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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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What are some literary devices in Shakespeare's sonnet 152?

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The literary elements in Shakespeare's Sonnet 152 work together to establish a tone of outrage that effectively ends the relationship with the "dark woman," who is the subject of the preceding sonnets in this series.

First, the speaker leans not on language of love in this sonnet but on the formal language of law. On one hand, he tries to justify all the feelings he has held for this woman and all the ways he has tried to change her into the woman he desires her to be. Yet his efforts have fallen short; in fact, they have failed each other in this relationship. Thus, he is left weighing out the efforts versus the outcome, judging his own failings—and hers. The language is passionate on the side of this judgement, with the speaker noting that

But why of two oaths’ breach do I accuse thee,
When I break twenty? I am perjur’d most;
For all my vows are oaths but to misuse thee

While he realizes that she has broken oaths to him (a much more formal language than, say, "promises"), he has committed perjury in all his "oaths" that were given only to mislead her. Thus, he removes himself from any form of intimacy through this language.

There is also a pun in the final rhyming couplet, depending on which text you use:

For I have sworn thee fair: more perjured eye,
To swear against the truth so foul a lie.

The "eye" here is sometimes replaced by "I" in other texts, which is worth a note. But in this version, the speaker plays on the word "eye," meaning both that his eyes have deceived him in believing that this lady is fair and that he ("I") is more perjured by testifying to her fairness when it was so clearly a lie.

Also worth noting is the use of end stops in all lines except the first line. Most of these come in the form of visually hard punctuation, such as colons, semicolons, and exclamation points. Thus, the speaker visually pounds his frustration into the lines, demanding that each line of justification be heard and considered, the pause giving time to process the legalities of this relationship.

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Sonnet 152 is highly rhetorical in tone, opening with anaphora and parallelism (e.g., "In loving," "In act," "In vowing") and repeating other key words (e.g., "forsworn") and patterns (e.g., "new faith," "new hate," "new love") with intricate formality. While Shakespeare's sonnets often use legal language, it is particularly abundant here. "Forsworn" is used four times, as is "oaths." "Truth," "faith," "vows" and "perjured" are all used twice; "swear" or "swearing," three times. This gives the poem an insistent, dogged quality, as of a lawyer exhaustively pleading a point.

The long, flowing lines of an eloquent speech in the law courts are further suggested by the three sets of feminine rhymes, making six of the lines eleven syllables in length. There is further rhetorical repetition and grammatical parallelism in such phrases as "deep oaths of thy deep kindness" and "thy love, thy truth, thy constancy" (which is also an ascending tricolon). Although the word "blindness" is not capitalized in most editions, the notion of giving eyes to blindness may be regarded as a form of personification.

This is the antepenultimate sonnet in Shakespeare's sequence, succeeded only by the two Cupid sonnets, which have an entirely different tone. It can therefore be regarded as the legal, rhetorical, public summing-up of the entire sequence, and the literary devices and diction employed are entirely appropriate for the purpose.

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Some literary devices in Shakespeare's Sonnet 152 are as follows:

Alliteration: Alliteration is using the same consonant at the beginning of words that are placed closed to each other. This creates a rhythmic effect. In the final couplet of the sonnet, the "sworn" in the second-to-last line is alliterative with the "swear" in the last line, while, similarly, the "fair" in the second-to-last line is alliterative with the "foul" in the final line.

Antithesis: Antithesis is balancing contrasting words against each other. Shakespeare does this repeatedly: "new hate" contrasts with "new love," for example, "enlighten" contrasts with "blindness," and "fair" with "foul."

Apostrophe: Apostrophe is addressing an absent person as if present, or addressing abstract or inanimate objects. In this poem, the speaker is addressing his lover, with whom he is deeply disillusioned. We know this because in the first line he says "in loving thee" Directly addressing someone who is not present can add emotional intensity to a poem.

Parallelism: Parallelism is repeating a similar grammatical structure for effect: Shakespeare writes: "thy love, thy truth, thy constancy."

Repetition: Repetition adds emphasis to certain words and lends a sense of rhythm. Shakespeare repeats "swear," "oaths," "sworn," "vows," and "perjured," building up the idea of a contract violated.

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