Analysis Pages

Character Analysis in Shakespeare's Sonnets

To learn more about the characters in the sonnets, visit our Guide to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Character Analysis Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 11–21

🔒 1

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

The speaker compares his addressee (likely a young, male aristocrat) to a summer's day. However, the comparison is backwards. Summer is measured against the young man and found lacking: he is "more lovely and more temperate," given that summer is short and can be brutally hot. Though the young man's beauty and youth cannot last forever, the speaker concludes that both can be immortalized through poetry.

"what thy memory cannot contain, Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find Those children nursed, deliver'd from thy brain,..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

Reflective journaling was a common practice among the nobility in Elizabethan England. In Sonnet 77, the speaker gives the youth a book and encourages him to “commit” his thoughts to “waste blanks”—to write his thoughts down on blank sheets of paper. There is an echo of the procreation sonnets, particularly when the speaker compares the youth’s thoughts to “children.” Rather than encourage the youth to have a child, the speaker tells the youth to write down his thoughts so that the youth might “profit,” or benefit, from them later. The speaker values the ability of words to immortalize a person, so perhaps he is inducing the youth to preserve himself with the journal.

"Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,      Or gluttoning on all, or all away...."   (Sonnets 71–80)

The speaker outlines an internal conflict and sense of restlessness in Sonnet 75, comparing his love for the fair youth to “a miser and his wealth.” He is proud of their relationship but also worries that that the fair youth will be taken from him. The youth gives him joy but he is too afraid of losing the youth’s affection to truly be content. The speaker is also torn between wanting to enjoy the youth’s company in private and wanting to show off his happiness to the world. The final couplet describes the speaker’s inability to be satisfied, since he either overindulges in the fair youth’s company or does not see him at all.

"   For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

In a continuation of the sentiments of Sonnet 71, the speaker expresses shame at the thought of being remembered fondly after his death. He encourages the fair youth to forget about him when he dies and refrain from glorifying his memory. The speaker’s poetry—that which he “bring[s] forth”—is cast as a source of shame for both the poet and the fair youth. Sonnets 71 and 72 represent another instance of the speaker’s apparent insecurity over his poetic talent surfacing. The inconsistency of the speaker’s tone and attitude throughout the entire sonnet sequence serves to make him a complex and nuanced voice. It also also serves as a reminder that the sonnets may have been compiled without Shakespeare’s consent or input regarding their format or order.

"     And their gross painting might be better us'd      Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abus'd...."   (Sonnets 81–90)

In Sonnet 82, the speaker warns the fair youth to heed the rival poet’s flattery. Although the youth is not bound to the speaker’s “Muse” by marriage, the speaker still feels responsible to the youth. He wishes to protect the fair youth from those who can only capture his beauty through superficial language. The final lines provide the fair youth an urgent warning, stating that rival poets will try to “paint” or embellish his beauty. The speaker states that any sort of superficial or fawning language would be an abuse to the fair youth’s pure and sufficient beauty.

"Then hate me when thou wilt..."   (Sonnets 81–90)

In a direct continuation of Sonnet 89, the speaker requests that, if the fair youth plans to leave, he do it now rather than prolong the speaker’s misery. In the speaker’s eyes, the youth’s departure is the worst possible misery he could suffer. Any other misfortunes to come after that abandonment would seem small in comparison. “Hate” here contrasts with the “love” the speaker associates with his beloved throughout the rest of the fair youth sequence. The declaration of self-sacrificial devotion from the previous sonnet is followed by an invitation of hatred, indicating that the speaker sees desertion as an inevitability. He wants his love to be returned, but his insecurity does not allow him to believe he deserves it.

"For thee, against my self I'll vow debate,      For I must ne'er love him whom thou dost hate...."   (Sonnets 81–90)

In Sonnet 89, the speaker continues his sentiments from the previous sonnet and promises to embody whatever “faults” the youth accuses him of having. The speaker takes his self-deprecation to an extreme when he promises to “debate,” or argue, against himself should the fair youth ever “forsake” him. The speaker’s devotion has led him to forsake his own identity and needs in favor of the youth’s interests, even if the price is public defamation. The speaker is incapable of acting in his own self interest, and if the youth ever comes to hate the speaker, the speaker must hate himself as well.

