Shakespeare's Sonnets

The "Dark Lady" versus The "Pure Man": Complexities of Interpretation in Sonnet 144 12th Grade

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 begins by declaring an infatuation with two opposing forces. These forces, “comfort and despair,” are often the two strongest emotions evoked after one falls prey to sexual temptation. Underlying sexism in the sonnet is apparent when one considers how Shakespeare describes the female “spirit” solely by her appearance, and depicts the male “angel” by his character. The suspiciously pure male, who can do no wrong, is victimized for being “corrupted” by the evil female. In addition to sexism, this back-and-forth tug between man and woman could also suggest a person being tormented by bisexuality or a person struggling with the standards of what is right and wrong. Shakespeare’s 144th sonnet denounces sexual attraction and condemns women for evoking blatant temptation, ultimately leaving the true meaning for the reader to determine.

One interpretation to be considered is that this specific sonnet is written in an outburst of jealousy. In the opening lines, the female spirit is described as influencing the speaker. However, towards the middle of the sonnet she switches to tempting the “better” angel. “Both to each friend,” the two spirits are no longer devoted solely to him, but also to each other....

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