Study Guide

Sonnet 137 Betrayal

By William Shakespeare


Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes
That they behold, and see not what they see? (1-2)

The speaker’s opening words reveal that he has already been betrayed before the poem begins. How can we tell? Think about it: if he knows that his eyes are tricking him, then he must know what the truth is. The knowledge that his lady-friend has betrayed him seems to have made him pretty angry and bewildered, as we can tell from the explosive rhythm of the opening words of the poem, as well as the somewhat confusing wordplay in line 2.

They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be. (3-4)

Here, we can see again how angry the speaker is at the fact that his lady-friend has betrayed him. We can see this in the fact that he resorts to the literary device known as hyperbole, or exaggerating for effect. It seems unlikely that the speaker’s lady could really be the worst woman in the world, but the speaker is so angry that it feels that way to him.

If eyes, corrupt by over-partial looks,
Be anchored in the bay where all men ride […] (5-6)

We can see the speaker’s intense feelings of rejection and betrayal come out in a different form in these lines. Do you think the speaker would ever have spoken in such crude sexual terms about his lady while their relationship was been going well? We sure don’t think so. But the speaker’s anger makes him sexually disgusted with the lady, which comes out in a variety of obscene ways. Also, we see another instance of "hyperbole" (exaggerating for effect) in these lines. It just isn’t possible that the speaker’s lady-friend slept with "all men" in the world (at least, we hope not), but the speaker’s feelings of betrayal make it feel that way.

Why should my heart think that a several plot
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place? (9-10)

We could say pretty much the exact same thing about these lines as we did about the previous two. Here, once again, the speaker’s anger and sexual disgust at the lady makes him speak about her in insulting, obscene terms. These lines also feature hyperbole. It really isn’t possible that the speaker’s lady-friend made herself sexually available to the whole "wide world," but the speaker’s feelings of betrayal make it feel that way.

Or mine eyes, seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face? (11-12)

In these lines, the speaker’s feelings of disgust at being betrayed are communicated in a more subtle way than the ones we have just looked at. Instead of calling the lady’s face "false" (in its old-fashioned meaning of "unfaithful")—the word we would expect as the opposite of "truth" (in its old-fashioned meaning of "loyalty")—he calls her "foul." Thus, the speaker shows that is willing to break the symmetrical structures of elegant rhetoric just to show how cheesed off he is.

In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferred. (13-14)

The speaker’s kiss-off lines combine the subtlety of the techniques we just looked at with the brash obscenity of some of the ones we looked at earlier. As we explain in our "Detailed Summary" section, Professor Helen Vendler of Harvard University thinks the word "plague" here might contain a hidden reference to the lady’s genitalia. If you put this together with the idea of STDs—which the word "plague" also brings to mind—you start to get the picture of how angry and disgusted the speaker really is at being betrayed.

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