Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil,
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another's hell:
Yet this shall I ne'er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
A sonnet that is considered by many to be the key to understanding Shakespeare's attitude to love. It plays out the old battle between spiritual and physical love, a subject which had been the jousting field of argument for centuries. The poet seems to ally himself with the traditionalists who believed that the nature of woman was such as to corrupt pure love. In Platonic terms she was the material dross of which bodies were made, but the spiritual ideal love was independent of her, and true love could really only subsist between males. In terms of Christian theology, woman was the devil and was responsible for the fall since she had tempted man to eat forbidden fruit. Any form of congress with a woman was corrupting, and the ideal life would always be one of chastity and abstention from sex. The doctrine was alleviated slightly by devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, but despite giving birth she was a virgin and worshipped as the Blessed Virgin Mary. A mitigation to this view was the reality of life itself, which always returned to insist that the majority of men would continue to desire women.
The poet here follows the traditional line that woman is the female evil, her sexuality being a threat not only to the poet who loves her, but also to the pure spirit of love of which his friend is the icon. The battle is between heaven and hell, between the spirit and the body, and the body seems to triumph over the spirit just as it does in Sonnet 129, and less agonisingly in 151. The net result is that the poet is flung into a rage of jealousy and, like Othello, his imagination runs riot as he thinks of what the lovers must have done together:
Lie with her? Lie on her? - We say lie on her when they belie her. - Zounds, that's fulsome. - Handkerchief - confessions - handkerchief! - To confess and be hanged for his labour - first to be hanged, and then confess! I tremble at it. Oth.IV.1.36-41.
This is the fevered imagination which guesses one angel in another's hell and broods with frenzied misogyny on his sense of betrayal. But one presumes it had a less tragic outcome than the Othello story.
There is always some doubt about the autobiographical nature of these sonnets, although the majority of readers will inevitably take them to be personal accounts of suffering or elation. Even with a poem which we know to be based on an Italian or French original, such as Sidney's sonnet to sleep:
Come Sleep! O Sleep!. The certain knot of peace!
we are reluctant to discount entirely the element of personal experience which we feel it portrays. Simply because another poet has already written similar thoughts on a subject does not preclude a native poet from taking up the theme. And since love is so universal an experience, one should be willing to accept that a sincere account of it might be inspired by another's similar experience, even in different climes and countries. To a certain extent Shakespeare's portrayal of the dark lady as the villain of the piece, the one who dirties and corrupts the purity of his love, is similar to the reaction to Petrarchism which the continent had experienced, a reaction which denied that the beloved was a goddess and likened her instead to a Medusa, a Gorgon, or to other mythological murderesses. It is not so far a jump from that attitude to the one here portrayed, namely that the beloved mistress is a Circe who entraps all men and turns them into swine. The difference here is that of emphasis, in that the poet focuses on the effect on himself as the party in the middle. He loves a woman, but she has betrayed him like the worst of trulls. Not only that, but she now seeks to seduce from him the lofty and perfect ideal of love which, he is ready to declare, sustained his life and made it beautiful. Unfortunately the sense of loss is distorted by the jealousy which pervades it, the thwarted desire which is forced to concede that the woman no longer wants him, or his body, but she wants his companion, and him only perhaps for a time. So that the woman herself becomes personified as evil, the bad angel who is on the side of the devil and is responsible for all the world's woes.
This may be too extreme a view, and perhaps readers would prefer to believe that Shakespeare was writing in his usual mode of dramatic fiction, rather than to accept that he was a tortured misogynist with leanings to homosexuality. Yet commentators tend to think that this sonnet is deadly serious. (See for example HV p.605). I hope my illustration at the top of the page might in some way lighten the heaviness, and although I cannot offer an alternative interpretation, I think it important to remember that the mind can oscillate between extremes, and that a temporary despair of human redemption need not be a permanent and lasting feature of one's life. Shakespeare's women in most of the later plays were superb examples of humanity and few elements of the dark lady can be found in them. In fact one might say the same of most of the earlier plays, so that if the episodes here depicted were taken from his life we must not despair entirely, but take comfort from the fact that he lived through them and still retained his idealism.
Below are shown the Passionate Pilgrim version of this sonnet, and Drayton's Sonnet 20 from his 'Idea' sequence of sixty three sonnets, which has many similarities to this one. I have also included sonnets 41 and 42, which are addressed to the youth and probably relate to the same relationship which is discussed here. They are given at the bottom of this page.
DRAYTON SONNET 20
An evil Spirit (your Beauty) haunts me still,
Wherewith, alas, I have been long possessed;
Which ceaseth not to attempt me to each ill,
Nor give me once, but one poor minute's rest.
In me it speaks, whether I sleep or wake:
And when by means to drive it out I try,
With greater torments then it me doth take,
And tortures me in most extremity.
Before my face, it lays down my despairs,
And hastes me on unto a sudden death:
Now tempting me, to drown myself in tears;
And then in sighing to give up my breath.
Thus am I still provoked to every evil,
By this good wicked Spirit, sweet Angel-Devil.
From Michael Drayton's sonnet sequence Idea. This sonnet was published in 1599, the same year as The Passionate Pilgrim, a pirated edition of some of Shakespeare's poems. It printed the version of Sonnet 144 which is shown below.
FROM THE PASSIONATE PILGRIM
Based on the version given in Booth, SB.p.496, which is taken from the Rollins Variorum edition: A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare The Sonnets, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 Vols, Philadelphia, 1944. I do not have access to the original PP version, but I presume that all the s characters, other than capitals and terminal letters, would have been elongated s, as in the Q version.
Two loues I haue, of Comfort and Despaire,
That like two Spirits, do suggest me still:
My better Angell, is a Man (right faire)
My worser spirite a Woman (colour'd ill.)
To win me soone to hell, my Female euill
Tempteth my better Angell from my side:
And would corrupt my Saint to be a Diuell,
Wooing his purity with her faire pride.
And whether that my Angell be turnde feend,
Suspect I may (yet not directly tell:)
For being both to me: both, to each friend,
I ghesse one Angell in anothers hell:
The truth I shall not know, but liue in dout,
Till my bad Angell fire my good one out.
The 1609 Quarto Version
TWo loues I haue of comfort and diſpaire,
Which like two ſpirits do ſugieſt me ſtill,
The better angell is a man right faire:
The worſer ſpirit a woman collour'd il.
To win me ſoone to hell my femall euill,
Tempteth my better angel from my ſight,
And would corrupt my ſaint to be a diuel:
Wooing his purity with her fowle pride.
And whether that my angel be turn'd finde,
Suſpect I may, yet not directly tell,
But being both from me both to each friend,
I geſſe one angel in an others hel.
Yet this ſhal I nere know but liue in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.