© 2014 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
Sonnet 147

Sonnet 147

Quatrain 2 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 5-7

My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me [...]

  • Now our metaphor-loving speaker compares his ability to reason (think rationally) to a doctor who's been trying to cure him.
  • He says his "physician" is ticked off at him and has abandoned him because the speaker won't follow his orders (or "prescriptions").
  • We can read this a couple of ways. When he says reason has "left" him, is he suggesting that he's going insane or is this just his way of saying he hasn't been using good judgment lately because he's so full of passion and desire? 
  • And what's up with all this talk about "prescriptions"? Today, we tend to think of "prescriptions" as a doctor's instructions to take certain kinds of medicine, right? But back in the day, "prescriptions" often referred to medical advice in general. 
  • Plus, the word "prescription" was often used interchangeably with the word "proscription," which refers to something that's prohibited or restricted.
  • So it seems like our speaker could be saying that he hasn't followed his doctor's orders to avoid certain things (like food or sex). 
  • By the way, are you detecting a pattern here? This guy is talking about his ability to reason as if it's a real person, sort of like he talks about his hungry "fever" back in the opening lines. Is he trying to convince himself that he's not the one to blame for his condition? (It's sort of like saying "Hey—Even though my doctor's advice wasn't followed, I can't help it that I'm sick because that jerk got all mad and just gave up on me.") 
  • Also, did you notice how he uses the passive voice and totally avoids using the first person when he says the doctor's prescriptions "are not kept"? It makes it sound if he has nothing to do with the fact that he's not following doctor's orders. 
  • Why doesn't he just come right and say that he knows his desire is unhealthy, but his lust is more powerful?

Lines 7-8

[...] and I desp'rate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.

  • These lines can be a little tricky so it helps to paraphrase. We think the speaker is saying something like this: "I, who am totally desperate now, am proof ("I [...] approve") that sexual desire is fatal." 
  • So now we have to be honest. We're not exactly sure how we should read the phrase "which physic did except." 
  • On the one hand, the speaker could be saying that his sexual desire is fatal because it rejected ("did except") medicine ("physic"). 
  • On the other hand, he could just be saying that his sexual desire, which medicine rejected or prohibited, is fatal.
  • Literary critics are always fighting over how to interpret this part, but we think that either way we read it, we're still left with a speaker who doesn't want to take responsibility for his behavior. 
  • So is this guy trying to be confusing and ambiguous on purpose? Or, is it possible that his ability to "reason" really has "left" him like he said earlier? 
  • Okay. We know what you're probably wondering now: why does the speaker think desire = death? That's scary, right? Is he just speaking metaphorically? Or, does he mean that literally?
  • Is he saying that he's got an STD and could actually die? (Venereal diseases were a HUGE problem in Shakespeare's England.)
  • Or is he making a joke about sex? ("To die" is common Elizabethan slang for "orgasm." And, by the way, some folks used to think that each male orgasm could take one day off a dude's life.)
  • Or, to be fair, he could be making a reference to the biblical idea that lust and spiritual death go hand in hand? Because the phrase "desire is death" could be a shout-out to one of these passages from the Bible: Romans 6:19-23, 8:6; Ephesians 2:1-3 (source). We'll leave that for you to decide. 
  • One last thing before we move on. Did you notice that the speaker suddenly switches to the present tense ("now") in these lines? What's up with that? If you ask us, it gives the poem a sense of urgency and also makes the speaker sound a just a little erratic and, well, "desp'rate." 
  • It seems like things went downhill pretty fast for this guy, don't you think? He went from feeling like a feverish patient to a man who's thinking about his death.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement