How might one interpret Shakespeare's Sonnet 149 ("Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not")?

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The details of Shakespeare’s sonnet 149 might be interpreted in a number of ways, including the following:

  • Line 1 opens with direct address from the speaker to the woman he claims to love. The poem thus immediately achieves an element of drama and a colloquial, familiar tone.
  • Line 1 refers to the woman as “cruel,” suggesting the speaker’s wounded emotions. The claim that the lady was cruel was a standard convention of Petrarchan love poetry, and often the claim was meant to be read as ironic mockery of the speaker’s self-pity.
  • Line 2 suggests that the speaker implies that his affection for the woman is sincere but does damage to himself.
  • Lines 3-4 continue the speaker’s paradoxical attitude: he claims to be devoted to the woman, but he also claims that she is a “tyrant” (just as he had earlier claimed that she was “cruel”). Once again, tjhen, in these lines the speaker implies that his affection for the woman damages him, in this case by making him self-neglectful.
  • Notice how many of the lines of this poem end in quotation marks. These help make the tone of the poem seem highly emotional, accusatory, and/or pleading, as the speaker tries to think of as many different ways as possible to defend and justify himself.
  • If the first four lines had dealt with the relationship between the speaker and the lady, lines 5-6 focus on how his relationship with her affects his potential relations with others. He rejects anyone who hates her, and he pays no duteous attention to anyone she dislikes. In these respects, line 6 balances line 5.
  • By lines 7-8, the speaker has returned to focus on the relationship between himself and the lady, again suggesting how the lady makes him suffer and “moan.” Here and throughout, the tone of the poem manages to combine accusations, defensiveness, and self-pity.
  • In lines 9-10, the speaker claims that he lacks any kind of self-respect that would prevent him from serving this woman. He claims, in other words, to be completely at her service, although the tone of the poem can be read as angry, as whiny and weak, or as some combination of all three. Many readers would have seen the speaker’s obsession with this woman as irrational and excessive, and the speaker himself offers much evidence to support this interpretation. After all, he confesses that

. . . all my best doth worship thy defect,

Commanded by the motion of thine eyes . . . (12-13)

In other words, everything that is best in him idolizes her flaw, although the specific nature of her flaw is not made explicit in this poem. The speaker could be referring to her dark complexion (mentioned in previous poems) or to some defect in her moral nature. In any case, these lines once again imply the speaker’s subservience

  • Line 13 opens with paradoxical, oxymoronic language: he calls her “love” but tells her to continue to “hate.” In the rest of the line he claims to have figured out how her mind works, although the poem most obviously gives us insight into the workings of his own mind.
  • In line 14, further witty language concludes the poem: he claims that she loves anyone who can see clearly, but then he immediately admits that he is blind (that is, blinded by his obsession with her).

All in all, this poem presents a speaker whose passion is his chief characteristic and whose obsession with the woman results in self-abasement.


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