Love and Lying in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and Sonnet 138

As You Like It

Audrey: “I do not know what poetical is.” (3.3.16)
Touchstone: “the truest poetry is the most feigning, and lovers
are given to poetry, and what they swear in poetry
may be said as lovers they do feign.” (3.3.18-20)

“When my love sweares that she is made of truth,
I do beleeue her though I know she lyes,
That she might thinke me fome vnturterd youth,
Vnlearned in the worlds false–subtilties.
Thus vainely thinking that she thinkes me young.
Although she knowes my dayes are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue,
On both sides thus is simple truth supprest:
But wherefore sayes she not she is vnjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O loues best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in loue, loues not t’haue yeares told.
Therefore I lye with her, and she with me,
And in our faults by lyes we flattered be.”

(Copied as given to me by my professor.)

Shakespeare’s attitude toward the act of lying and the word “lye” in Sonnet 138 is that both are a composite of the two meanings contained within them and also comprise a whole which is more than either of these two meanings express.
The three times that the word lie is used in the Sonnet, in lines 2, 13 and 14, it can mean either love-making or deception. The pun in the last two lines brings this to our attention. In the chapter “The Poet as Fool and Priest” from his book Shakespearean Meanings, Sigurd Burckhardt points out that at the same time that the poet plays with words, he must preserve the integrity of each within the context of the work, or they become meaningless. We can therefore infer from this interchangeable use of the word lie that Shakespeare intends it to mean both.
This is borne out on the semantic level of the poem as well. The speaker tells us “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lyes.” Thus both are involved in a mutual lie, a mutual deception. The fifth line, by its grammatical construction, indicates that these separate acts of deception are also one and the same act. The ambiguity concerning the subject of the sentence indicates, in a sense, a mutual one, a mutual subject. “Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,” can mean that he vainly thinks she is young, or she vainly thinks he is “unlearned in the world’s false subtleties” and is, therefore, young. (Here we have the use of the word “young” with two possible meanings as well, but that is another topic of discussion.)
Thus both he and she are lying, in terms of deception and, the poem tells us, both are lying with each other in the physical sense of the word as well. The act of love and the state of love are often described as a dissolving of two distinct individuals into a whole. Thus the act of love and its more abstract emotional states are roughly analogous to the word lie and the various possible meanings that can be associated with it. Just as the word lie is the only possible concrete manifestation of its possible meanings, or the the channel through which they are expressed, so the act of love is the necessary channel for the expression of its more abstract emotional states.
Shakespeare intertwines the concepts of love and lying to the point where they are almost inseparable. In terms of the meaning of Sonnet 138 this is obvious, but in terms of his work as a poet it is true as well. The poet must write, out of love, though he commits a small lie by doing so; just by virtue of having put words to paper he becomes involved in, and responsible for, multiple meanings contained within them.
This is more subtly indicated by the use of the word “feign” in regard to poetry and love by Touchstone in As You Like It (3.3.18-20) and Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1.1.28-32). Feign means either to pretend, or lie, and to desire, or love. Touchstone’s assertion that “the truest poetry is the most feigning” indicates Shakespeare’s assertion of the necessity of both pretense and love in the creation of his art, just as by deceiving each other, and making love to each other, the lovers in Sonnet 138 transform the actual fault in which they are engaged into a means of enjoyment. It is the fact that they act out of love that frees the lover and the poet from reproach for the small deceptions which serve as a means to bring the transformation about.


(Topic: In this sonnet the poet uses the word “lie” to mean both acts of love-making and of deception. It could be argued that the entire poem depends on this crucial pun. What is the poet’s attitude toward the act and toward the crucial word?)


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