"That for thy right, myself will bear all wrong...."   (Sonnets 81–90)

Sonnet 88 returns to the sentiment of Sonnet 49, wherein the speaker offered to bear witness against his own flaws in order to justify the youth’s abandonment of him. In this sonnet, he promises to go along with anything the youth says, whether it is true or not. The speaker asserts that making the youth look virtuous will benefit him as well, since he wants his beloved to thrive. In the speaker’s eyes, he and the youth are interconnected to the point that the youth’s joy is the speaker’s joy. However, it would appear that this connection does not flow both ways, since the youth does not appear to share in the speaker’s woe over their eventual parting and has shown favor for the rival poet.

"You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,      Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse...."   (Sonnets 81–90)

In Sonnet 84, the speaker responds to the flattery of the rival poet, insisting that embellishing the fair youth’s beauty diminishes it. The highest compliment the fair youth can receive is to be described simply as he is. The speaker warns against allowing his beauty to be “cursed” by superficial renderings, since showing favor to flatterers like the rival poet will encourage further empty praise rather than truthful depictions. The line “to your beauteous blessings add a curse” can also be read as a warning against the cardinal sin of pride. Nature has blessed the fair youth with good looks and many virtues, but if he allows himself to be swayed by false praises, he will tarnish the goodness of his soul.

"A god in love..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

Continuing the theme of idolatry from Sonnets 105 and 108, the speaker rekindles the association between the fair youth and divinity. The speaker makes the connection more explicit by calling him “a god in love.” Just as a repentant sinner is welcomed back into the graces of God, so too does the speaker ask to be invited back into the “most loving breast” of the youth. The idea of sin staining the soul is part of Christian theology; the speaker has fittingly vowed to cleanse himself of the stain wrought by his infidelity. He reaffirms that his love “shall have no end” and that he will be “confin’d” to his love for the youth going forward, since the fair youth is the closest thing to heaven.

"These blenches gave my heart another youth,..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

The speaker continues to apologize for his dalliances. However, even though he was unfaithful, his “blenches,” or moments of infidelity, have made him realize that the fair youth is his “best” love. His heart has been given “another youth,” meaning that the speaker’s love for the fair youth has been made new again by exposure to lesser loves. It also implies that perhaps the speaker’s affairs were the product of his insecurity about his age, and that being desired by others has allowed him to experience “another youth” in the sense of a personal revivification.

"if I have rang'd, Like him that travels, I return again;..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

The speaker admits to having had affairs with others while he was away from the youth. Their separation cooled the flames of the speaker’s passion, though he asserts that his heart was always with the fair youth. This sonnet represents an apology to the fair youth. The speaker promises to wash away the stain that infidelity has left on their relationship. Though lust overcame him while they were apart, the speaker would never truly leave the “sum of good” that is his relationship with the youth, since all other relationships are “nothing” compared to theirs.

"and Death to me subscribes, Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rime,..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

The speaker decides to stand firm in his love instead of worrying about whether the youth will abandon him. He reaffirms his love for the youth and states that he will be true to his feelings regardless of what his fears or prophecies tell him. He also claims ownership of his “poor rime.” He suggests that even if poetry is insufficient to capture the full beauty of the fair youth, it may be enough to commemorate the two of them and escape death’s oblivion. The fair youth will be preserved in the poems and the speaker will be preserved along with him, one of the few occasions in which the speaker treats himself as a unique entity when discussing immortality.

" Therefore like her, I sometime hold my tongue:      Because I would not dull you with my song...."   (Sonnets 101–110)

The speaker continues to showcase his altered attitude towards the fair youth. He insists that refraining from writing poetry about his beloved is a sign of increased love. Rather than maintaining the stance that it is his responsibility to write the fair youth’s beauty into verse, the poet instead focuses on personal aspects of their relationship. He does not wish to overwhelm his beloved with praises because he worries that the verse will grow “dull” if overdone. However, seeing as Sonnet 102 is surrounded by pleas to the Muse for inspiration, these sentiments may represent more of an excuse for his previously lamented silence than a genuine maturation of affection.

