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Love can be an ambiguous thing. Without total understanding of
both parties' opinions, chaos may ensue.
When discussing Shakespearean sonnets, it becomes clear that every person brings their own interpretation to the table. Scholars, students, and the average reader each have different backgrounds, varied purposes for reading, and vastly diverse concepts of the cultural and literary context for Shakespearean poetry. Thus, Sonnet 141 poses no new dilemma when readers interpret its meaning in unique ways.
To begin, a lack of scholarly studies specific to Sonnet 141 contributes to the confusion surrounding its interpretation. Or rather, there exists an entire conceptual foundation to be built for Sonnet 141, and yet only a few measly bricks have been laid. For example, the popular Sonnet 130 takes part in the same series of Shakespearean sonnets addressed to his “dark lady,” but unlike Sonnet 141, hundreds of interpretations of Sonnet 130 can be found.
Fortunately, due to their similarities, the reader can understand some aspects of Sonnet 141 through the analysis of Sonnet 130. In both poems, Shakespeare outlines Petrarchan ideals and then proceeds to demolish them. He details a love that defies convention. He describes a relationship not bound by the normal ties of physical attraction. In Sonnet 141, Shakespeare states that “Nor tender feeling, to base touches prone,/ Nor taste, nor smell, desire to be invited/ To any sensual feast with thee alone”. And yet, he later states “But my five wits nor my five senses can/ Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee”.
This perhaps, is the greatest difference between Sonnet 130 and Sonnet 141. While Sonnet 130 gives the reader a feeling of playful jests and sincere affection between the two lovers, Sonnet 141 presents a begrudging type of love. Shakespeare employs harsher words, such as “a thousand errors,” “proud heart’s slave,” “vassal wretch,” “plague,” and “pain,” among other unfavorable descriptions. In the end, Sonnet 141 portrays a dark and unappealing love in which the man does not actually want to be in the position he is in as the dark lady’s lover.
With just a slight twist of perspective, however, Sonnet 141 becomes less brooding and more desperate, less the woes of a self-pitying man and more the cries of an unsatisfied stalker. Sonnet 141 plays a role in the larger context of Shakespeare’s sonnets to his dark lady, as mentioned before. However, taken out of this context, Sonnet 141 can be read in a variety of ways with a variety of interpretations. Ben Crystal, an English actor and director, read Sonnet 141 on video. Throughout the poem his voice is tense, as if on the verge of shouting. Crystal’s eyes repeatedly squint at the camera, and his nose and mouth twitch as powerful emotion displays itself on his face. The combination of facial expression and vocal performance provide the observer with a feeling of uneasiness. The narrator that Crystal portrays most definitely feels no true love for the dark lady. Barely concealed resentment, desperation for fulfillment, and perhaps even remorse for such harsh raw emotion seep through. In this interpretation, neither Crystal nor the dark lady could possibly be happy in such a relationship.
A Layman’s Perspective
Upon first glance, Sonnet 141 presents a comedic face. As previously mentioned, Sonnet 141 mimics Sonnet 130’s lighthearted treatment of a deeper subject. The narrator speaks of his desperate love for the dark lady, and how could the dark lady be anything but pleased by his devotion. Without digging into the vocabulary or overthinking the unflattering comparisons, Sonnet 141 is a “cute and funny” little sonnet of a man who cannot understand the depth of his love.
Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter obviously present more trouble than would seem possible. The questions of who is happy in this relationship, how each party feels, and why they choose to remain together all provide ample room for interpretation. Further studies of Sonnet 141 and its ambiguous language and interpretation would hopefully clarify Shakespeare’s original intent.