Wretched Man That I Am: Commentary on Shakeapeare’s Sonnet 129

Shakespeare’s imagination was clearly influenced and filled by the Christian culture he inherited. Shakespeare assumed and explored the ancient and Christian understanding of reality.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust 
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, 
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust, 
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight; 
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait 
On purpose laid to make the taker mad; 
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme; 
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe,
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well 
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) came from a middle class family in Stratford-upon-Avon, and his education provided him with the stories that would later inspire and inform his plays. The Bible, classical literature, and British history would be the streams that fed his imagination. He became a husband and father early in life, marrying Anne Hathaway at eighteen and having three children with her in less than three years. Between 1590 and 1613, Shakespeare worked as a playwright, actor, and partner of a theater company in London. In this time, he wrote 38 plays, 150 sonnets, and a few other poetic works. Everyone attended his plays, from monarchs (Elizabeth I and James I) down to the common laborer looking for entertainment. Today, many think of Shakespeare as high-brow, but there was something for everyone in his art. Yet, even as his fame and fortune grew, he continued to divide his time between the theater in London and his family in Stratford. Eventually, he was able to buy a house in his hometown and it was here that he died.

Scholars repeatedly say that, after the Bible, Shakespeare is the bestselling author of all time. What they do not so often say is that Shakespeare’s works are deeply Christian. Much scholarly ink has been spilled on the question of Shakespeare’s personal life and faith. Almost everyone has laid claim to him. Was he a genius or a humble craftsman? Was he a Roman Catholic or a Protestant or a modern man with no religious conviction? Was he a devoted husband and father or a secret homosexual? First, it might be wise to notice that the claims people make about historical figures are usually more revealing about the ideology of the person who is making the claim than about the historical figure in question. Second, it must be admitted that there are many gaps in the biography of the Bard. But what we have intact are his works, the art produced by his imagination. So, who is William Shakespeare? He is the mind, the imagination that I encounter in his poetry and plays. And the ideas which are clothed in his works are classical and Christian. These ideas are the heritage of that Old Western Culture—arising from the Greeks and Romans, grafted and refined by the Early Christian Church, preserved and enriched throughout Medieval Europe—and that heritage was still alive and flourishing through the Renaissance and Reformation. Shakespeare’s imagination was clearly influenced and filled by the Christian culture he inherited. Shakespeare assumed and explored the ancient and Christian understanding of reality, which makes his works exemplary for the Elizabethan age.

Given his popularity and status as the representative of his time, it should not be surprising that his name serves as a classification for sonnets. An example of the English or Shakespearean Sonnet is seen here in Sonnet 129, “The Expense of Spirit in a Waste of Shame.” The traditional components are all there: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, three quatrains and a final couplet, and the rhyme scheme abab-cdcd-efef-gg.

This sonnet is a meditation on the blindness, deceptiveness, and fruitlessness of lust. But before examining the poem, it is important to remember that the imagination and art we meet here is not necessarily describing any particular experience of the poet. Many have tried to retrieve autobiographical clues from Shakespeare’s sonnets. This is untenable. Let us remember that art is not primarily self-expression. This is especially true in the case of Shakespeare, a great dramatist and actor, who can embody and give voice to any number of persons, historical and fictional. Furthermore, what the poet clearly articulates in this sonnet is common to fallen man in general. The speaker describes not only what has happened to him but what always happens to all men driven by the blind and unreasonable power of their lust.

The speaker of the sonnet begins by calling lust an “expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” that is, lust spends the spirit of man, yet profits nothing. It is a shameful waste. Before a man acts on his lust, it is lying to him, seeking to murder him, devour him. The promises of lust are not to be trusted. Immediately following the gratification of those desires, the lies are revealed and despised, and the man is full of self-loathing. His lust hunted him so that he lost his reason and allowed his passions to drive him. Only after giving in does he see himself rightly as an animal that has been caught, deceived by the “swallowed bait.” He was driven mad in the pursuit of his lust, and now having come to its end, he is still mad. While swept along in his lust, he thought he experienced bliss, but the lust having been “proved” (tried or tested), he finds it to be “a very woe.” Before lust is acted upon, it proposes joy; after, its joys vanish like a dream and the man is left with nothing.

The final couplet brings the meditation to a head, but provides no real answer. If everyone knows intellectually that the end of lust is dissatisfaction and self-loathing, that the end of sin is despair and death, that the end of this profane “heaven” is “hell,” then why do men continue in their sin? This question is not that different from the complaint of Romans 7: “what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (Rom. 7:15). Why? Both the sonnet and St. Paul seem to agree that it is not enough to know that sin is wrong. We cannot be argued into virtue. Our intellects are not enough to stand against the irresistible forces of lust. Some greater power must give us a new spirit and must shape in us rightly ordered affections so that those shameful lusts lose the strength of their appeal.

But Shakespeare’s sonnet remains in the realm of the natural man. The speaker recognizes the problem, but offers no solution. Still, the sonnet drives us to search out the answer to this paradox. It is Christian, in so far as all true human wisdom is Christian. The answer to the puzzle is not given in the sonnet’s final couplet, and yet a Christian knows where to turn at the end of this sonnet. Scripture provides the lasting and satisfying answer: “I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:22–25).


Rev. Anthony Dodgers

Rev. Anthony Dodgers is Associate Pastor and Headmaster of Bethlehem Lutheran Church and School in Ossian, Indiana.

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