“Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press/My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;”

Shakespeare Sonnet #140

SONNET 140

Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
Lest sorrow lend me words and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;
For if I should despair, I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee:
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be,
That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

 

SONNET 140

PARAPHRASE

Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press

Be as wise as you are cruel; do not test

My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;

My patient silence with too much disrespect;

Lest sorrow lend me words and words express

In case sorrow forces me to speak and the words express

The manner of my pity-wanting pain.

How my pain grew out of your lack of pity.

If I might teach thee wit, better it were,

If I can give you some advice – it would be better,

Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so;

To tell me you love me, even though you do not,

As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,

(I am like) those fretful sick men, nearing death,

No news but health from their physicians know;

Who want to hear only about their recovery from their physicians.

For if I should despair, I should grow mad,

For if I start to despair, I will go mad,

And in my madness might speak ill of thee:

And in my madness I might speak ill of you;

Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,

Now that this world, which sees only negative things, has become so evil,

Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be,

Evil slanderers are believed by evil people.

That I may not be so, nor thou belied,

So that I may not become such a slanderer, nor you be so slandered,

Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

You must look straight ahead with your eyes, even though your heart may stray.

 

ANALYSIS

In sonnet 139, the poet makes a candid and humiliating plea to his cheating mistress, begging her to refrain from looking at other men when she is with him. The theme continues in sonnet 140, although the poet’s tone is less docile. He is now afraid that the “tongue-tied” patience he has practiced thus far will give way to his baser feelings of contempt, disgust, and hurt (in the final couplet of sonnet 147 the poet can no longer contain these feelings) and he will lash out at the dark lady. Longing to be unaware of her infidelities, the poet implores his mistress to hide any evidence of her promiscuity, whether it be physical proof or emotional. She must not speak of other men, nor look at them as they pass by. He wants her to pretend that she loves only him. He is placing the mistress in charge of his reactions. Notice the stress Shakespeare places on the word “be” to enhance his desire for the dark lady to control the relationship: “Be wise” (1), believed, (12), belied (13), Bear (14). She will be completely responsible for his behaviour. Denial is a theme that permeates the twenty-four sonnets dealing with the dark lady, and, in the last few sonnets addressed to his mistress, the poet finally realizes that he must accept the futility of their affair.

Love as a sickness is also a primary theme in sonnet 140, as it is in many of the dark lady sonnets. Notice Shakespeare’s word choices: pain (4), sick, death (7), health, physicians (8), and ill (10). In sonnet 147, Shakespeare develops the idea that “reason” is “the physician to [his] love”, i.e. the poet’s reason acts as his doctor, advising him on the proper course of action.

Or…

The beauty of this sonnet is that it manages to compress so many different emotions and turbulent changes of direction into so few words. The lover both hovers on the edge of frenzy and on the edge of despair, he is loved and disdained, he trusts and does not trust, he speaks from the heart, and yet he hardly dares to speak his mind, he longs for her to love him, but he sees that her heart is proud, he hopes not to be driven to frenzy, but he thinks that he is half way there already.

Although the sonnet, as the previous one, of which it is more or less a continuation, draws on many conventional ideas, it is itself highly unconventional. It threatens to spill the beans on the beloved, and to show that she is neither chaste nor fair. There was often an element of seeking revenge for the beloved’s proud aloofness in the sonneteer’s plaints. GBE gives an example from John Donne, of a slightly later date. (See below). I have included, in the note to line 1, an extract from a sonnet by William Smith, from his sequence Chloris, or the Complaint of the passionate despised Shepherd, published in 1596. In the context of such extremism, which was widespread in sonnet writers, Shakespeare’s outburst seems relatively mild, and he succeeds in bringing the experience of love back to a more human level, where the pains and despairs do not have to be exaggerated to make them real.

Yet let not thy deep bitterness beget
Careless despair in me, for that will whet
My mind to scorn; and Oh, love dulled with pain
Was ne’er so wise nor well armed as disdaine.
Then with new eyes I shall survey thee, and spy
Death in thy cheeks, and darkness in thine eye.
Though hope bred faith and love, thus taught, I shall,
As Nations do from Rome, from thy love fall.
My hate shall outgrow thine, and utterly
I will renounce thy dalliance.
Elegy VI.35-44.

