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Static Action and Shakespeare’s 129th Sonnet

August 13, 2007

Sonnet 129The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
–William Shakespeare

I have appreciated Shakespeare’s 129th Sonnet since discovering it in my teens. I would explicate it differently now than I would have then, but would not discard it from the Things that Mean Something file I keep in my head.

The heaven to which Shakespeare refers, of course, is not God’s Heaven, but the illusory, transitory heaven that beguiles a sinner to lust. And the hell to which he refers is thwarted desire, the “swallowed bait” the conquered sinner despises after finding the object of his desire to be “a very woe.”

Action defines faith, and faith powers action; faith cannot be static because its origin is spiritual: but can action be static? Passing the first-glance irony we may arrive somewhat disheveled at, “of course it can.” A liturgy comes to mind as something that can be static action. So can sin, when it lithifies the heart.

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,

It’s hard not to think Shakespeare was mindful of Amnon and Tamar (2 Samuel 13) as he penned these lines. Lust captures action, holding it prisoner, a metaphor of stasis. Amnon hated Tamar after sinning against her–and all Israel–because he swallowed the bitter bait of sin.

Intriguingly, the bait is,

On purpose laid to make the taker mad:

Shakespeare does not reveal by whom he takes the bait to be laid. Satan? Fate? Rival forces to the sinner’s joy? Fairies? The bait layer is not named, but it is a purposeful agent. How sinister. Is there a benign counter-agent? Who can know? We encounter tripwires, and we can never know who sets them, so how can we ever know how to avoid them? A darkly fatalistic merry universe indeed.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Shakespeare acknowledged that men know the peril of sin, but they don’t know enough to avoid it. “What fools these mortals be” (Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God (Psalm 14:1; Psalm 53:1). Lo, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding (Job 28:28). In Shakespeare’s worldview, with no clear evidence of God, it would seem that men, all fools whether high-born or low, are simply casualties of lust.

Shakespeare never posits deliverance from sin. Men will be bested by their lusts, and their lusts will promise heaven and deliver hell. Fate and character determine whether things come to an amusing or an undoing end.

All is not well, and all does not end well in his poetic world. A far, sad cry from, Behold, I make all things new (Revelation 21:5).

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7 Comments
  1. August 13, 2007 8:00 pm

    Black flowers from the river of death.

  2. August 14, 2007 6:48 am

    Hi Ruben,

    Your graphic didn’t come through….

  3. August 14, 2007 10:16 am

    Oh, no, there wasn’t a graphic. It was an allusion to D.H. Lawrence.

  4. August 14, 2007 10:49 am

    Ah, I took it for a caption. It would have made a nice graphic for the sonnet.

  5. August 14, 2007 2:39 pm

    I’m a pretty static dog, really. I was just lying here lithifying when I accidentally read this.

  6. August 14, 2007 2:42 pm

    Zack, you are nothing if not dynamism in inaction.

  7. scribbles2day permalink
    August 14, 2007 7:44 pm

    Can action be static?
    Yes. But for us the meaning will be different as we live and grow.

Comments are closed.