sonnetCXL

Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express
The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
Though not to love, yet, love to tell me so;
As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
No news but health from their physicians know;
For, if I should despair, I should grow mad,
And in my madness might speak ill of thee;
Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
   That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
   Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.

The beauty of this sonnet is that it manages to compress so many different emotions and turbulent changes of direction into so few words. The lover both hovers on the edge of frenzy and on the edge of despair, he is loved and disdained, he trusts and does not trust, he speaks from the heart, and yet he hardly dares to speak his mind, he longs for her to love him, but he sees that her heart is proud, he hopes not to be driven to frenzy, but he thinks that he is half way there already.

 

Although the sonnet, as the previous one, of which it is more or less a continuation, draws on many conventional ideas, it is itself highly unconventional. It threatens to spill the beans on the beloved, and to show that she is neither chaste nor fair. There was often an element of seeking revenge for the beloved's proud aloofness in the sonneteer's plaints. GBE gives an example from John Donne, of a slightly later date. (See below). I have included, in the note to line 1, an extract from a sonnet by William Smith, from his sequence Chloris, or the Complaint of the passionate despised Shepherd, published in 1596. In the context of such extremism, which was widespread in sonnet writers, Shakespeare's outburst seems relatively mild, and he succeeds in bringing the experience of love back to a more human level, where the pains and despairs do not have to be exaggerated to make them real.

Yet let not thy deep bitterness beget
Careless despair in me, for that will whet
My mind to scorn; and Oh, love dulled with pain
Was ne'er so wise nor well armed as disdaine.
Then with new eyes I shall survey thee, and spy
Death in thy cheeks, and darkness in thine eye.
Though hope bred faith and love, thus taught, I shall,
As Nations do from Rome, from thy love fall.
My hate shall outgrow thine, and utterly
I will renounce thy dalliance.
Elegy VI.35-44.

The 1609 Quarto Version

BE wiſe as thou art cruell,do not preſſe
My toung-tide patience with too much diſdaine:
Leaſt ſorrow lend me words and words expreſſe,
The manner of my pittie wanting paine.
If I might teach thee witte better it weare,
Though not to loue,yet loue to tell me ſo,
As teſtie ſick-men when their deaths be neere,
No newes but health from their Phiſitions know.
For if I ſhould diſpaire I ſhould grow madde,
And in my madneſſe might ſpeake ill of thee,
Now this ill wreſting world is growne ſo bad,
Madde ſlanderers by madde eares beleeued be.
   That I may not be ſo, nor thou be lyde,           (wide.
   Beare thine eyes ſtraight , though thy proud heart goe

Commentary

1. Be wise as thou art cruel; do not press
Be wise as thou art cruel = (I suggest that, warn you that, you ought) to be wise to the same extent, in a similar manner, as you are cruel. I.e. learn wisdom and, if you are going to be like the typical disdainful lover, be as wise and chaste as they are. Or, 'Since you are determined to be cruel, try to be wise also'. Cruelty in the fair beloved was traditional and expected. It consisted mostly of disdain (see the next line) and a refusal to gratify the lover's amorous desires. Here, in addition, the cruelty is unfaithfulness and an open preference for other men. For the traditional manner of cruelty compare the lines to her in an earlier sonnet :
Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
131
and from Astrophel and Stella
Yet since my death-wound is already got,
Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot:
A kind of grace it is to kill with speed.
Sidney.A&S.48.
Smith in his sonnets to Chloris (1596) threatens to retreat to the desert in despair at his lover's disdain, and there take his revenge:

And like Amyntas, haunt the desert cells
(And moneyless there breathe out thy cruelty)
Where none but Care and Melancholy dwell.
I, for revenge, to Nemesis will cry!
If that will not prevail, my wandering ghost,
Which breathless here this love-scorched trunk shall leave,
Shall unto thee, with tragic tidings post!
How thy disdain did life from soul bereave.
Then all too late my death thou wilt repent!
When murder's guilt thy conscience shall torment. Chloris 24.

