Shakespeare's Sonnets

what is shakespear trying to say in sonnet 151

Original Text Modern Text

Love is too young to know what conscience is,

Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?

Then, gentle cheater, urge not my amiss,

Lest guilty of my faults thy sweet self prove;

For, thou betraying me, I do betray

My nobler part to my gross body’s treason.

My soul doth tell my body that he may

Triumph in love—flesh stays no father reason,

But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee

As his triumphant prize—proud of this pride,

He is contented thy poor drudge to be,

To stand in thy affairs, fall by thy side.

No want of conscience hold it that I call  

Her “love” for whose dear love I rise and   fall.

modern text:

Cupid is too young to know right from wrong, but doesn’t everybody know that love is what gives you a conscience? In that case, gentle cheater, don’t criticize me too harshly for my mistake, because your sweet self might turn out to be guilty of the same faults. Because you betray me, I betray my soul to my dumb, rebellious body. My soul tells my body that it can have its way in love. My flesh doesn’t wait to hear any more, but at the sound of your name it rises up and points you out as its prize. My flesh, proud of having you, is happy to be your poor worker, to stand up to do your business and fall down beside you afterward. Do not assume my conscience is lacking just because the woman I call “love” makes my flesh rise and fall for her love.

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The poem explores the relationship between sexuality and love, and comes to the conclusion that the two cannot be separated, a conclusion at variance with the established tradition, from Petrarch onwards, which emphasises the soul at the expense of the body, and veers much more towards the neo-Platonic view that only the visions of the soul are worthy of consideration.

So the poem, unlike Judeo-Christian thought, explores the idea that sex and the soul are a part of each other. We can read between the lines to see that complaints of the beloved's coldness, or that she is harder than flint and rock, imply that she refuses to give any sexual favours, not even a kiss. Please check out the source-link below for greater detail should you need it.