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.
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.
Get Your Fresh, Hot Sonnets
This internet archive features the complete texts of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
Sonnet 137, the Music Video
Somebody apparently put the sonnet to music. And made a video for it. The waves-breaking-on-the-shore imagery kind of seems to miss the point of the whole "anchored in the bay where all men ride" idea—but maybe that’s just us.
Stills from 1609
Here's a video with photos of an original manuscript of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Shakespeare on an iPad
Here's a cool take on the typical reading video.
A Very British Reading
Here's a competent reading, in an appropriate accent no less.
Bertram Selwyn Reads
Great voice, but for some strange reason he changes "ride" to "die" in line 6.
Cupid's Target Practice
This image of the "blind fool, Love" comes from Sandro Botticelli’s painting La Primavera.
Blindfolded Cupid Aiming At Renaissance Lady
This Renaissance illustration shows that Cupid’s arrow could strike women as well as men.
A Portrait of Shakespeare Painted From Life?
Check out the "Sanders Portrait," which some people believe may be a portrait of Shakespeare painted during his lifetime.
Shakespeare, Aged 14?
British police sketch-artist lady uses computer to create image of what Shakespeare might have looked like as a teenager. Cool.
Title Page of First Edition of Sonnets
Scroll down to get an image of the first edition of the Sonnets, along with a discussion of its mysterious dedication.
The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, by Helen Vendler
This accessible poem-by-poem commentary by one of America’s leading poetry critics is essential reading on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Highly recommended by Shmoop.
Nothing Like The Sun, by Anthony Burgess
The world-famous author of A Clockwork Orange takes on the mystery of Shakespeare’s love-life. A fictional imagining of the life behind the sonnets.
Sonnets in the City
This documentary follows a group of New York acting students as they explore 15 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
Battle of Wills
This documentary film tells the story of a newly discovered portrait thought to be the only portrait of Shakespeare painted from life.