“Love is my sin and thy dear virtue hate,/Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:”

Shakespeare Sonnet #142

sonnet 142 art

Love is my sin and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:
O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,
And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;
Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,
That have profaned their scarlet ornaments
And seal’d false bonds of love as oft as mine,
Robb’d others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.
Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lovest those
Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:
Root pity in thy heart, that when it grows
Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.
If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,
By self-example mayst thou be denied!

This sonnet continues to develop the traditional idea that was introduced in the concluding line of the previous one, That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
The theme of the sonnet is that his mistress should replace the hatred that she shows towards him by pity, a word which traditionally covered a whole range of actions and emotions, from sympathy, to a mere friendly glance, a disposition to tolerate or listen to the lover, or the allowing of a kiss, or (rarely) sexual intercourse. Here the poet makes it clear that it is the latter which is preferable, and he deliberately swerves aside from the Petrarchan tradition by accusing both her and himself of frequent adulteries, and pleading that he has as much right to her body as those other men whom she seems always to prefer to him. But, he concludes, if she shows pity for him, it will stand her in good stead for the future, when she herself might need to be pitied and have her sexual desires gratified.

A sonnet by Barnabe Barnes, c. 1593, which seems to harp in a similar way on Pity and Virtue. Followed by part of Sonnet 7 from Coelia, by William Percy, 1594.

ASCLEPIAD O Sweet, pitiless eye, beautiful orient
(Since my faith is a rock durable everywhere),
Smile! and shine with a glance heartily me to joy!
Beauty taketh a place! Pity regards it not!
Virtue findeth a throne, settled in every part!
Pity found none at all, banished everywhere!
Since then, Beauty triumphs, (Chastity’s enemy),
And Virtue cleped is, much to be pitiful;
And since that thy delight is ever virtuous:
My tears, Parthenophe, pity! Be pitiful!
So shall men Thee repute, as a holy Saint!
So shall Beauty remain, mightily glorified!
So thy fame shall abound, durably chronicled!
Then sweet Parthenophe! Pity! Be merciful!
Barnes, P & P, Ode 20.
If it be sin so dearly for to love thee,
Come bind my hands, I am thy prisoner!
If yet a spark of pity may but move thee,
First sit upon the cause, Commissioner!
Dearest Cruel, the cause I see dislikes thee!
On us thy brows thou bends so direfully!
Enjoin me penance whatsoever likes thee;
Whate’er it be I’ll take it thankfully!
Percy, Coelia 7.


1. Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,

An expansion of the concluding line of the previous sonnet:
That she that makes me sin awards me pain.
(See the notes to line 14, Sonnet 141). His beloved makes him sin by making him love her. The idea is that the lover is always at fault, mostly because his love gave rise to sexual desires, which the mistress rebuffed by her virtue and chastity. Hence the use of the word ‘virtue’ in this line. Hatred also was a common theme of the sonneteers. The chaste mistress appeared to hate the lover, and was often accused of doing so, because she refused to gratify him. Sir Philip Sidney expresses the traditional view of the beloved, who is apparently accusing him, the lover, of lustful thoughts and castigating his love as sinful. He replies by claimimg that his heart is pure and that his love is formed after the Petrarchan and spiritual mould:
But with your rhubarb words you must contend,
To grieve me worse, in saying that desire
Doth plunge my well-formed soul even in the mire
Of sinful thoughts, which do in ruin end?
If that be sin which doth the manners frame,
Well stayed with truth in word and faith of deed,
Ready of wit and fearing nought but shame:
If that be sin which in fixed hearts doth breed
A loathing of all loose unchastity,
Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.
= purgative; stayed = supported; fixed = loyal.
It is clear therefore that Shakespeare sets this sonnet within the tradition, with the sinful lover being unpitied by his Mistress. But he immediately adds life to this tradition by wrenching it to one side and accusing her, not of the usual cruelty and cold chastity, but of hot lechery. His complaint is that she includes him out, as it were, and he has no share in her amorous adventures.
thy dear virtue
= your precious, highly valued, costly (to me) characteristic, inherent quality. Your virtuous behaviour (ironic).
– As mentioned above, hate is part of the armoury of the chaste mistress, because she is entitled to defend her modesty and purity which the lover is attacking by his amorous desires. Hatred in the beloved should not be interpreted as a vice or sin, other than that it caused pain to the lover. It was an essential part of her purity and shielded her from earthly passions. See the love/hate sonnet by Drayton given at the bottom of this page.

2. Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving:

Hate of my sin = i.e. hate of my sinful love, my lust.
grounded on
= securely based on. The antecedent seems to be hate, her hatred of his love, a hatred which the poet implies is hypocritical, since it is based on the woman’s own amorous desires for other men. On the other hand the phrase grounded on sinful loving could be simply a slightly awkward explanation of my sin, i.e. my sin is the crime of basing my love on sinful sexual desire, and not on impartial adoration of your spiritual and divine beauty. Compare also from Barnes:
Grounded, I waver still! and wavering, still am grounded!
and see the note to line 10 below, which has more of Barnes’ sonnet.

3. O! but with mine compare thou thine own state,

but = at least; only; if only you would.
= my state, my spiritual condition.
I.e. before you accuse me, look into your own heart, and you will find it to be no better than mine (as detailed in the following lines).

4. And thou shalt find it merits not reproving;

You will find that my spiritual condition (it) does not deserve (merit) criticism, (when you compare it with your own).

5. Or, if it do, not from those lips of thine,

Or if it does deserve criticism, it should not be spoken from your lips (for it would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black).

6. That have profaned their scarlet ornaments

That have profaned = which have sinned against, shown religious disrespect for. profane is based on the Latin word profanus meaning literally ‘outside the temple’, hence common, sinful, impious, non-religious. The profane action suggested here is that she allowed common, unholy, sinful kisses to touch her lips.
scarlet ornaments
= rich red colouring, rather like draperies. The whole thing refers to her lips, which traditionally were ruby, coral, crimson etc. The use of ornament may suggest artificial colouration, i.e. lipstick.
is a colour that is associated with sin, the devil, the beast, the Whore of Babylon (Revelations 17 – 19). Compare also Shakespeare’s use of the word in the plays:
Thy ambition,
Thou scarlet sin, robb’d this bewailing land
Of noble Buckingham, my father-in-law
: H8.III.2.254-6. (addressed to Cardinal Wolsey). His scarlet lust came evidence to swear
That my poor beauty had purloined his eyes
; Luc.1650-1. There may be a reference to the scarlet robes of cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church, as in the quotation from H8 above, hence, obliquely, to cardinal sins, serious and mortal sins, of which lust was one.

7. And sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine,

sealed = to stamp, as one does with a seal on (red, scarlet) sealing wax. This was done when a document was given its final, official stamp. Hence the phrase ‘signed and sealed’; and the word seal is still used for the closing of an envelope, although it is no longer relevant to the original meaning of appending a seal. A bond was a legal document recording an agreement, and would have been finished with a legal seal or stamp. Shakespeare uses elsewhere the idea of kissing = sealing bonds of love, making a compact of love. Compare:

Take, O take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn,
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn;
But my kisses bring again
Bring again;
Seals of love, but sealed in vain,
Sealed in vain.

as oft as mine = as often as my lips have done the same. I.e. we have both been unfaithful. The falseness could be that of not intending to remain faithful, or subsequently being unfaithful, or being unfaithful at the outset to another (one’s spouse) if one were already married. Shakespeare we know was married and therefore was committing adultery (which in those days was a crime). Whether or not the dark lady was married (assuming she did exist), we do not know, but it is consistent with some of the other sonnets to assume that she was (e.g. 135), as also it is consistent with the sonneteering tradition. Sidney’s Stella married Lord Rich, and Sidney continued to dote on her, although not as physically it seems as the poet here does on his mistress.

8. Robbed others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.

Stole the sexual rights of others, i.e. sexual pleasure and comfort, the benefit of children. Revenues and rents are almost synonymous, and the line appears to be tautological, although JK states that: rents are ‘fees paid by tenants’ and revenues (accented on the second syllable) ‘estates yielding income’. JK.374.n.8. The following glosses I hope will help to give the meaning of what is a highly compressed and richly suggestive line.
others’ beds
= marital beds belonging to others, the others probably being the deceived spouses.
= overall annual income; marital dues of sexual performance.
= regular periodic payments on property etc., occasional bouts of intercourse. The fruits of marriage, i.e. children.
The subject, those who did the robbing, is lips of thine of line 5, which here stand for the whole person. The anonymous author of Zepheria uses ‘revenue’ and ‘rent’ in one of his nearly incomprehensible sonnets:
From the revenue of thine eyes’ Exchequer
My faith his Subsidy did ne’er detract!
But if the Rent, which wont was of assize,
Thou shalt enhance, through pride and coy disdain!
Exacting double tribute to thine eyes etc.
Canzon 38. (c.1594)

Some commentators think that the subject (the robber) could be mine (i.e. my lips), if one disregards the comma at the end of line 7. This would put the onus of unfaithfulness more on the speaker – he was at least as frequent in robbing other’s beds as she was in profaning her lips. It is possible that both meanings are intended. The beloved is guilty of sealing false bonds of love, and of robbing others’ beds of their rent, and the poet is himself guilty of the same.

9. Be it lawful I love thee, as thou lov’st those

Be it lawful = Assuming it is lawful that; grant that it is lawful that. The phrase is also said to be a formulaic one, like ‘An’t please you’, equivalent to ‘Well then’, or ‘Seeing that it is so’, but Shakespeare does not use it elsewhere. Here the suspicion of adultery and betrayal gives more of a specific meaning, and implies ‘If you are claiming that what you are doing is lawful and permissible, in loving those others, then I too, in loving you, make the same claim’.

10. Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee:

Whom thine eyes woo – i.e those others. The eyes were the greatest weapon in the armoury of the traditional chaste maiden. Here they are being used not in the traditional sense of smiting almost unconsciously with Cupid’s darts, but promiscuously, in order to seduce.
importune is often used of pestering another with one’s love suit. Compare:
Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity.
Commentators note that parts of the sonnet almost read like a round or roundelay, changing directions frequently so as to return to a starting point. Thus these two lines have ‘I love thee, thou lovest those, thine eyes woo them, mine woo thee’. And lines 1-2 have ‘Love is a sin, virtue is hate, hate of my sin, the sin of loving’. And the repetition of ‘pity’ in 11 – 12. It is not so much a deliberate attempt to follow a pattern or form as a delight in the exuberance of language and its contrarieties, and the enjoyment of shaping and reshaping the same words to make them ring. Compare for example:
I burn yet I am cold! I am a cold, yet burn!
In pleasing discontent, in discontentment pleased!
Diseased, I am in health! and healthful, am diseased!
In turning back proceed! proceeding, I return!
Barnes. P&P. Sonn.31. The same sonnet uses the word grounded at the beginning and end of a line, (see above, line 2) and it may have functioned as a distant echo when Shakespeare was writing his lines.

11. Root pity in thy heart, that, when it grows,

Let pity take root in your heart, so that, when it grows etc.
Note that the cry for pity made by the lover to the beloved was so common as by now to have become de rigueur, but somewhat stale. The following from Sidney is typical:
My mind bemoans his sense of inward smart;
Such smart may pity claim of any heart,
Her heart, sweet heart, is of no tiger’s kind:
And yet she hears, yet I no pity find;
A & S.44.
Pity could mean anything from inner sympathy to a kindly look, a smile, words of encouragement, or the bestowing of sexual favours. Here the emphasis is on the granting of sexual favour.

12. Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.

Thy pity = your sympathy and compassion, your willingness to sleep with me. (See the note above).
may deserve to pitied be
= might earn the right to be pitied (in all its meanings).

11-14. One suspects other meanings, because the lines as they stand seem so inconclusive as an argument for her to grant her favours. Since the conclusion looks to the future, it may be that he is hinting at a time when she will be ‘withered and old’ and men will no longer desire her, but she will still long for them. As in Wyatt’s poem:
Perchance thee lie withered and old
The winter nights that are so cold,
Plaining in vain unto the moon,
Thy wishes then dare not be told,
Care then who list, for I have done.
If she denies him now, men in the future will deny her, by self-example she will have condemned herself to loneliness and an empty bed. There may also be sexual innuendoes in grows, pity, have and hide. Thus ‘If you pity my growing penis now, your cunt may earn the right to be pitied hereafter.’ However Partridge does not give bawdy uses of ‘pity’, although he does cite grows. See the note below for have and hide.
pity could be the equivalent of nothing in 136:
For nothing hold me so it please thee hold
That nothing me a something sweet to thee.

