Sonnet CXXIX: Th'expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame

Sonnet CXXIX: Th'expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame

Original Text

William Shakespeare, Shake-speares sonnets (London: G. Eld for T. T., 1609). STC 22353. Facs. edn.: London: J. Cape, 1925. PR 2750 B48 1609b ROBA.

3Is perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,


1] Th' expense ... action. The meaning will appear clearly if lust in action is regarded as the subject. expense: (1) spending, expenditure; (2) by implication, "ejaculation." Spirit: Thomas Thomas (1587) translates Latin "spiritus" as "Spirite, breath, winde, sauour, the soule, life, smell, aire, noise, fiercenes, heart, stomack, hawtinesse of courage." Shakespeare's sense here may be "the spirit of life [that] doeth walke mixed with bloode," that is, the "pulse" (Thomas Thomas, "arteria").waste: (1) squandering, useless consumption; and (2) by implication and punning, waist (a woman's middle), conventionally spelled "waste" in the period. Back to Line
2] lust in action: (1) enacted or fulfilled desire; (2) by implication, copulation. An example of rhetorical chiasmus, the reversal of the same grammatical structure ("lust in action ... till action, lust") in successive clauses. Back to Line
4] extreme: excessive. rude: brutal. Back to Line
5] Enjoy'd: used sexually for pleasure (OED "enjoy" v. 4b).straight: immediately. Back to Line
6] This line and the next exemplify rhetorical anaphora, the repetition of the same phrase ("Past reason") in successive clauses. Back to Line
7] as a swallow'd bait: a simile. The bait here ("lust in action" or copulation) is set out by the hunter to catch the animal but turns out to catch the hunter. Back to Line
8] laid: (1) set in place; (2) by implication, bedded. An example of rhetorical anadiplosis, the repetition of the last word of one clause ("mad") at the beginning of the next clause. Back to Line
9] Mad in: "Made In" in Q1 (1609). Back to Line
10] Had: (1) experienced; and (2) by implication, taken sexually. An example of rhetorical polyptoton, the repetition of a word with altered inflections ("Had, having ... to have'). Back to Line
11] in proof: experienced.prov'd a: "proud and" in Q1 (1609). very: true. Back to Line
12] Cf. "Enjoy'd" (5). a dream: a metaphor. Shakespeare may have in mind dreams of sexual conquest, intensely imagined while they are going on but afterwards ill-remembered and of no consequence in the awake world because it is "despised" (5). Back to Line
13] An example of rhetorical antithesis (contrasted ideas in like grammatical structures). Back to Line

Commentary by Ian Lancashire


This sonnet horrifically describes three conventional stages of the sex act: the desire for it ("lust"), intercourse itself ("lust in action"), and the post-coital response. Until the very last line, Shakespeare conceals the gender he is describing. The word "men" comes as a shock. This dark poem does not misogynistically attack women as whores, but what men do to and make of their sexual prey, whether it be male or female. Nothing in the poem explicitly associates sexual desire or intercourse with women.

Before intercourse, the instigating man is, by implication, a violent, crazed, irrational liar, single-mindedly intent on the hunt for a quarry. Desire for intercourse also reduces the victim here to an animal pursued and killed for food. Shakespeare's phrase, "Past reason hunted" (6), puts the sex act into a context of killing and being eaten. The "murd'rous" act itself, as anticipated and executed, is "Enjoy'd" (5) as "A bliss" and "a joy" (11-12): it is "heaven" (14), the wished-for end of religious belief. For this reason, the consummation, the desire as enacted, requires an "expense of spirit" of the man. The word "spirit," in medical literature of the time, denotes a life-force associated with the brain, the liver (the home of sexual desire), and the blood. Ejaculation expends it. All the same, "spirits" are also souls, the non-physical parts of a human being that the Renaissance believed went on to survive death and to be held responsible at the Last Judgment for the body's sins, which include lechery, that is, lust pursued inside and outside marriage for purposes other than procreation. Last, the aftermath of sex leads the man to despise and hate the act, both physically and spiritually. The hunter becomes the hunted when Shakespeare likens the pleasure to "a swallow'd bait" (7) that physically captures, kills, and leads the man off to be devoured. Spiritually, the man ends up in "hell," a word used to name God's prison for the eternally punished and, obscenely, to denote the hole into which the penis (euphemistically "the devil") is thrust. Shakespeare fuses the physical and spiritual agonies of rutting not only in the poem's last word but in its first line. The "waste of shame" in which the man spends his "spirit" puns on "waste," useless squandering of something without gain, and on "waist," the middle of the human body.

Rhythmically, the sonnet accentuates the rocking, two-beat motion of intercourse by using a caesura-like "pause" in the middle of all lines. Sometimes this pause is a pyrrhic metrical foot (two unaccented syllables), found mid-way through lines 1-2, 6-7, and 9-10, and other times is a conjunction, splitting lines 2, 5-6, and 9-10 in two. Commas or syntactical breaks in fact divide every line in the sonnet into two halves. Perhaps more important, this sound effect underscores the sonnet's argument, the union of opposites in a paradox. "Bliss" and "heaven," obviously, lead to "woe" and "hell" (11, 14). Other poles also come together as one: "lust in action" and "lust" before action (2), enjoying and despising (5), hunting for and taking or having (6, 8, 10), pursuit and possession (9), proof and being proved (11), before and behind (12), and knowing and not knowing (13).

Shakespeare pens a didactic poem that warns men to "shun" sex, pursued single-mindedly as sex, because it victimizes the pleasure-seekers. Things appear what they are not in sonnet 129. He stimulates the emotions the sonnet describes by recreating them in the dominant poetic rhythm. He brings to bear various rhetorical figures of speech, ones he would have learned in grammar school by studying Latin authors, that variously balance repeated grammatical structures and words so as to imitate the relentless, pulsing intensity of the sex act.

One of Shakespeare's poetic tours-de-force, sonnet 129 manages to be sexually explicit without using obscene words or describing coition. Modern poets like Karl Jay Shapiro, who write for a society without a common religious bond, need a different strategy. Consider how his "Adult Bookstore" translates the obsessions depicted by sonnet 129 for a different audience.

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Publication Start Year
RPO poem Editors
F. D. Hoeniger
RPO Edition
3RP 1.143-44.