The 1609 Quarto Version

BE wiſe as thou art cruell,do not preſſe
My toung-tide patience with too much diſdaine:
Leaſt ſorrow lend me words and words expreſſe,
The manner of my pittie wanting paine.
If I might teach thee witte better it weare,
Though not to loue,yet loue to tell me ſo,
As teſtie ſick-men when their deaths be neere,
No newes but health from their Phiſitions know.
For if I ſhould diſpaire I ſhould grow madde,
And in my madneſſe might ſpeake ill of thee,
Now this ill wreſting world is growne ſo bad,
Madde ſlanderers by madde eares beleeued be.
That I may not be ſo, nor thou be lyde,              (wide.
Beare thine eyes ſtraight , though thy proud heart goe

Or…

In sonnets 138 and 139, the Poet explored the implications of truth as saying. Although the focus of the Mistress sequence is now on truth, he remains conscious of the logical interrelation between beauty and truth. By examining the role of truth or ‘saying’ in human intercourse, the Poet clarifies the role of sensations. Sensations, whether from the sensory organs such as the eyes or the sensation of ideal beauty generated in the mind, are more immediate than words but are also less precise.
The Poet’s awareness of the interrelation between beauty and truth is evident in the first line of sonnet 140. He asks the Mistress to be as ‘wise’ as she is ‘cruel’ (140.1). Because her eye confronts him with a ‘cruel’ reflection of his youth-based faults, he beseeches her to be ‘wise’ or reconsider their situation in ‘words’. If she ‘presses’ his ‘tongue tied patience’ with ‘disdain’ (140.2), he fears his ‘sorrow’ will lend him ‘words and words’ to express unwisely the nature of his ‘pity wanting pain’ (140.4). The Poet might resort to ‘words’ to ‘better’ (140.5) alleviate the ‘cruel disdain’ he senses in the Mistress’ eye.
In the couplet of sonnet 139, the Poet admitted he needed the Mistress’ ‘cunning looks’ as well as her ‘tongue’ to relieve his ‘pain’. He knows that, as she is the natural source of beauty and truth, she can appear both wise and cruel to his inadequate male temperament. Sonnet 140 follows the same pattern. The Poet wishes at first to dull with ‘words’ the ‘sorrow’ he feels at her disdain. He offers to teach her ‘wit’ so that the full force of her love would be reduced to ‘words’ and become merely a thing she would ‘love to tell’ him about (140.6). He is like ‘testy sick-men’ who only want to hear good ‘news’ (140.8) on their death beds.
The mature Poet, though, knows the nature of words or truth. If he (Hamlet like) ‘should despair’ because of the cruel look in the Mistress’ eyes, he might ‘grow mad’and ‘speak ill of thee’ (140.10). His ‘madness’, though, is but a symptom of an ‘ill wresting world’, in which ‘mad ears’ believe the ‘mad slanderers’ (140.12) who belittle the priority of the female in Nature. Such mad slanderers want to preserve the word-based superiority of the male ideal.
In the couplet, the Poet rejects the ‘madness’ of the supremacy of the male ideal that ‘belies’ the logic of beauty and truth. Even if the Mistress’ ‘proud heart go wide’ of him, because of his madness, she should bear her ‘eyes straight’. He reaffirms the logical relation of truth and beauty based on the eyes as expressed in sonnet 14. In sonnet 141, the Poet confirms that his ‘foolish heart’ cannot be ‘dissuaded’ from his ‘faith’ in the Mistress.

——————-

And finally, this from David West:

Be wise as thou art cruel. Do not press

My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain,

Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express

The manner of my pity-wanting pain.                              4

If I might teach thee wit, better it were,

Though not to love, yet, love, to tell me so,

As testy sick men when their deaths be near

No news but health from their physicians know.             8

For if I should despair, I should go mad,

And in my madness might speak ill of thee.

Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,

Mad sland’rers by mad ears believed be.                         12

     That I may not be so, nor thou belied,

     Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

Be as wise as you are cruel. Do not try me too high

    or I shall find words to describe my suffering.

It would be better to say you love me, even although you don’t.

   Dying men bear nothing bug news from doctors.

If I despaired, I would go mad and might criticize you,

   and madmen are believed by mad listeners.

