‘Two loves I have of comfort and despair’, begins William Shakespeare in sonnet 144. Although this sonnet appears in the section of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence that is principally concerned with the ‘Dark Lady’, sonnet 144 is noteworthy for discussing both the Fair Youth (from earlier in the sequence) and the Dark Lady side by side, comparing the two. This sonnet is therefore deserving of closer analysis.
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And, whether that my angel be turn’d fiend,
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell,
But being both from me both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
Let’s begin with a paraphrase (by way of summary) of this sonnet: ‘There are two people I love – one who brings me comfort, and the other, despair. These both spur me on, like two spirits. The better of the two, like an angel, is a beautiful man with light skin, while the worse of the two is a woman with a dark complexion. This dark angel tries to tempt me into sinfulness, by tempting the fair young man away from me. She wants to corrupt him, turning him from a saint into a devil, seducing him and his purity with her foul pride. And whether he is corrupted by her, I cannot say for sure (though I have my suspicions). But since neither of them is spending time with me, but they’re both spending time with each other, I assume that he has been led astray by her, and she’s dragged him down into her hell. But this I’ll never know for sure, and have to remain in doubt, until the bad angel drives away the good one altogether.’
A familiar trope, from cartoons as much as from literature: the idea of the ‘good angel’ and the ‘bad angel’. Whether it’s Family Guy or The Simpsons or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (the last of which Shakespeare would have known), this depiction of good angel/bad angel fighting over the protagonist is found everywhere. But Shakespeare is less concerned with their influence over him than with the fate of his good angel, the Fair Youth.
We see something else expressed in sonnet 144 that is also found more widely in the Sonnets, and in literature in general: the idea of the woman as the corrupting influence. Don Paterson, in his provocative (and very readable) Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, makes this point, also alerting us to a bit of useful Elizabethan slang: ‘hell’ meant ‘vagina’. The infernal (nether) regions, one assumes. (The Oxford English Dictionary makes no mention of this slang meaning, although it does record the sense of ‘hell’ meaning ‘yawning depth’ or ‘abyss’, dating from at least the mid-seventeenth century. However, Stephen Booth, in his edition of the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene), also mentions the hell-nothing slang meaning. His source is possibly John Florio’s 1598 Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, which lists the phrase ‘Valle di Acheronte’ as meaning ‘a womans privie parts or gheare. Also hell.’)
Paterson also calls the poem misogynistic, and says that to read it as anything other than misogynistic is ‘perversely wilful’. But what if the Dark Lady was actually a pernicious influence on the Fair Youth, assuming that Shakespeare was drawing on his own love life? (We must say we’re sceptical here at IL Towers.) Does every poem have to contain every kind of woman, good, bad, virginal, lustful, just for balance? What is perhaps more troubling to a modern reader is Shakespeare’s association of the Fair Youth’s ‘fair’ skin and hair with purity and goodness, while the Dark Lady’s dark complexion is seen as part-and-parcel of her ‘foul’ corruption (‘coloured ill’).
Paterson observes the multiple meanings of that final line, ‘Till my bad angel fire my good one out.’ Here, to ‘fire him out’ may mean cast or kick him out; it may be a bawdy play on the idea of her expelling him from her vagina (or ‘hell’); it may even be a subtle allusion to the burning, fiery pain resulting from venereal disease. Or, alternatively, it may be referring to the idea of the Dark Lady casting the Fair Youth from hell.
Final thoughts on ‘Two loves I have’: we cannot know for sure whether ‘fiend’ and ‘friend’ would have been eye-rhymes in Shakespeare’s day as well as in ours, and in the last analysis, perhaps it doesn’t matter. The more interesting thing is the broadening out of ‘fiend’ into ‘friend’, just as ‘evil’ had earlier grown into ‘devil’ (which, similarly, may not have been mere eye-rhymes in Shakespeare’s time). These ‘rhymes’ neatly reinforce the idea of the devilishly corrupt Dark Lady’s influence steadily growing, to infest everything the poet holds dear.