" Since my appeal says I did strive to prove      The constancy and virtue of your love...."   (Sonnets 111–120)

In a reversal of the situation from sonnets 40, 41, and 42, it is now the speaker who must defend his own infidelity. In those earlier sonnets, the speaker denounces the fair youth for betraying him, accusing him of being “false” before ultimately pardoning him. In Sonnet 117, it appears that those accusations have now been turned on the speaker. He comes to his own defense by saying that his transgressions were designed to test whether the fair youth truly loved him. The speaker calls upon the fair youth to prove his love, and since the speaker excused the youth’s transgressions, he now expects the youth to forgive his.

"Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments...."   (Sonnets 111–120)

"True minds" refers to fidelity as opposed to authenticity. In Shakespeare's time, the word "true" could mean constant or faithful. The speaker, who is frustrated by his lover's inconstancy, insists that "love is not love" if it extinguishes or alters in the face of change.

"suborned informer!..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

In the final couplet of Sonnet 125, the speaker addresses a “suborned informer”—“suborned” meaning bribed and “informer” meaning accuser. By one reading, the “suborned informer” is someone who has accused the speaker of being one of the “pitiful thievers” who has attached himself to the youth for personal gain. By another interpretation, the couplet is a final address to Time, with the speaker insisting that Time will never be able to destroy his love since he has a “true soul” that defies Time’s control. Yet another explanation is that the “suborned informer” is the fair youth. By this reading, the fair youth has accused the speaker of infidelity or declining affections. In response, the speaker implores the youth to banish those doubts and instead recognize the fidelity of the speaker’s soul.

"beauty slander'd with a bastard shame:..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Sonnet 127 marks the start of the sequence of sonnets addressed to the “Dark Lady.” The dark lady sequence adopts a very different attitude towards its subject than the fair youth sequence. From the start, the speaker insists that his mistress is not beautiful by traditional standards. However, he admires her authenticity as she refuses to wear a “borrowed face,” attaining beauty because she does not try to cover up her lack of it. Sonnet 127 recalls the sentiments expressed in Sonnet 68 about cosmetics and how they “slander” true beauty. The mistress’s eyes, which are “raven black,” are dressed like “mourners,” emphasizing the death of beauty—in terms of societal standards and, perhaps, the speaker’s departure from the fair youth. The dark lady is the opposite of the youth, but the speaker cannot help but be drawn to her.

"Which is not mix'd with seconds, knows no art, But mutual render, only me for thee...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

The first two quatrains of Sonnet 125 detail the actions of those “pitiful thievers” who strive for fame, fortune, or other earthly pleasures at the cost of achieving anything truly eternal. The volta shifts the poem into a final address to the fair youth as the poet offers himself completely to the youth. He urges a “mutual render[ing],” or mutual exchange of love, with no cunning or impure intentions. Despite their mutual transgressions, infidelities, and aged visages, the speaker and the youth share an eternal and unbreakable bond.

"No, it was builded far from accident;..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Continuing from Sonnet 123, Sonnet 124 asserts the constancy of the speaker’s love for the fair youth. His love is not a “child of state,” or product of circumstance, but rather something sturdy and “far from accident[al].” No political changes, momentary passions, or fluctuations of fortune can alter the steadfast nature of the speaker’s love. The speaker sees his love for the youth as the pinnacle of what love should be: steadfast and eternal, not subject to “Time’s love or Time’s hate” as the more fickle feelings of others are.

"This I do vow and this shall ever be;      I will be true despite thy scythe and thee...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Though the relationship between the speaker and the youth has deteriorated, sonnets 123 to 126, the last four poems in the fair youth sequence, represent the speaker’s final affirmation of devotion and eternal love to the fair youth. In Sonnet 123 the speaker addresses Time, denouncing its effects on love and aging. He notes that because human existence is so fleeting, people value what is old because it has withstood the ravages of Time. Rather than allow his love for the fair youth to fade into history, the speaker vows to “be true” and defy Time’s attempts to undermine his love. The phrase “this shall ever be” adds an element of timelessness to the statement, emphasizing that the speaker wants his love for the youth to be eternal.