13. If thou dost seek to have what thou dost hide,

If you seek to obtain what you refuse to others. This sounds rather like the proverb ‘You cannot have your cake and eat it’, suggesting perhaps ‘you cannot have sex and not have it, or pretend your innocence’.
hide = withold, deny.
to have and to hide both have sexual meanings in addition to this. As in Sonnet 129:
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme 129
Wilt thou, whose will is large and spacious,
Not once vouchsafe to hide my will in thine
There is also the following from Romeo and Juliet:
for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.
where natural = fool, and bauble = plaything; penis.
The closing lines therefore may be interpreted fairly tamely as ‘If you deny me pity, it may be denied you in your turn, since you have set the example of refusal’. More racily it could be ‘If you want to have sex, and go on having it, then hide me in you now, for refusing may mean that others may refuse you hereafter, and cause you the deepest anguish, seeing what an unreformed nymphomaniac you are’.

14. By self-example mayst thou be denied!

By self example = by your own example.
mayst thou be = you may be, you could be. May it be that you will be! I.e. the poet expresses the wish that she will be denied, to teach her a lesson for having denied him.

Additional notes

SAMUEL DRAYTON. Idea. Sonnet 19. First printed 1599.

You cannot love, my pretty heart! and why?
There was a time you told me that you would;
But now again, you will the same deny!
If it might please you, would to God you could!
What, will you hate? Nay, that you will not neither!
Nor love, nor hate! how then? What will you do?
What, will you keep a mean then betwixt either?
Or will you love me, and yet hate me too?
Yet serves not this! What next, what other shift?
You Will, and Will Not; what a coil is here!
I see your craft! Now I perceive your drift!
And all this while, I was mistaken there.
Your love and hate is this, I now do prove you!
You love in hate, by hate to make me love you.


In sonnet 142, the Poet calls his ‘love’, ‘my sin’ and calls the Mistress’ ‘hate’, ‘thy dear virtue’ (142.1) He inverts the idealised meaning of ‘sin’ and ‘virtue’, because the accepted use is contrary to the logic of beauty and truth in Nature. Contradictions arise when a word is associated with over-idealised dogmas. Sonnets 142, 144 and 145 examine how words such as love/hate, saint/devil, and good/evil are used contrary to natural logic.

      Sonnet 145, which brings to a pitch sonnet 142’s focus on ‘love’ and ‘hate’, indirectly identifies the source of Shakespeare’s natural logic by punning on Anne Hathaway’s name as ‘hate away’. Young Shakespeare’s relation to the more mature Hathaway was the defining experience of his life. She made him aware of the nature of love and the source of truth and beauty. Once Shakespeare accepted the priority of the female over the male, he could reconcile his feminine and masculine personae and remove his psychological dependency on male-based ideals.
The Poet says ‘love is my sin’ (142.1) because, when he loves the Mistress naturally (Shakespeare and Hathaway were pregnant before they were married), traditional dogma says he ‘sins’. The Mistress’ ‘dear virtue’ is called ‘hate’ to preempt the logical consequence of excessive virtue, which is uncontrollable hate. (Shakespeare witnessed such hate in the bloodletting between the Christian sects of his day.) The Mistress ‘grounds’ or bases her ‘hate’ of the Poet’s ‘sin’ in an acceptance of ‘sinful loving’ (142.2). She rejects love based on idealised self-regard. In the Master Mistress sonnets (1 to 126), the Poet countered selfish male-based ideals with the greater realism and logical integrity of female-based love.
The Poet asks the Mistress to ‘compare’ her ‘own state’ (142.3) with his to ‘find’ that his state ‘merits not reproving’ (142.4). ‘Or if it do’, then not from ‘those lips of thine’ that have ‘profaned their scarlet ornaments, and sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine’ (142.6-7). If the Poet’s masculine side can be guilty of excessive idealism, then the Mistress can be guilty of robbing ‘others’ beds revenues of their rents’ (142.8). It is as ‘lawful’ for Poet to ‘importune’ (142.10) the Mistress, as it is for her to ‘woo’ others with her ‘eyes’. If she ‘roots pity’ in her ‘heart’ then, when it ‘grows’, her ‘pity’ may also ‘deserve’ pity from others (142.12).
In the couplet, if the Mistress ‘seeks’ pity but ‘hides’ her pity from the Poet, then ‘by self-example’ she may be ‘denied’ pity. The mature Poet is as free to question the Mistress’ deeds, as she is to question his. The Poet derives his capacity for ‘love’ and ‘virtue’ from the Mistress, and she derives her understanding of beauty and truth directly from Nature.


