“Sonnet 138,” by William Shakespeare, is a poem about the dual roles of lies and truth in love. Shakespeare offers this sonnet as a commentary on the traditional views of love and romance. While at first the speaker seems to condemn the lies and falsehoods offered to him by his young lover, he soon realizes that he too is guilty of such deception. He acknowledges that dishonesty is a necessary evil in any relationship, in order to maintain the relationship and to please both individuals.

Therefore, the speaker perpetuates the deceit by pretending not to notice his lover’s untruths, and even telling some of his own. This helps both him and his lover accept themselves and each other, and become an even stronger pair than they would be without the small deceptions that have become a part of their relationship. He says that he trusts her and loves her even though she is untruthful, as the first lines of the poem make clear: “When my love swears that she is made of truth,/I do believe her, though I know she lies” (1-2).

In line 2 of the poem, the ambiguous nature of “lies” may also refer to infidelity with other men, adding another layer of deception to the relationship. Although his lover is unfaithful and dishonest, and although he is fully aware of both of these facts, the speaker cannot deny his love for her and seeks to keep his relationship strong, rather than weaken it with confrontations or misplaced trust.

It may seem contradictory that the speaker of the poem would rather be knowingly deceived than have an honest, and therefore a seemingly more loving, relationship. However, he depends upon this dishonesty as much as she does. He seeks to hide his age from her, whether consciously or unconsciously, and to do so is of course deceptive. In order to do this, he pretends to be naïve and unaware of his lover’s duplicity, thus being dishonest both to himself and to her. In line 3, the speaker admits that he wants her to “think me some untutored youth,/Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.” He makes himself believe that she thinks him to be a young man, while she, in turn, complies with the charade, even though he knows that “she knows [his] days are past the best” (6).

By maintaining this pretense, both partners are aiding in the deception of themselves and each other. They are both aware of what the other is doing, but refuse to act upon or even acknowledge those facts. As the speaker says, “Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue/On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed” (7-8). He would rather ignore her faults and focus on the reasons that he loves her. This is why he takes what she says at face-value, and accepts her lies rather than challenge them. He and his lover are more interested in their own version of the truth than in the actual reality of their predicament. They are able to sustain their love because they refuse to accept the ugly truths that lurk beneath the surface.

In this way, the speaker expresses love through lies. He receives reassurance from his lover that he is worthy of love despite his age. She, in turn, is loved despite her unfaithfulness, a trait that he is willing to overlook in order to keep his young mistress by his side. Because she cannot admit that she is “unjust,” and he cannot admit that he is old, the pair ignore their faults and choose to love one another despite them. They have created their own form of truth, one that has been built upon lies.

Shakespeare extends this seemingly odd pairing to have universal meaning. “Love’s best habit is in seeming trust” (11), he says, meaning that the best disguise for love is in apparent truth. Thus, the strongest form of love persists in the face of lies and dishonesty. Age does not matter, nor do any of the little details that sometimes cause conflict in relationships. He would rather keep his mind on positive things, and look at the big picture.

The deceits presented in the sonnet – the speaker’s mysterious age and his lover’s unspoken infidelity – are representative of larger issues and insecurities that can be found in any relationship. It is therefore likely that these are not the only lies brewing beneath the surface of this pair. In fact, it seems that much of the relationship is based on denial of the truth, both for selfish and noble means. It is selfish because, as is clear, lies benefit those who tell them. She avoids charges of infidelity, while he remains confident in his youth and virility. At the same time, however, these very same lies, when accepted as truth by the lovers, are unselfish in that they allow each other to be more secure about their own faults.

“Therefore I lie with her and she with me,/And in our faults by lies we flattered be” (13-14). Once again, the word “lies” is used in a variety of potential meanings. It could mean that the lovers lie down, or sleep, with each other; on the other hand, it is possible to read the line as another instance of the pair lying to each other, proliferating their dishonesty and thus, oddly, strengthening their bond.

In the final couplet, the speaker once again states that not only is he content to lie and be lied to, but that he also needs it in his relationship. The lies that the lovers tell each other help them forget their own faults and the faults of the other, and sometimes act as a way to soothe and console them. Lies bring comfort to their insecure minds. The denial of certain ugly truths allows the man and woman to love each other even more than they would if they were completely honest with themselves. Thus they live more happily in their own construction of the truth.

This essay was written March 2004 for the NYU class “Literary Interpretation.”

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