Sonnet CXXIX, by William Shakespeare
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
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Sonnet CXXIX, along with a number of other Shakespearean sonnets, is though to be addressed to a mysterious woman. This particular sonnet explores the idea of lust and the tragedy it entails. A reader would imagine that the speaker in the piece has lusted after this dark woman and lived through the agony of lust’s painful end. The speaker of the poem looks at lust as a horrid emotion that cannot be avoided, even if an individual is aware of lust’s pain.

In the opening line of the sonnet, the speaker claims outright that this desire is a shameful thing and that it wastes one’s spirit to succumb to lust. Shakespeare writes “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action…” meaning that it is wasting one’s time to spend his spirit with lust. Shakespeare then goes on to say that until the action (meaning sexual fulfillment) is performed, the individual who lusts is wild with fury and madness. In lines 3 and 4, Shakespeare then gives a succession of adjectives to describe exactly how voracious the luster is; words such as murderous, bloody, savage, and extreme reveal how powerful the emotion is. By claiming a person with lust is “savage” and could “murder” in order to quench his craving is to say that his behavior is absurdly out of control.

In line five, Shakespeare begins to describe the emotions before and after lust’s lascivious yearning has been achieved. When Shakespeare writes, “Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,” he claims that after the individual attains the lustee, they come to abhor the outcome. In Shakespeare’s time, to enjoy often meant specifically to enjoy sexually. Here he claims that once a person finally has sexual intercourse with the desired person, the person despises themselves. The next few lines explain that the person who lusts is “past” any sort of reason and generally runs mad. Shakespeare uses a metaphor involving fishing, where the lusting individual has attempted to swallow bait, like a fish, and then goes “mad” trying to digest it and be released from the painful hook.

Shakespeare continues further to describe the wretched emotion of lust by explaining again that once the possession is experienced, the final outcome is a sense of “woe” or tragedy. Shakespeare writes, “Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream,” meaning that in the beginning the lust seemed to offer a terrific goal, but in the end it seemed to be an illusion; that the sexual release never occurred and was simply all in the imagination. So, the ultimate outcome of the lust is nothing but shame, and not only is the want gone but it was never truly satiated.

The entire sonnet has expressed the excrutiating pain of lust and its unattainable goal, revealing the speaker’s loathing of the emotion. In the final lines, Shakespeare claims that the world is quite aware of lust’s devestation and the harm it leads to. And yet he writes that man cannot avoid succumbing to lust, which is probably the most painful truth of all.

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