And finally, from David West:

Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,

Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving.

O, but with mine compare thou thine own state,

And thou shalt find it merits not reproving                        4
Or if it do, not from the lips of thine

That have profaned their scarlet ornaments

And sealed false bonds of love as oft as mine,

Robbed others’ beds’ revenues of their rents.                   8

Be’t lawful I love thee as thou lov’st those

Whom thine eyes woo as mine importune thee.

Root pity in thine heart, that when it grows,

Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.                                   12

If thou doest seek to have what thou dost hide,

By self-example mayst thou be denied.

My sin is love, and your virtue is hatred of my sinful love.

Compare your own state and you’ll see that mine does not deserve

   to be condemned by your false lips.

I should be allowed to love you as you love others. Pity for me should grow

  in your heart to earn you pity from others.

If you want what you do not give, you may be disappointed.

1-2  S’s sin is love, a sin based on sinful loving. What kind of loving is that? In Sonnet 138 it was loved based on lies. In 141 it was making love to the Black Lady contrary to his judgment and his senses. Here is a love not unlike hers. In lines 6-8 she is profane, false and adulterous. In 10 she uses her eyes to ask for love, and yet her dear virtue is hatred of that sort of loving. In view of this account of her sexual behavior, her ‘dear virtue’ can scarcely be a sincere tribute. Perhaps it goes some way towards our sarcastic use of the word ‘precious,’ that precious virtue of yours.

3-8  In line 3 the metrical beat would fall on ‘mine’ and ‘thine.’ If it is brought out in reading, it clarifies the logic, ‘O, but with mine compare thou thine’ and you will see that you have no right to condemn me. Now the condemnation becomes more vivid by switching the attack from the Black Lady to her lips. After the severe monosyllables of line 5, [being red] they are seen as priests profaning their scarlet vestments. His mind then glides from church to law, another area where corruption is not unknown. These lips [being red like sealing wax] have sealed false bonds. Lips seal contracts, as when Romeo sealed ‘with a righteous kiss/A dateless bargain to engrossing death’ (5.3.114-15), and poured the poison. In line 8, still in the legal mode, ‘revenues’ are the collective items which constitute an income (OED 4), and a rent would be one of them. So marriage beds are seen as properties which offer a varied yield, rents which might include fidelity and legal offspring. The Black Lady’s lips have cheated wives and husbands out of both of these.

9-12  Having asked her in line 3 to compare her conduct with his, he now insists, ‘Let it be lawful for me to love you as you love those whom your eyes invite.’ ‘Root pity in thy heart,’ he begs, and if there were any doubt what he is begging for it would be dispelled by a cliché of contemporary love poetry by which pity was ‘equated with sexual compliance,’ as Duncan-Jones (1997) puts it with some severity. Let her plant a root of pity in her heart, and when it grows (so far there is no sign of it), the pity she gives may earn pity for herself, ‘Thy pity may deserve to pitied be.’

 13-14  If she hides pity, fails to show it, a time may come when she will need it herself, and others may follow her example. ‘Love me, lest you be not loved’ is the lurking threat. ‘Mayst thou be denied’ could be either warning or wish or deliberate ambiguity, ‘you may be denied’ or ‘may you be denied,’ or both.”


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning – an introduction to our next play, Cymbeline.

Enjoy your weekend.

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