Nemesis
- the goddess of revenge in antiquity.
All sonneteers, from Petrarch on, found their chaste and lofty beloveds cruel.
do not press = do not seek to overcome by violence, do not provoke. A part military metaphor, as in the previous sonnet:
What need'st thou wound with cunning when thy might
Is more than my o'er-press'd defense can bide?
139.
Partly also a reference to a form of torture, in which heavy weights were placed on the accused person if he/she refused to speak.
2. My tongue-tied patience with too much disdain;
My tongue-tied patience - being tongue tied was well established as the characteristic of the sincere lover. Compare the sonnet to the youth on the subject, 23. But the precedent had in any case been celebrated long before by Sidney:
Dumb swans, not chattering pies do lovers prove;
They love indeed, who quake to say they love.
A&S.54.
pies = magpies. prove = turn out to be.
disdain - see the note above.
3. Lest sorrow lend me words, and words express
Lest = for fear that. See OED.1. The build up of ideas, from sorrow, to words, to expressing one's pain, which describes a chain of cause and effect, was a common feature of sonneteering. The technical name for it was 'climax', a term from rhetoric, meaning a series or a ladder. See OED.1. and SB.p.484.n.3-4.
4. The manner of my pity-wanting pain.
The manner of = the character, nature of; the way in which it woll manifest itself.
pity-wanting pain = pain which is not pitied by you; i.e lacking pity. Or, pain which is desirous of pity. The agony is traditionally that of not being loved in return, and having one's amorous advances denied.
5. If I might teach thee wit, better it were,
If I might teach thee wit = If I might be so bold as to suggest how you could behave more wisely. The phrase seems to be mildly deprecating, as if he does not wish to overstep the mark in criticising her behaviour. 'Let me make the suggestion that etc.' Or it could be taken as a sign of impatience, i.e., 'surely you have enough sense to see that this is how you should behave'. But however we interpret the tone, there is no mistaking the reality of the situation, that she does not love him, her heart is 'elsewhere'.
6. Though not to love, yet, love to tell me so;
Though not to love = although in reality you do not love me.
yet, love, to tell me so = yet, my love, to tell me that you do love me. I.e. it would be better, (my dearest), if you do not love me, to lie to me, and to tell me that you do. The second love is probably a vocative, equivalent to 'darling, dearest', but it could conceivably be interpreted as the more sadistic 'yet enjoy telling me that you love/do not love me'.
7. As testy sick men, when their deaths be near,
testy = bad tempered, crotchety. There are only nine occurrences of the word in Shakespeare, of which the following from Julius Caesar gives the full flavoured meaning. Brutus is responding angrily to Cassius' display of bad temper:
Must I observe you? must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humour? By the gods
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you;
JC.IV.3. 45-8.
8. No news but health from their physicians know;
No news but health = only good and cheering news of their recovery. physicians = doctors. The title of a medical doctor at the time, although it seems that the word was interchangeable with 'doctor'. It occurs again in Sonnet 147:
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve
Desire is death, which physic did except.
know = hear, learn, discover.
I cannot discover if this information is factual, either then or now, or merely an intuition. Doctors, as professionals, no doubt treated their patients as lesser beings, and never attempted to give them a full diagnosis. Compare for example Tolstoy's description of the doctors' treatment of Ivan, who suffers from a mortal illness, in 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich'. They regard his questions about the seriousness of his disease as impertinent and irrelevant, and imply that no mere patient has the right to intrude into the mysteries of medicine. In Elizabethan times medicine was not a science as we understand it. All the remedies prescribed were mere quackery, based on chance experience and false theories. Nevertheless, the doctors believed in themselves and in their efficacy, and in cases of mortal illness they were called in to help, and prudence alone would be enough to make them cautious of prophesying death for a patient.
9. For, if I should despair, I should grow mad,
grow mad = become insane; become enraged. (See OED.5). Compare from Midsummer Night's Dream:
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
MND.V.1.7-17.
Here the speaker is, or threatens to be, 'the lover, all as frantic', i.e as frenzied as any madman. But the conditions of all three types was considered to be similar.
10. And in my madness might speak ill of thee;
in my madness = in my mad frenzy.
speak ill of thee = slander you, say nasty things about you, reveal the ugly truth (which incidentally he has already done in the previous five sonnets).
11. Now this ill-wresting world is grown so bad,
ill-wresting = that turns everything askew, that distorts and maims all that it hears of. to wrest is to force something with a twisting movement.
12. Mad slanderers by mad ears believed be.
mad ears = mad listeners, the populace at large (who have all gone mad in this ill-wresting world).
believed be
= are believed.
13. That I may not be so, nor thou belied,
That I may not be so = in order that I may not be mad, or go mad, as I have described; in order that I may not be believed; in order that I do not speak ill of you, by becomong a mad slanderer.
nor thou belied
= nor you have false stories told about you, be slandered. Possibly also, bearing in mind sonnet 138, therefore I lie with her and she with me, 'in order that you do not have other men sleeping with you'.
14. Bear thine eyes straight, though thy proud heart go wide.
Bear thine eyes straight = do not glance aside, do not look flirtingly at other men, but keep your eyes true (straight) to me.
go wide
= strays, wanders far and wide surveying the talent; misses the mark, as an arrow goes wide of the target, i.e. strays away from me.