Sonnet 129: Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame, William Shakespeare – an analysis


I see a drunken night on whiskey at a bar…

Gut Reaction
Temptation and lust, is it not?

What does it all mean?
Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust

From a religious standpoint, our purity, our…spirit? is wasted, is lost, to lust.
From a different point of view, we waste, we expend our energy on lust.

Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

I like this. To perjure is to make yourself guilty, so lust is making itself guilty? Even lustful thoughts prior to a lustful act are riddled with guilt and all of these other things the author has listed. Lust can lead to murder, blame, savagery, cruelty and all these other things, and it is guilty of being the cause of many things even if the actual act of lust isn’t committed. Is this like saying the second you have lustful thoughts for someone you shouldn’t you are guilty, even if you don’t actually do anything ‘wrong’ with them? From this standpoint, lust, and to lust, is always a guilty act. Why is wanting a crime? Surely taking without permission is a bigger crime than just wanting? But then if you can’t control your wants… huh. Too many thoughts 🙂

Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Again, more ‘evidence’ to suggest that both lusting after something and the act of lust itself is something hideous, to be ‘despised’.

Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Interesting here. Past reasons for lusting after someone or something? Let’s go with someone because that’s probably what we’re talking about, although… show me a good cheesecake and I’ll show you some food lust…
Maybe we’re saying here that we should know our patterns – we ‘hunt’ out similar people perhaps, we know when we’ve lusted after people in the past it’s gone horribly wrong – even when it’s gone our way. Because we start reasoning with ourselves about why this time is different. We talk ourselves into being okay with this situation and it’s like we’re baiting ourselves and hating ourselves for it. Which is followed by one of my favourite lines in poetry:
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
The assonance and alliteration is just beautiful.
Here, perhaps we can talk about being manipulated by people who can see through our weakness, and even though we know it’s wrong, we go ahead and do our lusty thing with them – and it drives us mad that we do this.
I can actually see myself doing something like this; going through old memories – hunting – for why I shouldn’t want what I want. Talking myself out of it, into it. Allowing myself to be manipulated and then going through this vicious circle until I feel myself mad.

Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
It’s an addiction. It takes our focus from everything else in our lives and even when we get it, even when we ‘possess’ the thing or person that we want, we’re still mad, driven solely for this one thing. It’s like when you go into a relationship and at first it’s all sex, sex, sex and friends and family falling to the wayside. Until that initial bunny period has been and gone, the blinkers are on and it takes over.

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
Another line to corroborate the fact that lust corrupts and consumes us to the ‘extreme’.

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Yes, it’s blissful when it’s all good, but when it sours, it’s anything but. So what we’re saying here is that, essentially, we pursue the object of our lust with blinkers on, focussed like a hunter on prey, and it’s good, and it’s good, and then we get exactly what we want… and suddenly… there’s guilt and shame.

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
When it was unattainable and something we were still pursuing, it was joyous and made us happy. And when it was over, it just felt like it had been a dream. This is all very negative about love, isn’t it? If it’s all about lust and getting what you want, and knowing that in the blink of an eye all the good stuff’s over and it’s all wistful memories and sad faces… what’s the point?

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Human beings are the strangest of creatures. Of course we know the damage that is done from acting on lust. Of course we know that it’s all fleeting, all consuming and al destroying. But we can’t seem to keep ourselves from doing it, can we?

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
As with many sonnets, this one appears as one long piece of text or divided into three quatrains and one couplet.

It is observational and bewildered – since we all know how damaging lust can be but we keep having at it!

Suggested rhyme scheme

Similes and metaphors
Shakespeare is pretty blunt in his delivery of this sonnet, and if we really want to get to the nitty gritty of it then ‘bliss’ I suppose could be to climax, and ‘woe’ to be the following rush of guilt.

Author’s relationship with their subject
It seems that the author takes on the role of observer when I doubt very much that Shakespeare wasn’t victim to the draw of lust himself. By stepping back and observing, perhaps he’s trying to figure out for himself why he does what he does.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Sex, sex and more sex essentially. There are, of course, other things to lust after – power and money for example, but it seems that most analyses agrees this is plain old sex. There is also the mention of the lack of the word ‘love’ throughout the poem, as though love isn’t something we ever really have, just lust.

Signing off

This is quite a nice reading of the poem although for me, I expect a delivery a little more passionate, or almost despairing – of the tone that says ‘why do we keep doing this to ourselves time and time again?’

This sonnet is nothing but true though. When we want someone, we want them, and whatever else is around us goes blurry as if nothing else matters. We probably don’t want to be like that – we’ve done it before and we know it ends badly, but we keep doing it. The way we dress, the message we know we really shouldn’t be sending, the convenient bumping into – and that’s just the tame stuff, there’s a whole other world of lusting-for-badness that we all do. It drives us insane. And then, should we happen to get to that point where we get where we want, it’s good, it’s good, it’s go- aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand it’s over. Huh. And with mere passing of seconds, the guilt and shame kicks in. Huh, we always forget that feeling.

But that’s life, isn’t it? Who can honestly say they haven’t, at some point in their lives, been driven by lust?



Poets Org

When I read this I think of the song… As if we need further evidence that the world is full of… lustiness, here’s‘s greatest 50 seduction songs, which include some of my favourites: Whole Lotta Love, Light My Fire, Need You Tonight and Handsome Devil.


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