Hey, have you ever seen that movie Shakespeare in Love? You know, that whimsical, feel-good, romantic comedy that features a young, happy Shakespeare in a variety of romantic situations? Well, campers, if that movie is the sum total of your impressions of the man they call "The Bard," Sonnet 137 is here to turn those smiles upside down.
This poem, like the rest of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, appeared in 1609 in a published collection entitled, appropriately enough, Sonnets. And while the book may not have sold well in Shakespeare's day, these poems stand today as some of the finest achievements of the English language. Heck, these suckers are so successful that the form in which they were written now bears the name of the man himself: Shakespearean sonnets.
Now, casual fans of the sonnets may have a line or two memorized ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), and those folks could be forgiven if they were to think that these poems are all about the good times, the high-fives and warm fuzzies of being in love. Of course, human experience is more complicated than that and, Billy S.—like any good poet—recognized that fully in his work.
In particular, Sonnet 137 deals with the aftermath of romantic betrayal, accounting for the whirlwind of emotions that are kicked up when you learn that your best guy or gal has been stepping out on you behind your back. Now, we sincerely hope that you can't relate to this experience, Shmoopers, but the sad fact is that this is a not-uncommon realization. What happened for everything to go so wrong? How could we have been so blind to the truth? These are the kinds of gut-wrenching questions that Shakespeare is wrestling with in this poem.
But did we say wrestling? A better metaphor would be painting. As a master wordsmith, ol' Shakes turns what, for most, would be a crushing blow into a work of technical mastery. They say that the best revenge for a broken heart is living well. Well, with Sonnet 137, Shakespeare takes a slightly different approach: crafting magnificent art from the pain of human experience. As readers, we'd say his pain was worth it, if just for the sake of this great poem.
Why Should I Care?
William Shakespeare’s Sonnets is probably the world’s most famous—and best—book of love poetry. But did you know that it’s probably also the world’s best explorations of break-up, betrayal, hatred, and all the other frustrations that go along with love?
Actually, when you think about it, this isn’t really surprising. After all, who would know better than a love expert how truly awful love can sometimes be? Like, sure, Marvin Gaye knew how to rock a smooth love song like "Let’s Get It On," but he could also pour his heart out in a song about break-up, like in his cover of the Motown classic "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." Or what about Bob Dylan? Sure, he can bust out tender love songs with the best of them (like, say "Lay, Lady, Lady"), but he could also deliver ice-cold kiss-off lines like the immortal ending of "Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright"), in which he tells his unfortunate, soon-to-be-ex lover that "I ain't sayin' you treated me unkind/ You could have done better but I don't mind/ You just kinda wasted my precious time." Ouch.
So, like Gaye or Dylan, Shakespeare not only writes about the joys of successful love, he also writes about the pain of unsuccessful love. In the case of Sonnet 137, specifically, he deals with the feeling of betrayal that comes when the speaker realizes that his lady-love has been cheating on him. But that isn’t even the biggest problem: the biggest problem of all is that he loves her so much that he just can’t get over her. We can probably all relate to this—but it’s what Shakespeare does with this basic theme that’s really special.
Shakespeare uses his frustration with his lady love as a springboard for some of the most outrageously obscene insults we’ve ever read before. Of course, it isn’t like Shakespeare just blurts things out in boring, old, clinical terms. Instead, he uses all of the tricks of the poetic trade, including wordplay and metaphor, to get his message across. In the end, we think all this cleverness just makes his insults that much more hard-hitting. But you don’t have to take it from us—just read the poem (plus our "Detailed Summary" to help you with the tricky parts), and see for yourself.