as female genitalia does not seem to be activated until line 12.

6. Tempteth my better angel from my side,
Tempteth = tempts, seduces.
side - this is the PP reading accepted by most editors as preferable to Q's sight (see above, adjacent to the Q version). A guardian angel usually hovered close to the person protected. KDJ cites the following from Othello:
........did he live now,
This sight would make him do a desperate turn,
Yea, curse his better angel from his side,
And fall to reprobation.
Oth.V.2.207-10.
Possibly also a reference to being in bed with, as the following indicate:
For never shall you lie by Portia's side
With an unquiet soul.
MV.III.2.307-8.

So then two bosoms and a single troth.
Then by your side no bed-room me deny;
For lying so, Hermia, I do not lie
. MND.II.2.50-2.

The phrase is ageless, and Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood tells us of an old couple:
Mr and Mrs Floyd, the cocklers, are sleeping as quiet as death, side by wrinkled side...

7. And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
would corrupt = wishes to, intends to corrupt.
my saint = my good angel, my beloved. Addressing one's beloved as a saint was common in the sonnet tradition, and dates back to Petrarch and his Laura.
8. Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
Wooing his purity = tempting his pure nature, seducing him. The use of 'wooing' is suggestive of the end in sight, having sex with him. Compare :
And when a woman woos, what woman's son
Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?
41.

foul = ugly, sinful, morally debased. Note however that the PP version has fair, evidently intended as ironic.
pride = gorgeous finery; swollen self esteem. It was also the sin which was especially associated with the devil.

9. And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
whether that = if it is or is not the case that
my angel = my saint, my beloved, my man right fair.
be turned fiend = has become a devil, has been converted to your side. The theological imagery continues, the idea being that a good angel might be perverted to join the fiends in Hell, and in this case he does. It is not very true however to Christian tradition, for, apart from the first rebellion led by Lucifer, which separated the good from the bad, the proud from the obedient and respectful, heavenly angels were considered to be incorruptible. One should therefore not press too closely the religious interpretation, for the meaning is directed more towards earthly Saints and earthly fiends.
10. Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
Suspect I may = I might well be suspicious.
yet not directly tell = yet I cannot be sure through hard evidence, yet I cannot immediately be sure. I cannot tell for certain (if he has become a fiend).
11. But being both from me, both to each friend,
being both from me = both of them being absent, apart from me, separated from me.
both to each friend = each being a friend of the other.
12. I guess one angel in another's hell:
I guess one angel in = I guess, suspect, that one of the angels is in etc.
another's hell = the other one's hell. Hell here could have its ordinary spiritual and mortal significance, the place of damnation, the place of final suffering, but applicable also to various hells on earth. Which implies that merely being in the dark lady's company could be a hell on earth. But at this stage all the secondary meanings seem to assume primary importance as the sexual jealousy reaches a crescendo. ' I think his prick is in her cunt when he is with her' is what the poet seems to be saying, for the frequent connotation was that 'hell' was the female sexual organ, and the well known story of Bocaccio in the Decameron tells how Rustico teaches Alibech how to put the devil into hell, i.e. the penis into the vagina. (Decameron III 10). So that in this line the angel has definitely become a devil. Another link is possibly to the game of Barley-Break, details of which are given in the note to line 5 above, and in more detail below. Evidently in that game being in 'Hell' with someone one fancied was not too bad a thing after all.
The equating of hell with the female pudenda, although no doubt a piece of ancient slang, might well have been given contemporary significance from the experience of catching venereal disease in the stews (brothels) which were in London, by old tradition situated on the South bank, near the play houses. Perhaps Shakespeare was recalling such an experience. KDJ cites a satire on the Earl of Leicester, News from Heaven and Hell, in which Leicester's punishment in hell for his lust on earth is that he is joined forever in intercourse with a female fiend:
thus was his paradice turned into his purgatory, his fine furred gape into a flaming trape, his place of pleasure into a gulfe of vengeance, and his pricke of desire into a pillor of fior. KDJ p.404. From D. C. Peck, '"News from Heaven and Hell": a defamatory narrative of the Earl of Leicester', ELR 8 (1978) 141-58.
13. Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
this = whether or not the good angel has entered hell, or they have become lovers.
live in doubt - note that doubt was also a theological term, allied to the sin of despair. To doubt or deny the truth was a sin against the Holy Spirit. The truly despairing man, although he believed in God and Salvation, nevertheless doubted its efficacy and came to believe that Christ's love and mercy was insufficient to save him.
14. Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
A cluster of ideas is implied by these words. Fire suggests the flames of hell and the triumph of evil over good. The bad angel appears to force the good one out into the open, as if he had been hiding somewhere. It also suggests that she may get rid of him, drive him away when she is sated with him. OED.8a. gives the following nearly contemporary example: 1615 Lust will not usually out of the soul...till it be fired out with confession. There is an echo of various proverbs, such as One nail drives out another; One love drives out another etc. And the metaphor of venereal disease, fire, is once again invoked, with the bad angel setting her sexual partner on fire by infecting him.

Additional notes

 

 

Barley Break. From Brand's Antiquities, 1841, II.237.

........She went abroad thereby,
A
BARLEY-BREAK her sweet swift feet to try.
* * * * *
Afield they go, where many lookers be,
* * * * *
Then couple three be straight allotted there,
They of both ends the middle two do fly,
The two that in mid place, Hell called, were,
Must strive with waiting foot, and watching
                                                      eye
To catch of them, and them to hell to bear,
That they, as well as they, Hell may supply:
Like some that seek to salve their blotted name

Will others blot, till all do taste of shame.
There you may see, soon as the middle two
Do coupled, towards either couple make,
They, false and fearful do their hands undo;
Brother his brother, friend doth friend forsake,

Heeding himself, cares not how fellows do,
But if a stranger mutual help doth take;
As perjured cowards in adversity,
With sight of fear, from friends to friends do fly.

Sidney Arc.Bk.I.Song of Lamon.

 

Barley-Break, or Last in Hell.

We two are last in Hell: what may we fear
To be tormented, or kept prisoners here:
Alas! if kissing be of plagues the worst,
We'll wish in Hell we had been last and first.

Robert Herrick 1591-1674. From Hesperides.


Love, Reason, Hate did once bespeak
Three mates to play at
Barley-Break.
Love Folly took; and Reason Fancy:
And Hate consorts with pride, so dance they:
Love coupled last, and so it fell
That Love and Folly were in Hell.

They break; and Love would Reason meet,
But hate was nimbler on her feet;
Fancy looks for Pride, and thither
Hies, and they two hug together;
Yet this new coupling still doth tell
That Love and Folly were in Hell.

The rest do break again, and Pride
Hath now got Reason on her side;
Hate and Fancy meet and stand
Untouched by Love in Folly's hand;
Folly was dull, but Love ran well,
So Love and Folly were in Hell.


Suckling 1609-42.

 

 

     41
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
 

 

Those petty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman's                                                               son
Will sourly leave her till she have prevailed?
Ay me! but yet thou mightest my seat

                                               
forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold                                                                truth,
Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine, by thy beauty being false to me.
41.

 

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
 

 

That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.
Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.
If I lose thee, my loss is my love's gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:
But here's the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.
42.