"Therefore to give them from me was I bold, To trust those tables that receive thee more:..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Sonnet 122 sees the speaker admitting to having given away a “table,” or notebook, a gift from the youth. In Sonnet 77, the speaker gifted the youth just such a notebook to record what his “memory cannot contain” and encouraged him to “enrich” the book and “profit” from the reflections it could offer him. Now, in Sonnet 122, the speaker has discarded a similar gift on account of it being unnecessary, since his memory is more “lasting” and better equipped to hold his love for the youth. That the speaker willingly discarded a gift from the youth suggests that their relationship may be increasingly diminishing.

"And then thou lov'st me for my name is 'Will.'..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

Sonnet 136 has been used by scholars to cast the sonnet sequence as autobiographical, since the speaker implies his name is Will. The speaker is also playing on the variety of meanings of “will”—including genitalia and lovers—in order to comment on the lady’s promiscuity. The speaker also draws on the other meanings of “will” to associate himself with the sexual satisfaction he believes the dark lady craves. If it is sex that she wants, then she must love him, because his name itself contains and suggests those amorous activities.

"thy cruel eye hath taken, And my next self thou harder hast engross'd:..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

In contrast to the praised “mourning eyes” from the previous sonnet, the mistress’ eyes have now become “cruel” due to her affair with the speaker’s “next self,” a close friend of his who is often interpreted to be the fair youth. Her cruelty is thus twofold in that she has infatuated both the speaker and the fair youth. Prior to the affair, the speaker could look at the youth as an ideal of purity. Furthermore, since the speaker views the youth as an extension of his own soul, the youth could guard what was left of the speaker’s sense of personal innocence while indulging his lust with the dark lady. However, now that the youth is also involved with the dark lady, the speaker’s purity has been entirely forsaken.

"As testy sick men, when their deaths be near, No news but health from their physicians know;--..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

In Sonnet 140, the speaker resorts to threatening the dark lady with public slander unless she pretends to love him. The diction of Sonnet 140 features words related to health, such as “sick,” “death,” “physician,” “madness,” and “ill.” This serves to characterize love as a sickness that has deteriorated the speaker’s mental state. Just as “testy sick men” only want good news from their doctors, the speaker only wants to hear faithful and loving things from the dark lady. Even if she doesn't actually love him, the speaker asks that she pretend that she does. Otherwise he will “speak ill” of her in his madness, which he claims is wrought by her “disdain.”

"Thou blind fool, Love,..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

The Roman God of love, Cupid, was often depicted wearing a blindfold. The metaphor of love being blind has endured throughout the years, expressing how lovers often don’t see the flaws in their loved ones—at least not at first. However, the speaker has never pretended that his mistress was beautiful or good. In his case, he was willfully blind, overlooking her flaws in favor of indulging his lust. Now that she has apparently rejected him, he questions whether it was his eyes or his heart that led him to ignore her poor character. In Sonnets 46 and 47, the speaker describes his eyes and heart as being at “mortal war,” eventually reconciling to become partners in love. However, in Sonnet 137, both become objects of blame instead.

"for I, being pent in thee,      Perforce am thine, and all that is in me...."   (Sonnets 131–140)

Sonnets 40 to 42 and Sonnets 133 and 134 are thought by many to discuss the same situation as Sonnet 133, wherein the fair youth and the dark lady become entangled, leaving the speaker estranged from both of them. Notice that in both sets of poems, the speaker prioritizes the loss of the youth over the loss of the mistress. In order to protect the heart of the youth, the speaker offers to let himself be imprisoned in the “steal bosom” of his mistress so long as he is allowed to “guard” the youth. However, the speaker admits that the mistress controls him completely and that his heart makes a poor guard for the youth, since she owns both him and “all that is in” him.

