Study Guide

Sonnet 137 Couplet

By William Shakespeare


Line 13

In things right true my heart and eyes have erred,

  • Now, we come to the "couplet"—the final section of a Shakespearean sonnet in which the speaker gets to sum up his ideas for the reader. You can sort of think of the couplet of a Shakespearean sonnet like the "closing arguments" made by a lawyer in a courtroom. 
  • In this, the first line of the couplet, the speaker looks back into the past. He says that, in days gone by, his "heart and eyes have err’d," (made a mistake) in dealing with "things right true."
  • Once again, we get synecdoche, with the speaker using these parts to represent himself as a whole. 
  • Apparently, his entire person has made mistakes. Bummer. But what does "things right true" mean?
  • We agree that this is a little bit unclear, but we think that the easiest way to make sense of this is as referring to other lovers of the speaker. Those lovers, the speaker says, were "true" (or loyal), following the old-fashioned meaning of the word "truth" we discussed back in line 12. 
  • If the speaker’s "heart and eyes" made a mistake ("erred") in dealing with these lovers, that suggests that he wrongly thought they were loyal to him. (This is the flip-side of what he just said in line 12, which was that his eyes mistakenly see his mistress as someone who's true, when she actually is cheating on him left, right, and center.)
  • So, if that’s what happened in the past, what’s going on in the present? Let’s turn to line 14 to find out.

Line 14

And to this false plague are they now transferred.

  • Once again, Shakespeare hits us with a lot of wordplay. And, once again, we’re going to need to get out the dictionaries. 
  • The first word that we’re going to need to deal with here is "transferred."
  • Now, as you may or may not know, Shakespeare was a successful businessman, as well as being a poet and playwright. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that he engages in some business or legal-type lingo from time-to-time. In fact, such language is very common in Shakespeare’s sonnets. 
  • In line 14, this business lingo comes up in the word "transferred." The main meaning of the word, as Shakespeare uses it here, is meaning number 2, as listed by the Oxford English Dictionary. Law. To convey or make over (title, right, or property) by deed or legal process."
  • So, the basic idea of "transferring" here is of "signing away ownership" of something. 
  • Thus, the speaker is saying that his "heart and eyes" (we learned who he was talking about back in line 13) have been "signed away" to "this false plague." 
  • But what is this "false plague" all about?
  • Well, it’s pretty clear that this is the speaker’s not-very-nice way of referring to his mistress—but why does he pick this turn of phrase out of the infinite number of possible insults? As it happens, many, many scholars have spent a lot of time trying to figure this one out. Let’s take a look at what they’ve come up with: 
  • First of all, believe it or not, many scholars think that the word "plague" here is also referring to STD’s. Do you believe this? Well—just look back to what the speaker said about the lady earlier in the sonnet: according to him, she gives herself to "all men" (6), and makes herself "the wide world’s common place" (9). If she’s really that promiscuous, we think it’s pretty likely she might have picked up an STD ("plague") or two. 
  • But there’s more. (Before we go on, though, we have to apologize again: this discussion is about to get a little X-rated—like, more than it has already. But, hey, don't blame us for it. Shakespeare’s the guy who wrote the poem, after all.) 
  • This more X-rated suggestion comes from Professor Helen Vendler of Harvard University. In her book, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, she suggests that the word "plague" here might be playing off the root meaning of the word, from Latin, plaga. This word means a "wound." According to Vendler, the image of a "wound" might call to mind… well, the most intimate part of Shakespeare’s mistress’s anatomy. 
  • If Shakespeare really was thinking about this hidden meaning in the word "plague," then it could be that his use of the word "false" is yet another jab at the supposedly unfaithful lady. It seems like he’s using "false" to mean deceitful or treacherous. So, "false plague" could be just another way of another way of describing "the bay where all men ride," and the "several plot" that is "the wide world’s common place." To put it bluntly, gang: she really gets around.

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