“O call me not to justify the wrong/That thy unkindness lays upon my heart.”

Shakespeare Sonnet #139

SONNET 139

O, call not me to justify the wrong
That thy unkindness lays upon my heart;
Wound me not with thine eye but with thy tongue;
Use power with power and slay me not by art.
Tell me thou lovest elsewhere, but in my sight,
Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside:
What need’st thou wound with cunning when thy might
Is more than my o’er-press’d defense can bide?
Let me excuse thee: ah! my love well knows
Her pretty looks have been mine enemies,
And therefore from my face she turns my foes,
That they elsewhere might dart their injuries:
Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,
Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.

SONNET 139

PARAPHRASE

.

O, call not me to justify the wrong

Do not ask me to justify the wrong

That thy unkindness lays upon my heart;

That your unkindness lays upon my heart;

Wound me not with thine eye but with thy tongue;

Do not wound me with your eye but with your tongue;

Use power with power and slay me not by art.

Use your power to kill me with power, therefore, do not kill me by artifice.

Tell me thou lovest elsewhere, but in my sight,

Tell me you have other lovers, but when you are in my sight,

Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside:

Darling, refrain from looking at them:

What need’st thou wound with cunning when thy might

Why do you need to wound me in this way when your power,

Is more than my o’er-press’d defense can bide?

Is greater than my taxed power of resistance can stand?

Let me excuse thee: ah! my love well knows

But let me plead an excuse for you: my beloved knows

Her pretty looks have been mine enemies,

That her wanton looks have been my enemies,

And therefore from my face she turns my foes,

And therefore she turns her eyes away from me,

That they elsewhere might dart their injuries:

That they may inflict injuries on someone else:

Yet do not so; but since I am near slain,

Yet do not do this; since I am already nearly slain by your actions,

Kill me outright with looks and rid my pain.

Kill me right now and rid me of my mental anguish.

 

ANALYSIS

O, call not…my heart (1-2): “The ‘wrong’ and ‘unkindness’ (2) refer not to the conventional ‘coldness’ of a desired mistress but to the unfaithfulness of the poet’s mistress in loving ‘elsewhere’ (5) and in, unblushingly, allowing the poet to witness her roving eye (see lines 5-6). Thus, in terms of the conventionally cold and chaste mistress celebrated by most sonnet writers, her behaviour may be considered ‘unkind’ (ie. unnatural)” (G. Blakemore Evans, 257).

Wound…tongue (3): i.e., Do not wound me with your eye by refusing to look at me.

Use…art (4): i.e., Because you can physically kill me whenever you wish by using the real force of a crushing blow (or by some other means), you should not hesitate to use that power in an open and direct way, and not try to kill me by indirect means (ie. by cheating on me and throwing it in my face).

o’erpressed (8): overburdened.

Her…enemies (10): Elsewhere in the Sonnets we are told that his mistress is not attractive in the standard sense of the word and so we must take ‘pretty looks’ here to mean, not her ‘pretty features’ but her wanton glances at other men.

Twenty-four of the Sonnets are addressed to Shakespeare’s mistress, otherwise known as the Dark Lady. Shakespeare never actually refers to her as such, but he tells us that she is “a woman color’d ill” with jet black hair and eyes. She is not beautiful, nor does the poet find his relationship with her rewarding in the same way that he finds his relationship with his other lover, likely the real-life Earl of Southampton, rewarding. His affair with the dark lady is based his desire to satisfy his physical rather than spiritual and intellectual needs. At times we see that his mistress is vicious and unfaithful, as is the case in Sonnet 139. Her sexual appetite is large, and she delights in flaunting her infidelities. In the later Sonnets we discover that she betrays the poet even further by having an affair with his young male lover. And yet, while she shamelessly pursues other men, the poet continues to implore her not to cast him aside. This candid and humiliating plea by the poet reveals a masochistic streak, which no doubt springs from intense vulnerability and lack of self-worth.

Or,

The poet declines to excuse the cruelty of his beloved, which according to the traditions of the sonneteers he should be prepared to do. Nevertheless half way through the sonnet he changes his mind and finds justification for her actions.

