Shakespeare's Sonnets Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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How does Shakespeare portray the complex relationship between truth and love in Sonnet 138?

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In William Shakespeare's Sonnet 138, the poet portrays the complex relationship between truth and love by admitting that he knows his mistress lies to him. Specifically, he knows that when his mistress says that she is faithful, she is, in fact, lying. He adopts a pragmatic approach to his relationship with his mistress. He can ignore her lying and adultery and pretend to believe her, because her unfaithfulness does not disturb him enough for him to bring it out in the open by accusing her. The first two lines of the sonnet are as follows:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies...

In other words, when she swears that she is being truthful, he pretends to believe her, even though he knows that she is lying. In part, this acceptance of her lies also reflects his own insecurities about getting older and, perhaps, not being as attractive to her—and to women generally—as he once was. The next few lines read,

That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young...

His mistress thinks that she can fool him because she thinks him young and naïve. The poet is flattered by this. In the next line, he acknowledges that even if she treats him like a naïve young man, she actually knows that he is not that young. In fact, his best days are behind him.

Then he acknowledges that they are both lying. He writes, “On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.” Her lie is a proactive one. His is a lie of omission. He lies by pretending to believe her.

Finally, the best part of love is in the trust we place in our lover. Even if it is not real, it gives us a false sense of security and confidence. The penultimate line, summarizing that they each lie to and with one another, contains a play on words. Shakespeare uses the word “lie” to mean both to speak a lie, as well as to recline, as in sleep together. By sleeping together and lying about their exclusivity in the relationship, they are also flattering one another.

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