Since I do not want to go mad, nor you to be slandered,

   keep your eyes straight, though your heart wander.

1-4  ‘I am patient and silent, but have the wisdom not to press me too hard, or I may find words to tell how you have made me suffer.’ In ‘The manner of my pity-wanting pain,’ ‘pity-wanting’ is unpitied, just as in Two Gentlemen of Verona 2.6.12 the man who wants wit is without it.

Burrow (2002) cites a valuable passage from William Harrison, The Description of England (1587), ‘Such felons as stand mute and speak not at their arraignment are pressed to death by huge weights laid upon a board that lieth over their breast and a sharp stone under their backs’ (Harrison, 1994, 191). This is a reference to peine forte et dure, ‘pressing to death’ (OED peine). There are allusions to this in Shakespeare, notably in Richard II 3.4.73, ‘O, I am pressed to death for want of speaking,’ and in Troilus and Cressida 3.2.203-7, where Pandarus makes a lewd joke of it. Here S asks her not to press his patience. He is mute, ‘tongue-tied,’ but his sorrow may lend him words, and the words may squeeze out, ‘express’ his pain.

5-8   The poem starts with advice to the Black Lady to be wise. Now S offers to teach her wit, a worldly wisdom, to teach a woman to lie to a man, to tell him she loves him although it is not true. The misery in this is that he is begging to be lied to, and knows it. This is a return to the self-deception of Sonnet 138 and the failed attempt at it in 139.9-12.

He finds a comparison. She ought to be kind and lie to him. After all, when a man is dying and being difficult, his doctor does not tell him the truth, but talks only of prospects of health. The comparison is bleak. The doctor’s words are lies, and the patient is near death. So was S at the end of 139.

9-12  Pleading his case with his usual ingenuity, he now argues that it would be in her own interest if she pretended to love him. He advances his argument in four steps: first, ‘if I should despair, I should go mad’ (note the compliment – to lose her would be to lose his sanity); second, ‘in my madness [I] might speak ill of thee’ (note another compliment – speaking ill of her would be madness); third, the world twists the words of mad slanderers to make mad worse (note that he is concerned for her welfare); fourth, the mad slander will be believed (not the blackmail – ‘Do what I ask, or you will suffer’). In the last half-dozen sonnets he has subjected her to abuse, often obscene. Remarkably, he now implied that she is blameless. Readers of recent sonnets know what she is and they will appreciate the maneuver. There was another strategic withdrawal in Sonnet 88.

13-14  In 139 he begged her to tell him if she loved someone else, but not to glance at other man when she was in his company, and that modest request came with an appeal for pity in the final couplet. In 140.1-8 he keeps asking for pity, but he is now asking for something else. He wants her to tell him that she loves him although it is not true. This is followed by an apparent assumption of her innocence, ‘nor thou belied,’ and an expression of concern for her reputation in the eyes of the world. The last line does not repeat his request in lines 1-8 that she should say she loves him, but retreats to the more modest position of 139.6. He begs her not to glance aside at other men when she is with him. ‘Though thy proud heart go wide’ allows her heart free range. He has given up. He has no hope of preventing her from having other lovers.

The sonnet has departed from the abusive mode, and S has spoken accommodatingly, as an advocate making an appeal. A supplicant does not abuse. But his true feelings glimmer through the epigram of the last line. The opposite of straight is crooked, ‘bevel’ in 121.11-2. ‘Bear thine eyes straight’ harks back to 139.6, where he asks her not to glance aside, but the language is ambiguous in ‘though thy proud heart go wide.’ Is this saying that it might go wide, or that it already does? Sonnet 88.4 can also be taken in two ways. This last line visualizes her eyes looking straight forward on a narrow front, although her heart may wander, ‘go wide.’ S is abject in his appeals, and as an advocate in treading a minefield, but truth will out. ‘Straight’ sounds like ‘strait’ meaning narrow, the opposite of ‘wide,’ and Shakespeare loves opposites. The hint is that her broad way leads to destruction. ‘Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction…strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth to life’ appears in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:13-14.”

——————————

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning – an introduction to our next play, Pericles.

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2 Responses to “Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press/My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;”

  1. Brilliant. You have a WONDERFUL BLOG

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