The initial tone contrasts sharply with the readiness the poet showed to defend the beloved youth who, it seems, was all too ready to betray him. (40-42, 88-9, 95-6). Here the mistress seems to be keen to give her attentions to other admirers, and does not stint to do so even in his presence, so that the pain is the double one of having her disdain him, and seeing how much she is pleased to flirt with and entrap other men.

The 1609 Quarto Version

OCall not me to iuſtifie the wrong,
That thy vnkindneſſe layes vpon my heart,
Wound me not with thine eye but with thy toung,
Vſe power with power,and ſlay me not by Art,
Tell me thou lou’ſt elſe-where;but in my ſight,
Deare heart forbeare to glance thine eye aſide,
What needſt thou wound with cunning when thy                                                                                  might
Is more then my ore-preſt defence can bide?
Let me excuſe thee,ah my loue well knowes,
Her prettie lookes haue beene mine enemies,
And therefore from my face ſhe turnes my foes,
That they elſe-where might dart their iniuries :
Yet do not ſo,but ſince I am neere ſlaine,
Kill me out-right with lookes,and rid my paine.

Or this:

In sonnet 139 the Poet continues the examination, begun in sonnet 138, of the logical derivation of truth from beauty. He begins the first two quatrains, by asking the Mistress to ‘call’ (139.1) and then ‘tell’ (139.5) what she means in words. The Poet in return offers to ‘excuse’ (139.9) her when she uses her ‘pretty looks’ (139.10) to convey ‘unkindness’ (139.2).
Sonnet 138 characterised truth as the give and take of ideas in language to the level of the deliberate act of ‘swearing’. In sonnet 139, truth is again differentiated from the singularity of sensations. With sensations, such as the look of ‘unkindness’ in the Mistress’ ‘eyes’, the Poet can imagine many wrongs. The Poet asks that he ‘not’ be called to ‘justify’ the ‘wrong’ that her accusing look awakens in his ‘heart’. He prefers to be ‘wounded’ not with ‘thine eye’ but with her ‘tongue’ (139.3). Her ‘tongue’ or words would help define his ‘wrong’.
By talking to the Mistress, the Poet has the ‘power’ to respond to her ‘power’ (139.4). He does not want to be ‘slayed’ with ‘art’ or the singular beauty she manifests. He could cope if she ‘tells’ him she ‘loves elsewhere’ (139.5). When they are eye to eye, he wants her to ‘glance aside’ (139.6) so he cannot read ‘injuries’ into her ‘looks’. His ‘o’er-pressed defence’, even as a matured male, is frequently unable to ‘abide’ feminine insight. He prefers to excuse her in words because her ‘pretty looks’, or the inability of the mind to distinguish ‘best’ from ‘worst’ (137.4), have been his ‘enemies’ (139.10). He wants her to turn her eyes, ‘my foes’, away from his face so that they ‘dart their injuries’ elsewhere (139.12).
In the couplet, the Poet faces the inevitable. To be a mature male he knows he must confront both beauty and truth, both sensations and language, in all their natural rigour. The uncompromising sensation he receives from the Mistress’ ‘eye’ makes him realise with embarrassment that his immature idealistic beliefs were only sensations. The only way to ‘slay’ the ‘pain’ of his immaturity is for her to ‘kill me out-right with looks’. Truth or saying is derived from deep sensations. As truth derives logically from sensation, it requires the unequivocal look of ‘beauty’ or ‘Art’ to make the process of understanding painless.
In sonnet 139, as throughout the Sonnets, the image of ‘eye’, ‘sight’, or ‘looks’ expresses the unity of the body and mind. The erotic punning on words such as ‘tongue’, ‘eye’ and ‘cunning’ points to the unifying logic of the set. By adhering to its logic Shakespeare is able to write a sonnet that starts by equivocating between the tongue and the eye, but ends by affirming the logic of beauty and truth out of the female/male dynamic in Nature.

And from David West:

O call me not to justify the wrong

That thy unkindness lays upon my heart.

Wound me not with thine eye, but with thy tongue.

Use power with power, and slay me not by art.                       4

Tell me thou lov’st elsewhere, but in my sight,

Dear heart, forbear to glance thine eye aside.

