Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Shakespeare

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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...

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