“Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,/Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.”

by Dennis Abrams


Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.


1. Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all;

all my loves – the sonnet plays on the various meanings of love. a.) mistress (lines1,5,6). b.) the youth (lines1,3). c.) the experience of loving, love per se, as in lines 3, 11, or as in phrases such as Love is too young to know what conscience is. Sonn 151. d.) the specific love of the speaker for the youth (line 5). All these meanings overlap to a certain extent. The primary meaning of the line is ‘Take all my mistresses, yes all of them’, but it can also mean ‘Deprive me of any love you have ever had for me’.

2. What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?

Have you gained any increase in love over that which you already possessed?

3. No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;

You have not gained anything which could be called true love. And/or ‘You might have gained a love but you will not genuinely be able to address her as ‘my true love’ ‘. To modern ears there is a slight worry about the duplicity of this situation. For why, if the poet’s love for the youth was genuine and absolute, should he need another love in the form of a mistress? Evidently he compartmentalises this other love, and regards it as not genuine, in some way inferior to his love for the youth. These references to ‘true love’ may have in mind the anonymous poem (sometimes attributed to Raleigh) ‘As Ye came from the Holy Land’, some verses of which I add below.

As ye came from the holy land/
Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love

By the way as you came?

How should I know your true love,
That have met many a one
As I came from the holy land,

That have come, that have gone?

It then transpires that the speaker has been abandoned by his love because he is no longer young, and he proceeds to moralize on love.

Know that love is a careless child,
And forgets promise past,
He is blind, he is deaf when he list,

And in faith never fast.

His desire is a dureless content,
And a trustless joy;
He is won with a world of despair,

And is lost with a toy.

Of womenkind such indeed is the love,
Or the word love abused,
Under which many childish desires

And conceits are excused.

But true love is a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never dead, never cold,

From itself never turning.

4. All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more.

All mine = all my love, all my mistresses, all my possessions. (See lines 9-10)

5. Then, if for my love, thou my love receivest,

If, because of my love for you, you accept my mistress as yours, (thinking that, as our loves are one, you are expressing your love for me by doing so). receivest has rather nasty undertones, as in receiveing stolen goods, or receiving sexual favours. The feminine ending of these four lines (5-8) is also frequently commented on. They give a sense of awkwardness and unease, as if both poet and lover know that the latter is in the wrong, but are not prepared to say so openly.

6. I cannot blame thee, for my love thou usest;

for my love thou usest = because (for) you have intercourse with my mistress. For meaning ‘because’ is common in Shakespeare. E.g. from Sonn 106:
And, for they look’d but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing.
To use
in the sense of ‘have intercourse with’ (OED.10.b) is found elsewhere in Shakespeare:
Come, I must bring you to our captain’s cave:
Fear not; he bears an honourable mind,
And will not use a woman lawlessly.
SIL. O Valentine, this I endure for thee!
SB gives the additional meaning of ‘profiting from my love for you’, as the usurer profits from the capital he employs by letting it out at interest. SB.p200.n6.

7. But yet be blam’d, if thou thy self deceivest

be blamed = be found guilty, accept that you are at fault.
Q gives this selfe, which is retained by some editors. It could refer to the poet, who has been deceived, but it is an awkward reflexive construction and not very convincing. The compositor made frequent errors with thy/their/this.

8. By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.

wilful taste = sexual experience, wanton use and enjoyment. The suggestion is that the youth’s better part declines to take advantage of the situation, but his lustful nature dominates and encourages him to seize the opportunity. ‘You will be found in the wrong if you deceive yourself into thinking that nothing is amiss when you rashly decide to enjoy what in your heart of hearts your conscience would refuse to accept as just’.

9. I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,

thy robbery = the theft of the poet’s mistress.
gentle thief – there is no other example of the use of this oxymoron in Shakespeare, but there is gentle cheater in 151, and tender churl in 1. (See the note to sonnet 1). Neither of them are as harsh as the combination used on this occasion, especially as the character of the thief is made even more unpleasant in the following line. The whole thought is softened by the charitable overtone of forgiveness, making the speaker almost Christlike in his endurance. It is also softened by the appeal to the language of love, which often involves theft:

O me! you juggler! you canker-blossom!
You thief of love! what, have you come by night
And stolen my love’s heart from him?
That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.

10. Although thou steal thee all my poverty:

thou steal thee = you steal (for yourself). thee is more or less redundant, being almost equivalent to the se element in a French reflexive verb. This construction is an old one, called the ethic dative, as in JC.I.2.262-4: …when he perceived the common herd was glad he refused the crown, he pluckt me ope his doublet and offered them his throat to cut.
The use of steal thee in this sonnet is equivalent to he pluckt me in the JC example above.
all my poverty = what little I have. The context suggests that, in the field of amatory conquests, the youth has almost unlimited choice, whereas the poet has almost nothing. It is therefore all the more cruel that he (the youth) should find it necessary to steal this one small thing from his beloved.

11. And yet, love knows it is a greater grief

love knows – echoes the more common phrases ‘God knows’, ‘heaven knows’. Possibly an echo here from Virgil: Quis fallere possit amantem? Who could ever deceive a lover? Aen.iv.296, referring to the unerring ability that someone in love has to see through subterfuge. The pathos of this and the following line is enhanced by the naturalness of the language.

