A Reading of Sonnet 120

The Bard, 1. 1976. p. 43 ‑46

That you were once unkind be‑friends mee now,
And for that sorrow, which I then didde feele,
Needes must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my Nerves were brasse or hammered steele.
For if you were by my unkindnesse shaken
As I by yours, y'have past a hell of Time,
And I a tyrant have no leasure taken
To waigh how once I suffered in your crime.
0 that our night of wo might have remembred
My deepest sence, how hard true sorrow hits,
And scone to you, as you to me then tendred
The humble salve, which wounded bosomes fits!
    But that your trespasse now becomes a fee,
    Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransome mee.

This sonnet (120) has a central place in the sonnets celebrating the last phase of Shakespeare's relationship with his Friend, and it casts much light on what that relationship had become. Shakespeare is defending himself against the reproaches of his Friend, and the mood is one of expostulation. While the general meaning seems plain, its expression is odd, ambiguous, unclear. The closer one looks at it, the less obvious its true significance becomes.

    This is due to gaps in the thinking which destroys its logic. To make the poem a coherent whole the gaps must be bridged, which one can do with help from the context of neighbouring sonnets. Shakespeare is apologising for having wronged his Friend. He reminds him that he had himself been wronged at an earlier time. The two wrongs balance one another, and the fair result is to call it quits. Shakespeare's misdeeds are referred to in the sonnets immediately succeeding 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true mindes"), where he has set down a statement of what for him love should be. "Love is not love" if it is not eternally faithful, patient, long­suffering, and untouched by unfaithfulness in the other. Shakespeare confesses that he has fallen far below this ideal; that he has frequented the company of "unknown mindes" (117); that he abandoned the sweetness of his Friend for "bitter sawces" (118); that he has been the victim of a "madding fever" (119), by which he clearly means the fever of lust. According, however, to the canons of 116, the Friend should have forgiven all this with undeviating love. He has not, and it is not difficult to detect the aggrieved air of 120. He rounds on his Friend with a counter‑charge, reminding him of his lapse which, at any early stage in their relation­ship, caused Shakespeare the grief described in 34 ("Why didst thou promise such a beautious day") and 35 ("No more bee greev'd at that which thou hast done").

    In line 1 "be‑friends" probably emerged in Shakespeare's mind simply as antithesis to "unkind". The statement is a paradox, and more than one meaning can be extracted: not only 'that you were once unkind stands me in good stead now', but also 'disposes me friendlily towards you'. Is this ironical?

    The ideas of lines 1, 2 and 3 do not make a logical sequence. Why should Shakespeare now welcome the recollection of the past injury? There is no clear reason why his present transgression should be linked with the Friend's transgression of the past, or why Shakespeare's past sorrow should be paid for or rewarded by his present shame and repentance. The lines carry the admission 'where I was once transgressed against, now I am the transgressor', but there is more than that. In some way, for Shakespeare, past suffering compels a present shame. Dowden's interpretation runs, 'I must needs be overwhelmed by the wrong I have done you, knowing how I myself suffered when you were the offender.' No doubt this is implied; but the shades of meaning in "for" are still not exhausted. Transgression is balanced with transgression. Sorrow then, is balanced with shame and repentance now. The sorrow then, is a part‑cause of the transgression now. One evil leads to another.

    In line 7 the word "tyrant" obtrudes itself. One may suppose that Shakespeare is confessing to tyrannical behaviour, by causing his Friend to suffer, or by being unjust. But the self‑reproaches of 117, 118 and 119 are for neglect, unfaithfulness, mixing with inferiors, falling below high standards. None of this is appropriate to a charge of tyranny. Tyranny was probably something apparent to the Friend, but not to Shakespeare himself. One has the feeling that Shakespeare is quoting back to his Friend the same word the Friend had used to him in his reproaches, a word appropriate enough in a young man's mind to apply to his elder's obsessive! possessive passion.

    Line 8 gives us pause again. Shakespeare offers his regrets that he has not found the leisure "to waigh how once I suffered in your crime." But Shakespeare is apologising, and the subject of the apology should be, not the Friend's "crime", but his own. Something has gone askew in the thinking. "Crime" is a terrible word for Shakespeare. It goes through all the plays with trappings of wickedness and horror ("vile outrageous crimes", 1H6; "mightier crimes", 2H6; "detested crimes", LLL; "grievous crimes", R2; "capital crimes", H5; "foul crimes", Ham; "gross crime", Lr; etc.). It is almost unimaginable that Shakespeare should have thought of his own misdeeds as "crime": or could have brought himself to say what the context was demanding: "to waigh how you have suffered in my crime". What happened must have been a sudden reversal of feeling. In the act of repentance, calling to mind how grievously he once suffered, his bitterness and resentment well up. In uncontrolled indignation he blurts out, not an acknowledgment of the other's hurt feelings, but an annihilating counter‑accusation.