"for whose dear love I rise and fall...."   (Sonnets 141–154)

The speaker is describing how he has been affected by his relationship with the dark lady. Because their love is one of a purely sexual nature, the “rise” refers to the poet’s erection, symbolizing the shallowness of relationships of the flesh. The “fall” refers to the “nobler” relationships of the mind and soul. Because the speaker’s body has betrayed his soul, he has fallen into a place of darkness and confusion.

"For, thou betraying me, I do betray My nobler part to my gross body's treason..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 151 compares the noble love of the soul with the lust of the flesh. The speaker values the love from the soul as “nobler,” however, due to the lady’s seduction, the speaker has fallen victim to the “treason of the body”—sex and lust. His “gross body” betrays the soul by being “contented” by the dark lady. He uses these comparisons as a condemnation of bodily desire. In the speaker’s eyes, a true love is one of the soul, not the flesh.

" If thy unworthiness rais'd love in me,      More worthy I to be belov'd of thee...."   (Sonnets 141–154)

In this final couplet, the speaker is both begging for attention and admitting his own flaws. He states that because he loves the dark lady’s flaws—her “unworthiness”—then he is all the more deserving of her reciprocated affection. However, this couplet can also be read as the speaker’s own self-deprecation. If his perception is so warped and if he finds her flaws attractive, then perhaps the dark lady is the only love worth having.

"To make me give the lie to my true sight..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

This line demonstrates the power of beauty to deceive. The speaker has been so manipulated that he is unable to use his true senses. Here, it is not love creating the veil over the speaker’s eyes, but the speaker’s own dishonesty. He is able to see all the dark lady’s flaws, but her beauty has made it impossible for the speaker to be honest with himself. The speaker is in total denial of his situation.

"When all my best doth worship thy defect, Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Throughout Sonnet 150, there is a clear hierarchical power structure between the two lovers. This hierarchy is seen most clearly in the use of the words “worship” and “command.” The speaker sees his lover as a sort of goddess or queen—someone to be worshipped and deified. He uses all his energy and willpower to praise even the worst aspects of her character. And she responds by exerting more power over him. The speaker is under the dark lady’s full control. There is also a vast difference in the amount of effort put into the relationship by the two characters. Where the speaker invests “all [his] best” in her “defects,” the dark lady responds with continued hate and oppression.

"Canst thou, O cruel! say I love thee not, When I against myself with thee partake?..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

This sonnet provides insight into the characters of the speaker and the dark lady. She has manipulated him so greatly that he will defend her before himself. Her cruelty is embodied by her lack of reciprocation. Although addressing the dark lady, the speaker never explicitly says who he’s addressing, referring to her as “cruel,” “tyrant” or, finally, “love.” The choice to use these words instead of a more specific address connects to the theme of the cruel and manipulative nature of love. The speaker’s anger toward the dark lady is one and the same with his anger toward Love.

"Love's eye is not so true as all men's..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 148 is primarily about the deceptive power of love. The speaker confesses his confusion regarding public opinions about the dark lady, which clash with his own views. Because his love has made him blind to the faults of the dark lady, the speaker is unable to see her the way that the rest of the world sees her. However, the use of “true” indicates that the speaker knows that his perception is being manipulated. The speaker is aware of the manipulation and deceit, but powerless against it.

" For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,      Who art as black as hell, as dark as night...."   (Sonnets 141–154)

This sonnet ends with a spiteful couplet that expresses one of the larger themes of the dark lady series. The deceptive beauty of the dark lady has corrupted not only the speaker, but also his perception of love. What once was full of joy is now “black as hell, and dark as night.” The speaker’s beliefs about the power of love in this sonnet are completely different from his initial, more optimistic beliefs at the start of the collection of sonnets. In the hands of the dark lady, love has turned into a deceptive and corruptive force, something to be scorned rather than celebrated.

"For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

chThe sonnet’s sestet, the six lines following the volta, trace the speaker’s process of disillusionment with the dark lady. The speaker has placed great faith in the dark lady’s many oaths and promises—“of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy.” The speaker uses the metaphors of vision and perjury to figure the decay of these oaths. The speaker claims to have “enlighten[ed]” the dark lady, making his eyes “swear against the thing they see” and seeing her as better than she really is. In the final couplet, the speaker claims to have committed perjury—testifying against the truth—by having “sworn thee fair.” Thus the dark lady sonnets end: not in resolution and appreciation, but bitterness and disenchantment.

