In sonnet 138, could you comment the development of wit and explain what formal elements Shakespeare uses to develop it?Hello!!! I need help! I cannot really see "wit" in that sonnet, probably...

In sonnet 138, could you comment the development of wit and explain what formal elements Shakespeare uses to develop it?

Hello!!! I need help! I cannot really see "wit" in that sonnet, probably because I am not english and I just started studying english literature. It would help me understand how it works, to be able to "see" it in other writings by Shakespeare.


Asked on by lucrecia

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

You already have plenty of answers, but I'll add this anyway since I've prepared it....


The wit in Sonnet 138 is in the last four lines. The first lines establish truth. It is a poignant sort of truth: She is young and he old. She tells him lies about how youthful he is (wherefore says she not that she is unjust), and he quietly accepts her falsehoods (Simply, I credit her false-speaking tongue).

The last four lines answer why this situation stands as it does and is where wit is introduced into this melancholy sonnet. Shakespeare uses plays on word meanings and contrasted word meanings that build verbal irony whereby wit is created. As a non-native English speaker, you'll want to use your dictionary to follow Shakespeare's thoughts.

First are plays on word meanings. And age in love, loves not to have years told employs two meanings of love and plays them against each other. The first is love as in to be in love with another. The second is love as in likes: [Gloss] And when an old man is in love, he likes not to have his age mentioned or his years counted. Then, Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, plays with two meanings of lies. The first meaning is in context with the topic, they tell each other falsehoods. The second is in context with a romantic affair; they lie together in physical intercourse.

Along with plays on words, Shakespeare uses contrasting meanings.  O love's best habit is in seeming trust, employs two such word meaning contrasts. The first is seeming trust. In this context, seeming implies that the trust referred to is the appearance of trust and not the fact of trust (it could also be a word play and mean befitting trust). The other contrast comes from the combination of best habit (good habit, well held habit) with seeming trust: Trust that is appearance alone and not fact can't be that much of a good habit....  

The next instance of contrasted meanings is And in our faults by lies we flattered be. Flattery is most often used in its sense of praise or complimentary remark, though, in a word play, it also means to get your way by catering to someone's vanity or foibles. The contrast of meaning lies in the idea that faults could be a subject of compliment or praise (praised faults could be a means of getting your own way, though). This line presents a double contrast by also saying that lies can be praise or complimentary; lies are not usually viewed favorably.

In summary, the last four lines alternate between lines emphasizing word plays (And age in love, loves not to have years told, and Therefore I lie with her, and she with me,) and lines emphasizing contrasts of meaning (O love's best habit is in seeming trust and And in our faults by lies we flattered be). These devices produce verbal irony (what is said is not what is meant). Plays on words are witty because your mind expects the obvious meaning and then recalls the other, deeper meaning igniting sudden recognition and appreciation of adroit word usage. Contrasts in meaning (flattering faults, seeming trust etc.) are witty because they awaken a recognition of a deeper meaning in the idea being discussed, such as the illusive nature of trust in a romance. Verbal irony is witty because two opposing ideas are presented in one word, phrase, sentence or idea.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

To me, this poem is funny because of the irony that Shakespeare uses in it.  He is saying that love is made up of a series of lies.  But he is also saying that the lovers find true love by accepting each other's lies.  So he's saying this paradoxical thing and that seems witty to me.

The wittiest line, in my opinion, is the first couplet.  It's saying "when my love says she's telling the truth, I believe her even though I know she's lying."  Think about that one for a while.  It's funny to me that you could even say those words.

Then in the rest of the sonnet, she believes he's young even though she knows he's old.  He believes she's faithful to him even though he knows she's cheating on him.  It's all pretty ridiculous.

I don't know that this will help you find wit in other Shakespeare stuff, but I hope it helps you understand this poem, at least.

trulytito's profile pic

trulytito | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted on



I don't think you need to be upset as you are not a native English speaker. Today English is a language of the whole world and NOT of any specific country.

And nice to learn you are interested in English Literature. I am also a student of that.

Before starting the discussion I shall request you to have a look at that sonnet once more [Reference 1]

And now first question what is 'wit' (as a literary term)? Well, 'wit' is intellectually amusing language that surprises and delights.

The dominant theme of sonnet 138 is the comfort that lies bring an insecure mind, a discourse on the ravages of time.In this sonnet, Shakespeare writes about the layers of deceit in a relationship between a man and a woman. Poet (or the speaker) and his lover each choose to believe the other's lies in order to remain secure about themselves. And poet has so brilliantly has presented this agreement to the reader that this agreement, in fact becomes a token or gift of love. That's poet's wit and that's poet's brilliance.

Look at the opening lines. The sonnet begins in a sudden stroke, the paraphrase of first tow lines may be- "When my mistress swears that she is faithful / I do believe her, though I know she lies." Well this could be the conclusion of the sonnet. But the poet has started the sonnet with these concluding note!

carefully look at line 13. "Therefore I lie with her and she with me". - I think, this is the best line of the sonnet. Notice the double meaning of lie here.The general meaning of the line may be " That's why I tell lie to her and she tells to me" The line also can be interpreted as "That is why I sleep (sex?) with her and she with me." Here the speaker calmly explains his complex relationship with cynical wit and resignation, and without expressing a wish to change or improve the dynamic between himself and his lover. Here rises a sense of material (non-Platonic romance). From general point of view, sonnet 138 is a love-sonnet. But at this point the question arises in reader's mind, that is it truly love? The relation with poet and his mistress- should it be called love? The reader becomes perplexed. But notice, the poet has himself has solved this confusion already. Line 11 "O, love's best habit is in seeming trust", here poet confers that love's best disguise is the pretence of truth. Neither he nor his lover is ready to admit truth. The lover is not ready to admit that she is unfaithful and poet will not admit that he is old. This is truth. But this is also truth that they love each other. "Therefore I lie with her and she with me".

Shakespeare in another sonnet wrote 'love is as a fever, longing still". The poet can not deny love. The poet loves his lover. But on the other hand he knows she is not faithful. Shakespeare presents the reader with paradoxes and logic-plays. Each line builds on the last, so that every line of the sonnet adds new depth and complexity to the lovers? deceit. Also Shakespeare's language effectively conveys the speaker's tone and emotions through word choice and structure; Shakespeare communicates detachment and bitter humor on the part of the speaker, as well as a resigned and cynical outlook on love."

Best wishes.

Study well.


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