One of the reoccurring themes in the latter half of Shakespeare’s sonnets that really stood out to me was the idea of lying or misconstruing the truth. Although both sonnets 130 and 138 address the matter, they do so in opposite ways—one focuses on trying to be honest in a world full of deceitful poets, and the other embraces the lies he and his lover trade with each other.
On the surface, the muse for sonnet 130 seems to defy everything that we are familiar with in poetry; the first line, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” demands a double take—is this really what the poet meant? Shouldn’t he be comparing his love’s eyes to the sun, not against it? I admit when I read this sonnet for the first time, I asked myself these very same questions. Contrary to a sweet melodious sonnet that we might expect, the images the poet conjures up with his descriptions of his lover are rather blunt, and seem almost rude in a sense (“And in some perfumes is there more delight/than in the breath that from my mistress reeks”). However, by the end of the sonnet, we discover that the poet does, indeed, love this woman, and he has a point for making these odd comparisons. The closing couplet of the sonnet reads, “And yet by heaven I think my love as rare/as any she belied with false compare.” This is where the motif of lying comes in to play, when the poet essentially blasts other poets for stretching the truth about their own lovers by making grand metaphors and comparisons. Now, rereading the sonnet armed with this conclusion, we can see the poet’s play on traditional love poems and better appreciate his choice of comparisons; he uses the juxtaposition of somewhat ridiculous descriptions and what readers expect show how ridiculous he thinks poets are when they lie about their own lover.
Unlike sonnet 130, in sonnet 138 the poet does not resolve himself to telling the truth, but rather discusses the lies that he tells his love, as well as the ones she tells him. What is perhaps the most interesting about this sonnet is the narration of how the two distinct sets of lies intertwine. Both he and his mistress have secrets that they knowingly keep from each other—he his age and her her honesty—but each knows that the other is lying, and continues to believe them, because “love’s best habit is in seeming trust,/and age in love loves not to have years told”—it is easier to avoid the truth and live happily than confront the truth and risk losing the relationship on either end. This idea that their lies are so tightly woven into their relationship is depicted artfully by the double entendre in the first line of the closing couplet, “therefore I lie with her, and she with me,” referencing both their continued dishonesty with each other and their “love” for one another despite it. Both he and his lover embrace their “faults” and are “flattered” by them.
In both sonnets 130 and 138, there are many implications about the poet’s stance on endorsing lies, especially to or about another person. Although each has its own resolve, and the sonnets might not quite end in agreement about the idea of dishonesty when read side-by-side, there is one factor that unites both poems and makes them stand out among the other sonnets, not just for the motif. In these particular sonnets, Shakespeare uses non-traditional and unexpected phrasing and evokes a curiosity and even doubt in the reader that makes them, or at least me, think a little more critically about his message and how it relates to the world around me.