"In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

In Sonnet 152, the final sonnet of the dark lady sequence, the speaker accuses the dark lady of being unfaithful and turning against their shared love. While the speaker admits he has “forsworn,” or renounced, loving the dark lady, he claims that she has committed two such forswearances. Not only has she ceased to love the speaker, she has also “thy bed-vow broke”—she has broken their vow of fidelity. In the second stanza, the speaker pivots in his perspective. He admits to having broken twenty oaths, and so he recognizes the hypocrisy in accusing the dark lady “of two oaths’ breach.” It is a recognition of mutual wrongdoing, for the speaker acknowledges both the wretchedness of his own oaths—which are “but to misuse thee”—and of those of the dark lady—“all my honest faith in thee is lost.”

"Poor soul..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 146 opens with the poet addressing his soul, asking it a series of questions about why it pursues earthly pleasures rather than caring for its own purity. The sonnet develops an extended metaphor of the body as a mansion, which the soul has “so short a lease” on. Rather than focusing on the state of the soul that lives within the mansion, the speaker has spent “so large [a] cost” on painting the outside and excessively indulging in physical pleasures. The body is on “lease” from Nature, but the soul is eternal, so the speaker beseeches his soul to take the wealth that has been spent on the body and instead store it “within,” so that the soul can “be fed.”

"Two loves I have of comfort and despair,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

At the root of the speaker’s conflict are the contrasting types of love he has for the fair youth and the dark lady. His love for the youth is emotional and selfless, sometimes verging on idolatry. In contrast, the speaker’s love for the dark lady is sensual and shameful, built on lust. In light of this, the first quatrain of Sonnet 144 can be read in two different ways. By one interpretation, the “better angel,” the fair youth, gives comfort while the “worser spirit,” the dark lady, gives despair. However, this line can also be read as saying that both of the speaker’s loves give him comfort and despair, a reading supported by his tortured reactions to the infidelity of both of his lovers.

"Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch One of her feather'd creatures broke away, Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 143 employs an extended simile that compares the dark lady’s neglect of the speaker in favor of pursuing other men to a housewife’s neglect of her baby in favor of pursuing a runaway chicken. The implication is that, rather than spend time nurturing their relationship, she is chasing after other men. However, it also portrays the speaker in a rather pitiful light. He urges the lady to “play the mother’s part,” casting himself as a man who is needy and dependent on the dark lady for maternal affection. The closing couplet concedes that even if she must chase after other men, the speaker hopes that she will return to him when she is through.

"Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Notice the contrasts established between “loving sin” and “virtu[ous] hate.” The nature of love is a common theme in the sonnet tradition, which abounds with frustrated lovers bemoaning their lack of physical satisfaction. Typically, passionate speakers begin sonnets by expressing their devotion for their beloveds, only to be rebuffed in the name of virtue. The cold, beautiful beloveds were considered hateful for their chastity. The speaker parodies this tradition by casting the dark lady in the role of the chaste maiden who virtuously rejects her suitor. The inaccuracy of the comparison is cemented as the speaker accuses the dark lady of hypocrisy, telling her that they are both lustful adulterers and that his love for her is no less “lawful” than her “false bonds of love.” He urges her to take “pity” on him, emotionally and sexually, lest she end up alone and rejected by her other lovers.

" That she that makes me sin awards me pain...."   (Sonnets 141–154)

On the surface, the final line of Sonnet 141 refers tothe lady’s rejections and infidelities, which cause the speaker “pain” because he loves her. However, the use of the phrase “awards me pain” adds a potential religious context. It is a common conceit in the sonnet tradition for love to considered “sinful,” since it encourages amorous and unchaste thoughts. In orthodox Christian doctrine, sins needed to be confessed and repented. Though uncommon in practice, pain, whether self-inflicted or administered by others, was considered a way in which sinners could pay penance. By the logic of penance, the “pain” the dark lady “awards” becomes the speaker’s “gain.”

Analysis Pages