12. To bear love’s wrong, than hate’s known injury.

love’s wrong = the psychological injury that a lover can inflict.
hate’s known injury = the anticipated (known) harm which is done by an enemy.

13. Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,

lascivious grace = graciousness which is lascivious and sensual; sensuality which is gracious and elegant. The contradiction is brought into sharper focus by the second half of the line, in which ill (evil) and well (good) become interchangeable. There is also a religious meaning of grace as in ‘God’s grace’, referring to God’s beneficence. And to the grace of a nobleman’s title, ‘Your Grace’, which would be relevant if we new that the youth was real and was a nobleman of Elizabeth’s or James’ court.

14. Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.

spites = malignant actions, harsh treatment. As in
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
Sonn 90.
yet we must not be foes
– the conclusion can seem lame, but I think in the context of what has preceded it is not so. The speaker has no other suggestions to offer, all his golden words are spent. But love must continue and bear it out even to the edge of doom, even if the beloved is cruel.  One must also remember the importance that was attached to retaining and strengthening one’s friendships in the Elizabethan world.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel

And about the sonnet:

Commonly viewed as parallel to the situation in Sonnets 133, 134, and 144, the sonnet appears in this light to reflect a situation in which the speaker’s beloved has seduced the speaker’s mistress. While the seeming specificity of the reference has tantalized biographical critics, it has also been likened (for instance, by Geoffrey Bullough) to the central situation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The situation described, if not wholly unique to Shakespeare, is at least highly unusual, as Sidney Lee notes. Parallels have been noted in Petrarch and in Theodore Beza‘s Poematica, but these are not as implicitly sexual as Shakespeare’s poem.

Line 5 is glossed by Edward Dowden as “If for love of me thou receivest her whom I love”; George Wyndham, though, has it “If, instead of my love, you take the woman whom I love.” Line 8, the next vague line, has received even more varied interpretations. Dowden has it “Deceive yourself by an unlawful union while you refuse lawful wedlock”; Beeching has it “by taking in willfulness my mistress whom you yet do not love”; Lee says “‘What thou refusest is that lascivious indulgence which in reality thou disdainest.” C. C. Stopes relates the line to other sonnets written in condemnation of illicit lust.

And this:

This is one of the most desolate sonnets in the entire series. Desperate situations call for desperate remedies, and the poet casts around to find a way out of his misery. He cannot disguise the naked fact that his beloved youth has behaved treacherously and stolen his mistress. This and the following two sonnets try to come to terms with the reality of the deception and loss. The initial exclamation springs as it were from exhaustion, as if having examined all possible motives for the actions of the youth, he can find no justification therein and decides to throw in the towel. Let his beloved have all his loves, for they are valueless compared to the love which he feels for the youth. Yet immediately doubts begin to resurface. The beloved’s motives are called into question once more. Did he really believe that he could augment his store of love by adding the poet’s mistress? Or did he not rather deliberately deceive himself, and act out of sheer wantoness, with no thought of the other’s hurt? But perhaps that is too gross an accusation. Whatever the motives, forgiveness is the best course, for something must be salvaged from the wreck. Even so, querulousness cannot be supressed and the beloved comes close to being depicted as the worst sort of thief stealing a miserable pensioner’s last savings. The proverbial thought is cited that the harm a lover’s wrong can do is far greater than injuries caused by an enemy. The closing couplet tries to rescue the situation, and its very weakness seems to give it its strength, a strength greater than any linguistic tour-de-force could have provided. It is the drowning man clutching at straws – ‘Destroy me, yet we must remain friends. I have nothing else left to which I can make appeal. If I abandon this rock on which my life rests, that my love for you is above all other eventualities, then all is lost and I am doomed. So I will turn away from your wrongs and maintain my friendship with you despite everything.’

These three sonnets, 40-42, are matched by three in the dark lady sequence, 133, 134 and 144, and probably relate to the same incident or series of incidents. The reasons for the current arrangement are not known, and we may only speculate that the poet perhaps wished the three later sonnets, addressed to his mistress to balance these three written to the youth.

It is noticeable that this sonnet uses the word ‘love’ considerably more than in any other sonnet (10 times, as love, love’s or loves). This may be an expression of the fact that the poet feels his love more threatened than at any other time, and by repetition of the word he will cast a spell by it and prevent it from flying away.


Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

And finally from Helen Vender:

“The masochism of abjectness in love here reaches its first peak:  Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.  This poem offers also one of those striking phrases with which the Sonnets are sprinkled, phrases which have a great aesthetic effect than can, at first, be accounted for:  here, the phrase is the fascinating lascivious grace.  The phrase skirts blasphemy, since the moral import of the immediately following ill and well immediately brings religious grace into earshot; and the fallen state of the infatuated speaker (by comparison to his better state when he called the youth a gentle thief) is shown by his now making the positive word (grace) of the characterizing phrase the noun (the part of speech which conveys essence) with the condemnatory word (lascivious) becoming only a modifying adjective.  Though he adds that all ill (substance) shows(appears) well in the beloved, this concession does not mitigate the positive force of the defining noun, grace.  “Graceful lasciviousness” would show a speaker properly defining the relation between graceful show and lascivious substance; lascivious grace shows a speaker helplessly enthralled by beauty, for whom the aesthetic is the central necessary essence and substance of anything, and for whom all other qualities, even deadly sins, are only contingent and adjectival.  All ill well shows/Kill stammers the couplet.  And yet, even with all this said, one does not at first know why lascivious falls on the ear with such absolute rightness.  It is conspicuous, of course, by being the only ‘sophisticated’ polysyllable in a couplet of monosyllables:

Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,

Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.

The Gordian knot is the quatrain in which the speaker asks, ‘Why did he deceive me by a relation with my mistress?’ and its contortions show the impossibility of both conjectures:  ‘He did it because, loving me, he wants to have the same mistress as I do; he did it because he wanted a taste of what he had always repudiated (to me) as distasteful.’  The sonnet eventually gives up on both conjectures.  ‘Never mind why; what am I to do about it?’ the speaker asks himself, and answers in the sestet, ‘I do forgive.’  The blame persists in the putatively impersonal form of a proverb:  ‘Love’s wrong’s a greater grief than hate’s best known injury’ – its epigrammatic form marking its proverbial origin.  When the speaker of a sonnet gives up on personal utterance and resorts to proverbial form, we have generally reached a situation that will not yield itself up to the forces of rational analysis (as the tortures of the present Gordian knot show).  A hapless resort to forgiveness and proverb here takes the place of analytic resolution.

Such as it is, the truncated ‘analytic’ resolution of 40 is the acceptance of the aesthetic paradox of lascivious grace; one is still in love with beauty, even after seeing not only its infidelity but the corrupted form that that beauty’s infidelity has assumed – infidelity undertaken, as it was, for wilful taste rather than for infatuation or love.  That is why the speaker admits that all ill shows well in the young man – coldblooded ill as well as hot-blooded, spites as well as wrong.  ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’ (Job) is the utterance of the saints, blasphemed here in Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.  It is a terrifying end.  The ‘song’ of Take all my loves, my love…no love, my love has degenerated to Kill…spites…foes.”

And all that, packed into fourteen short lines.


My next post will be Sunday night/Monday morning – a brief introduction to Henry VI, Part Three, which we will begin reading next week after the holiday.

And with that…a very happy and healthy New Year’s to all of you, who help make this project possible.

Enjoy your weekend.

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8 Responses to “Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,/Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.”

  1. Chris says:

    Happy New Year, Dennis, and thank you so much for this wonderful experience!

  2. Lesley says:

    Oh that lacivious grace, that gentle thief. The immature lover steals from one more experienced? I love those first lines. What do we have that we didn’t have before? What have we lost and what have we gained? Even deeper who is the subject or the object of such love, really? The lover and the beloved and the Love..the felt experience. Love always triangulates–there’s always this third “mistress.” Who loves and who takes love? Is it youth? What is true? Who is giving and receiving? This I and thou and “this other.” The desire to possess something which really slips away–stealing poverty. Yet really, we (I and thou) are not on opposing sides, really. We are not foes. Unity not opposition. The more times I read this sonnet, the more it slips away…just like all the impossible loves who I have claimed or claimed me. It is all very slippery. Impossible to give form or language, although this comes closer than most. That’s my musing for the evening, foolish as it is.

    • Lesley says:

      And then there’s those middle lines:
      “But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest
      By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.”
      Blame, will, refusal, deception….Oy!

      • Lesley says:

        We are still in an active role in deception. In receiving we have to surrender to another, But when we willfully “taste”–take–we don’t have to receive. It is like a willful two year old who doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to taste himself. It is about control then, not really love. Forgiveness is needed for the one who will not receive our love because he must take. Thief, not lover…then this strange masochism, the pain of it. Kill me with spites, but we must not be foes. Oy, oy! The surrender is the love? I could get lost in what this sonnet is saying, really.

      • Isn’t it amazing how much can be packed into a Shakespearean sonnet’s usual 14 lines, 10 syllables per line?

  3. Lesley says:

    I like this one. The first lines: take it all. Do you think you can cut love into little pieces and dole it out. Is love a possession? Is love a thing you can own and increase. No, that is not true love. It was already there before this possessive streak. Love was already. It was before this need for more and more. If you are ready to receive this true love, this love before more, then I cannot be angry with how you use it. But if you take, unable to receive and then blame me for your actions, then all I can do is forgive thee for your ineptness, and deceptive ways. You take from emptiness, from my poverty, rather than from the fullness of giving and receiving. Felt grace–lacivious grace, sees all, it is not blind. All those little annoying spites, are endured. We are not enemies. This is love. We endure the difficulties for the sake of common ground.
    This helps. It can be read many ways but I think this deep exchange on the very ground of love and loving personified is what it is all about. I babble, along thes well designed lines and syllables. I keep seeing more in what he is saying. Wonderful.

  4. Lesley says:

    “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag
    It’s so elegant
    So intelligent”

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