What need’st thou wound with cunning when thy might

Is more than my o’erpressed defence can bide?                      8

 

Let me excuse thee: ‘Ah, my love well knows

Her pretty looks have been mine enemies,

And therefore from my face she turns my foes

That they elsewhere might dart their injuries.’                      12

 

Yet do not so, but since I am near slain,

Kill me outright with looks, and rid my pain.

Do not ask me to justify your unkind treatment of me.

Wound me with your tongue, not your eye. Say you don’t love me,

but don’t eye others when you’re with me.

Let me excuse you: ‘She knows the damage her eyes have done me,

so she is sparing me and turning them on my enemies.’

Don’t do that. I’m nearly dead. Look at me and put me out of my pain.

1-8  The Black Lady is making him suffer and he can think of no way of excusing her. It is her eye that wounds in lines 3, 6, 19 and 14, and he is sensitive to the language of eyes (see 104.2). She is a woman and her eye is ‘false in rolling’ (see 20.5). Let her destroy him by the power that comes from her power of speech, not by the arts of her eye.

She has moved on to another lover, ‘Tell me thou lov’st elsewhere,’ and ‘elsewhere’ carries the same weight as in 61.13-14. She has let him see her darting side glances at another man, just as in King Lear 4.4.25-6 Regan says she observed Goneril giving ‘strange oeillades and most speaking looks/To noble Edmund.’

This scene is pieced together from ‘elsewhere’ and ‘aside’ in 5-6 and 12. He is suffering so acutely that it is not a matter of asking her not to stare at this other man; even a glance is wounding. This is part of her cunning art (4 and 7). She has wrongfooted him. It would surely be impossible for any reasonable person to object to a glance.

9-12  In line 1 he refused to justify her, but now, after brooding about her eyes, he suddenly thinks of a possible excuse, ‘Ah, it’s because she knows her eyes have hurt met that she’s turning them on others.’ The sonnet is addressed to the Black Lady, but here in lines 9-12 he is suddenly speaking to himself. She ceases to be ‘thou,’ and becomes ‘my love.’ It is as though the excuse is so far-fetched that he dare not say it to her for fear of being ridiculed. It is simply a desperate idea he is trying out. This is dramatic writing. ‘Ah!’ begins it as the idea strikes him, but he gives up the idea as soon as he has put it into words, ‘Yet do not so.’

The suffering lover senses that he is whistling to keep his courage up. He knows the excuse is as self-deluding as earlier excuses he invented for the young man in Sonnets 42 and 61. In line 10 ‘her pretty looks’ might be a compliment, but lines 13-14 show that this is as pained as 41.1, ‘Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits.’

13-14  When he realizes the folly of this, he finds a way of turning it into an appeal for pity. ‘Do not look at others. I’m almost slain, so turn your eyes on me and kill me outright.’ ‘Slain’ refers to death by violence, often therefore in battle, and the sonnet is full of battle terms, ‘Wound…power…power…slay…wound…might…o’erpressed…defence…bide…enemies…foes…dart…injuries…slain…Kill…outright…rid,’ making 17 occurrences on a generous count. ‘Bide’ in line 8 is enlisted as a military term as in Henry 6 Part Three, ‘bide the mortal fortunes of the field,’ and in Romeo and Juliet 1.1.209-10 ‘She will not stay the siege of loving terms,/Nor bide th’ encounter of assailing eyes.’ On ‘rid’ Booth (1977) cites Richard II, 4.11, ‘I am the King’s friend, and will rid his foe.’

On line 14 Kerrigan (1986) notes, ‘Though the likely source for this is Sidney Astrophil and Stella 48…’A kind of grace it is to slay with speed,’ it evokes a host of Elizabethan love poems in which the mistress’s eye is like Medusa’s or the basilisk’s. This is true, but Shakespeare wields the cliché with a difference. Sidney’s point is that a swift death is more merciful than a slow. S is arguing that is a courtesy of wary to kill a mortally wounded enemy.”

——————————————

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, an introduction to our next play, the truly glorious Antony and Cleopatra.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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2 Responses to “O call me not to justify the wrong/That thy unkindness lays upon my heart.”

  1. Joe Simon says:

    I don’t know if you caught this when it came out in January, but the Sonnets have been translated into something for the first time…DNA.

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