A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 40: ‘Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all’

A summary and paraphrase of Shakespeare’s 40th sonnet

Of all Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Sonnet 40 is perhaps the most relentlessly focused on ‘love’: the word itself recurs ten times in the sonnet’s fourteen lines, including twice in the poem’s opening line: ‘Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all’. In the following analysis, we’re going to examine how Shakespeare’s relationship with the Fair Youth has changed by the 40th sonnet in the sequence.

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.

The best way to summarise a Shakespeare sonnet is, perhaps, to paraphrase it. But first, a brief summary of the poem’s background: it would appear that Shakespeare has a mistress, and that the Fair Youth has gone to bed with her. What we have, then, is a bizarre love triangle involving Shakespeare, the Fair Youth, and Shakespeare’s mistress who has been unfaithful to Shakespeare by lying with the Youth. (Later in the Sonnets, it will emerge that this mistress is the figure known as the ‘Dark Lady’.) So, to a paraphrase of the sonnet’s meaning:

‘Take everyone I love – no, go on, really, take them. But by going with them, what do you have that you didn’t already have? No love that can be called true, that’s for sure. All my love was yours, until you went with my mistress. Then if, in exchange for my love, you received the affections of my mistress, I can’t say I blame you, for you used my lover; however, if you’ve tricked yourself into thinking that by sleeping with my mistress you are tasting what you are refusing to enjoy. I forgive you for stealing from me the little I possess (i.e. my mistress), even though it’s much harder to bear the wrong done to you by the one you love, than it is to bear the harm done by an enemy. Even when doing wrong you somehow make evil look good, so kill me with your bad behaviour, I don’t mind – we must not become enemies.’

That (we hope) makes the poem’s meaning a little clearer, though the following lines remain something of a challenge for the literary critic:

But yet be blam’d, if thou thy self deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.

Is this an oblique reference to the idea of the Fair Youth, who is not having sex with Shakespeare but is having it off with Shakespeare’s mistress, ‘tasting’ Shakespeare on the Dark Lady? Is it too much to say there’s a faint penile pun in ‘wilful’ – i.e. not just ‘full of Will’ (Shakespeare), but full of willy? Perhaps.

In short, Sonnet 40 is a rather long-drawn-out (some would say laboured) play on the double meaning of the phrase ‘my love’. Or rather, not so much double meaning as triple: 1) ‘my love’ as a term of endearment towards the Fair Youth; 2) ‘my love’ as a quality or feeling (e.g. ‘my love for you’); and 3) ‘my love’ as in my lover (who is not you). The first two of these senses is played upon in the sonnet’s opening line: ‘Take all my loves, my love’, i.e. ‘Take all of my lovers, m’dear…’ The third sense is present when Shakespeare says, in line 5, ‘Then, if for my love, thou my love receivest’, i.e. ‘if in exchange for my love for you you received my lover’. How much one enjoys this stuff depends greatly on how much one appreciates frequent punning in a supposedly sincere love poem, we suppose.

If you found this analysis of Sonnet 40 useful, you can discover more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.

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