    What happened on that "night of wo" (1. 9)? Sonnets 34 and 35 tell us nothing of the event, but only something of the feelings of the two persons involved. Seymour‑Smith [1] has put forward the theory that Shakespeare, a naturally heterosexual man, under the stress of paradoxical feelings suddenly aroused, was seduced into a unique homosexual experience by the fair youth. The "crime" of which Shakespeare now accuses him, was the seduction. Sonnets 34 and 35, to which "our night of wo" harks back, are to be read as occasioned by the sensual relationship, the treachery of the Friend, and the revelation of his true character. After that night, Shakespeare is left in the painful situation of trying to see the best he could in his Friend, and trying to redeem a relationship that remained hollow and in the long run incapable of a healthy development. Green [2] also has no doubt that the case has been made for a directly physical relationship between the two men, but he goes much further. By an intensive study of Shakespeare's euphemisms for all aspects of the anatomy and physiology of sex, he argues that, as a consequence of this relationship, Shakespeare was infected by his Friend with a venereal disease. We can agree that this could well have been felt by Shakespeare as a "crime", and its occasion as a "night of wo". The hypothesis explains much; but in one respect it is implausible. It might be supposed that, if such an event occurred, it would necessarily have put an abrupt end to the relationship; or, at least, there and then have transformed it totally. Instead, there can be no doubt (from 104) that Shakespeare's love for his Friend, whatever the discouragements it met, dragged on for over three years. But it seems to have become cool before the envoy of 126. Sonnet 120, in which the Friend's misdeed of the past is resurrected, and stigmatised as crime, marks a turning point into the last phase. The ambivalence of Shakespeare's attitude shows itself in an increasing irony.

    The "humble salve" of line 12, that is the salve of humbling oneself (cf. the horse's "slow offence" in 51), refers back to 34, but in bitter irony, since there "For no man well of such a salve can speake, / That heales the wound, and cures not the disgrace". The sonnet ends with the consolatory "Ah but those teares are pearle which thy love sheeds, / And they are ritch, and ransome all ill deeds." But even when he wrote it, Shakespeare must have seen the hollowness of this view; the hyperbole of the expression shows that he was protesting too much, perhaps as a cover for the truth, perhaps to try to convince himself against his better judgment, perhaps to provide some face‑saving basis for the continuation of the friendship. He had in any case seen the psychological truth, and expressed it in the ominous lines that precede the final distich:

Nor can thy shame give phisicke to my griefe,
Though thou repent, yet I have still the losse,
Th'offenders sorrow lends but weake reliefe
To him that beares the strong offenses losse.

Shakespeare did not forget, nor ever forgive, the offence of 34. Tears were shed, but from how deep a regret? Was there "true sorrow"? The tears had to be accepted faute de mieux, since there could be no real restitution. In 120 Shakespeare is now hinting that his own "transgression" could be paid for in like coin.

    But the distich which ends 120 takes even this much back. "But", it begins, "But that your trespasse now becomes a fee", and consolation is hardly required, since they are quits anyway. One should note also the incomplete symmetry in the antithesis in line 14. Shakespeare does not say "Mine ransoms you, and yours must ransome mee", but "Mine ransoms yours ...". It is the Friend's trespass that is 'ransomed', not the Friend himself. He must live on, for ever under a cloud.

    We may now summarise these reflections in a statement somewhat looser than a paraphrase, to show how we should understand the thoughts expressed in Sonnet 120, both those on the surface, and those underlying it:

"That you were once unkind stands me in good stead now, when I am the peccant party, and in a way, it makes me more your friend. For the sorrow that I felt then, the sorrow now is all yours. I must admit my transgression, and bow my head, unless I were so tough as to wish and to be able to brazen it out. For if the other day you were shaken by my unkindness, as I was by yours in that long ago ‑indeed, if you were, then I would know the kind of heil you had gone through. You call me "tyrant", and say 1 could not find the leisure to weigh up, what? Your suffering under my neglect? Or, rather, how much I suffered in your crime? I wish I had remembered, when you accused me, that terrible night, and had been reminded how hard true sorrow hits. Then I would at once have offered you the sort of consolation you thought all‑sufficient then. I am afraid you will have to do without it. Your trespass stands there in my credit account. My offence requites yours, and yours must excuse me."



[1)] Martin Seymour‑Smith, Shakespeare's Sonnets, London, 1963.

[2] Martin Green, The Labyrinth of Shakespeare's Sonnets, London, 1975.