Lust's Torment: Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 Analysis

Categories: William Shakespeare

Sonnet 129 is an interesting poem in Shakespeare's set of sonnets, supposedly, dealt with to his dark mistress. This sonnet is full figurative language and other poetic devices that let the reader know precisely how the poet feels about the emotions and threats related to desire. He also uses interesting punctuation options that produce the flow and tone of the poem. As the readers, we do not know who this poem is dealt with to due to the lack of thou, he, or she in the poem.

It does appear to be describing an individual experience, however we do not understand for sure whom our poetic persona engaged with to trigger these feelings.

The poetic personality begins by describing just how cynical lust is before acted upon and describes how crazy the desire to please this intense craving ends up being. In the end, he shows us it is all a worthless waste of energy, leaving the predator in regret and captured in a vicious circle of making every effort to experience that divine memory of complete satisfaction.

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The issue is, why do we repeatedly chase and please this desire if we understand it will confine us to the cage of "hell?" The very first 2 lines of the poem tell us that desire in action, or sex, is the cost of "spirit in a waste of embarassment. Shame is a painful feeling of embarrassment experienced when a person knowingly dedicates a misdeed of his own moral requirements. This individual is losing their energy and time doing something they understand they must not be doing.

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When one constantly falls into traps, they know they should not, it gradually lowers ethical and takes their sense of pride right from under their feet, however, our poetic persona is willing to give his spirit, what he represents as an individual, to satisfy his uncontrollable desires.

Up until lust is acted upon, the poetic persona personifies desire as this unmanageable "severe", "harsh", even "murderous" beast that immediately changes people into untrustworthy, deceiving, soulless beings, typically the reverse of what they lack lust. These 9 adjectives personifying lust have nothing such as rhyme or assonance connecting them, it makes the reader time out and pronunciate each word. I think the poet did this for emphasis so his audience hears every word and can think of why it was chosen to describe lust. For example, "perjured" is to willfully provide an incorrect testament.

We can see lust will make a person lie to get what they want which is why it is “not to trust. ” The poet uses enjambment through the entire first quatrain; there are only commas to separate the description words. When read, this gives the poem a rapid, choppy, agitated tone. The first quatrain leaves us feeling that the poetic persona is dealing with the bold, undomesticated qualities of lust that would naturally turn anyone away from sex. The second quatrain starts with the poetic persona saying he has just enjoyed this lustful sex!

When something is enjoyed, it is a calm, pleasant experience, which is not what lustful sex was previously described as. Then, we see where the conflict starts because he tells his readers that as soon as he gets the long awaited enjoyment, it is “despised straight. ” The word straight means directly after and despised gives a sense of more than hating what he just indulged in. The next two lines are very interesting, even though there is still no end punctuation these two lines flow much better via assonance of the “s” syllable that gives this quatrain a smoother, sad feeling.

The poet also uses alliteration of the letters “P” and “H” that make this quatrain fit piece together even better. The poet compares lust before action to hunting and uses a simile to compare lust after action to a fish that has just been hooked. This produces the image of a fish frantically fighting and regretting falling into the trap set by a fisherman. A wild animal that is hungry will do anything to catch their next meal. Satisfying its hunger is the only thing it can think about and embodies the entire animal until they are no longer hungry.

The last line of this quatrain is where the problem elevates, “on purpose laid to make the taker mad. ” This makes it seem that someone he has lustful desires for, again assuming it is the dark mistress, knows he wants her extremely bad. She repeatedly sets up a seductive trap, almost like her beauty is a hanging bait in front of him that that he cannot resist. “Mad” here can be ambiguous for mad as in angry or mad as in crazy. Both fit in the situation because being powerlessly seduced by someone is aggravating and leaving the desire unfulfilled will drive him crazy.

The third quatrain is where we get the insight that this is probably not the first time he has been hooked and why he feels so negatively about lust. The poetic persona tells us that he is conscious of the fact that all three forms of lust, “had, having, and in quest to have” are crazy. “A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe. ” For something to be proved there has to be tested, unarguable evidence that it is true. The actual experience is the test that proves it does lead to bliss, which is what brings him back repeatedly to be “proved a very woe”.

Being in a state of bliss is to be in a state of ecstasy, or overwhelming happiness. It can also mean complete spiritual happiness. If he has proof that this is what brings him bliss of course he is going to be unhappy when it is over because nothing else can bring him this level of joy and excitement. All he has left over after expending so much energy on this whole journey is nothing but a dream. The ellipsis in this line matches what it is highlighting. There is nothing but a dream left and the only words the poet uses to describe what is left behind are “a dream. At the end of this quatrain is the first time we see a period in the entire sonnet. To me, it seems this is where the poetic persona is finally done venting. With no periods throughout the sonnet, it is read rather quickly as if this was something he had to get it off of his mind. The concluding couplet of this poem does not serve as an answer to his problem, but opens up this issue to the whole world to reflect on the fact that lustful sex is shameful in the end, we all know it, WHY do we not turn it down?

Heaven is used as a synecdoche for the moment of bliss and pleasure received from the action and hell is used to refer to the vicious cycle of lust reignited by these blissful memories of happiness. This sonnet is different because we do not know who it is about, but if it is referenced it to the dark mistress; I find it interesting that she is the DARK mistress and the poet calls being trapped by her beauty as hell. In the first quatrain, lust is described with hellish, gruesome qualities and in hell; I don’t believe there would be many good spirits.

In sonnet 138 the poem concludes with “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, /and in our faults by lies we flattered be. ” They both know they lie with each other and tell lies to each other out of the comfort they receive; this is no true love.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Lust's Torment: Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 Analysis. (2016, Sep 13). Retrieved from

Lust's Torment: Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 Analysis essay
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