Sonnet 138

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unlearnèd in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
Oh, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
          Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
         And in our faults by lies we flattered be.


  1. What can Shakespeare do to wrap up this inventory of the deceits that keep a love affair alive? He can make another bitterly witty pun. "I lie with her and she with me": in all senses of "lie" -- tell lies and lying down. To lie with someone is to lie beside them, but also (compare "play with") to join them in telling lies.

  2. There is another pun too -- on "faults"; it sounds like "false," and while that's an adjective where syntactically we need a noun ("falsity" or "falsehood"), the word "false" did occur as a noun with that meaning as late as Shakespeare's day. (The OED cites "My false outweighs your true" from Shakespeare.)

  3. So it ends, in stasis and impasse and bitter wit. The lying seems less an image of sexual union than of frozen immobility. One thinks of the end of Larkin's "Talking in Bed":
                Nothing shows why
    At this unique distance from isolation

    It becomes still more difficult to find
    Words at once true and kind,
    Or not untrue and not unkind.
    There too the sour wit and logic-play are offered as the only true way of rendering uncomfortable truths about human complexity and duplicity.

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  • Go to an original spelling version
  • Go to a variant text published ten years earlier than the one above
  • Go to the index of poems
  • Updated and corrected, May 4, 1997