Sonnet 40: Lascivious grace

Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all; What hast thou then more than thou hadst before? No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call; All mine was thine, before thou hadst this more. Then, if for my love, thou my love receivest, I cannot blame thee, for my love thou usest; But yet be blam'd, if thou thy self deceivest By wilful taste of what thyself refusest. I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief, Although thou steal thee all my poverty: And yet, love knows it is a greater grief To bear love's wrong, than hate's known injury. Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows, Kill me with spites yet we must not be foes.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 40: Lascivious grace (3) (2013-03-13)

March 2013


Harriet Walter reading this sonnet

There is a love triangle in the background of this sonnet, which, by its very nature, defies the very concept of love: this triangle, and the pain the speaker experiences in one of its roles, cannot really be captured in the conventional framework of love. And so the poet lashes out against the very word, "love", clashing its various meanings against one another, as though in a battle.

The stage is set in the very first line, and the outcome of the battle is predicted in the third: no love, my love, that thou mayst true love call. In the "normal" use of language, a word's polysemy (its multiplicity of meanings) is supposed to be fully resolved by its context; and that's how one might be tempted to try and read this sonnet, looking for a specific, "correct", intended meaning for each of the ten times the word is used here. But this exercise would be futile, since nearly all possible meanings may be, and actually are relevant in each of these ten contexts; one might try and choose the "correct" story by selecting one meaning of "love" for each context, but that, I think, would be missing the point: the sonnet works precisely because it enacts the non-existence of one true story, one true account of love. No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call...

But there is more to this. If Shakespeare sets out to destroy a word, he cannot be satisfied with its semantics only; its phonetics should be demolished as well (I guess, for a poet, there is no clear boundary between phonetics and semantics anyway, just like there is no distinction between colour and meaning for a painter). Note the hissing, snake-like sound of the feminine (unstressed) rhyme-verbs of the second quatrain (this type of rhyme is very rare in the sonnets sequence), which describe the young man's love-destroying actions: receivest, usest, deceivest, refusest. These hissing sounds are in stark contrast with the sound(s) of love; and yet they enter it, and, literally, destroy the very fabric of the word, culminating in the stunning lascivious grace of the couplet: add the snake hissing to love, and you get lascivious. And by this point, there is no love at all: it's all kill, spites, foes. The destruction is complete.

A poet doing battle with a word, and, by extension with the language: his medium, his muse, his god; it's like witnessing Jacob wresting with his angel (or his God). No winner, no loser; only a blessing, and an injured hip. And how can this battle be replicated in a painting? I am not sure, but that's what I've attempted here: a painting that destructs the image and the colour harmony of red roses; for me, the reds of this painting correspond, quite distinctly, to sonar consonants and open vowels of the sonnet, and its greens, with its hissing sounds. There are lots of reds in this painting, but their meaning, and their form, bleed away from the picture plane.