According to George Bernard Shaw, “The Devil can quote Shakespeare for his own purposes.” So let’s see how this works in one particular instance.
“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised 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 prov’d, 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.”
The first 12 lines of this sonnet have been quoted ad nauseam as somehow exemplifying Shakespeare’s attitude towards the ‘evils’ of lust. The dramatic irony implicit in the last two lines is usually ignored. To take one example, the Conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, in his book, Sexual Desire, cites this sonnet while writing a moralistic diatribe against lust, completely overlooking Shakespeare’s subversion of his own point of view, which is implicit in words “yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” It’s not good enough. The poem is a whole or not a poem at all - a fact that should have entered Scruton’s equation. After all, if Shakespeare had finished the poem in the spirit of the first 12 lines, it wouldn’t have been a poem at all but just a polemic against lust.
Of course, the emotional content of the first 12 lines drives the poem forward. Pointless to speculate why Shakespeare felt as he did about lust at this point of writing the sonnet. Some very subjective reason, no doubt, re-enforced by a sense of guilt, for which his Catholic upbringing was perhaps partly responsible. People really should have had a much healthier attitude regarding the question of lust, since it is really part of the natural order of things. Furthermore, Shakespeare was an artist, who understood that for a poem to be successful, it had to be more than just a polemic. Some people do not read poetry closely enough because they have axes to grind, and they think poetry can be used to prove the point they are making. Roger Scruton writes a moralistic book about sexual desire using the above sonnet to support his position, but, as usual with people with axes to grind, he entirely misses the point of the poem in question.
Let’s try to imagine ourselves as Shakespeare writing this sonnet. This is something which academics and historians of literature, no less than moral philosophers, seem singularly incapable of doing. What sort of mood do you think Shakespeare was in when he started writing this sonnet? It’s 129, one of those with “the Dark Lady”in mind. One thing is certain about the poet, which is evident in the imprecision and irrational violence of the language, and that is that he is not emotionally very stable at the moment of writing the bulk of the sonnet. He has what that wise hippy fool, Danny, in the film, Withnail & I, calls a “rush”. Because our poet has had a bad experience with this thing called “Lust”, he says it is “perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust...”et cetera, et cetera - clearly, not a very balanced perspective on a purely natural human phenomenon. So what would Danny’s advice to Shakespeare be on reading the first 12 lines of this sonnet? “Change down, Man; find your neutral space. You got a rush. It’ll pass. Be seated.” It is as if Shakespeare had just had the sexual equivalent of a bad trip on LSD and is swearing to himself never to take it again, and backing himself up with all sorts of spurious emotional and moral reasons. We’ve all been there. How many times have I come back from a mortifying sexual encounter swearing to myself never to let it happen again? Which of course it always does. But then, that surely is the point of the sonnet.
It was in this reactive mood, then, that Shakespeare wrote the first 12 lines. And, hey, what do you think happened next? He came to the end of that phase of the poem and found that he couldn’t continue, that he had exhausted that particular seam of emotional and moralistic writing. He calmed down, found his ‘neutral space’ - along with a poem he saw needed completing. He probably left it awhile - a few hours, days even - and came back to the poem in a completely different frame of mind, one in which he had attained a certain ironic distance from the original emotion, and this enabled him to finish the poem. “Emotion recollected in tranquillity”- at least as far as the last two lines were concerned.
So much nonsense has been spoken about Shakespeare because it seems when people get up to speak about him they leave their imaginations at home. They even forget the very important fact that he was a dramatist as well as a poet. Shakespeare was a human being subject to same emotional swings as anyone else. But he was also an artist, who knew how to finish a poem. If he had continued writing according to his original intentions, he wouldn’t have been able to finish the poem, or else he would have written one that was so bad he’d have been too embarrassed to show it around to his mates. He had to step back from himself, step back from his ‘rush’, as it were. And it is only because he was able to do so that we have a poem and not just a diatribe.