I have been listening to Rufus Wainwright’s recent album based on Nine Sonnets by Shakespeare, Take All My Loves, and especially the title song, which is a performance of Sonnet 40, over and over again. Maybe it’s just because it’s new, and maybe because it’s the season of forgiveness. But, what the hell, that’s every season. This is going to get a little academic, so forgive me a little (maybe more).
Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all
What hast thou then, more than thou hadst before?
No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call–
All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.
Then if for my love thou my love receivest,
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed if thou thy self deceivest
By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.
I do forgive thy robb’ry, gentle thief,
Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet love knows it is a greater grief
To bear love’s wrong than hate’s known injury.
Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,
Kill me with spites, yet we must not be foes.
I suppose that as one goes through the stages of grief, this little meditation would be filed under the heading, “negotiation”: a lot of talk to put the broken world back together. Usually the trick with negotiation is that it takes two willing parties. No one can be convinced to sit at the table and trade ideas and feelings in order to hammer out some kind of understanding. Except, and this is what is most interesting to me, I’m not exactly sure with whom the speaker is actually negotiating. Let’s sort this out.
First, there is the problem of “love,” which appears ten times in the poem (a big deal, even for, hell, especially for WS). The first “love” is the loves which have been, or will be taken. This may include some romantic partner of the speaker, but it also includes the speaker’s actual love and fellowship with the ill-behaving friend. Take ‘em all, “my love”—the second “love” and this is the friend who has done the taking. “No love”—the third—refers to any sort of love that his friend (“my love”—fourth) has never been able to call true, except for the speaker’s love (five), which, we suspect, was always true. Look, the speaker says, if you (my friend) took my love (six, and now this one love may be the mistress) as a sign of my love (seven) for you, then go ahead, take her even if she is my love (eight). Unless, and this matters, unless you are refusing my actual love for you. This is some kind of fraternal code: our friendship trumps romance. The last two loves operate in this system. The speaker may be angry, even to the point of hate, but knows that hate will only cause a deeper, and finally self-inflicted injury.
But what about that final couplet? “Lascivious grace”? Grace is easy: an echo of god’s grace–the kind of overwhelming forgiveness for which any gentle thief, or worse, could hope. But lascivious? The word shows up In Richard III during the “Winter of our discontent” soliloquy, when Richard imagines fell purpose converted to the “lascivious pleasing of a lute,” (which would be a euphemism, though I have never before or since heard a woman’s genitals referred to as a lute), and in Othello when Iago characterizes Othello as a “lascivious Moor,” which had simple direct (and still, sadly) racial overtones. So, why is grace lascivious? What makes forgiveness wanton?
Pause a moment. Shakespeare writes that forgiveness is profligate and promiscuous. That’s what lascivious grace means. It’s like some half drunk handsome frat boy who is so in love with the world that he gets arrested in the town square for shouting, “I love this world!” at 3 am. Grace is the woman that class and status conscious coeds whisper about, except that there is no slut-shaming this confident, fully self-possessed being. In fact, she gets elected class president, or starts a revolution. There’s no stopping grace: grace shows all ill well. That’s all, not some, not the ones that only bug me a little. ALL. Kill. Me.
When the speaker breaks down to “Kill me with spites,” he’s talking back to grace. Grace and the speaker must not be foes—and that is the negotiation. Well, it’s hardly a negotiation. Grace, you will forgive anyone, even my wretched awful friend who slept with my girl, and then, you will drive me to find a way to that forgiveness. You will throw love back in my face; reminding me that if I am going to have any ground to stand on with true love, I am going to have to go all in, equal to the big love with all its unbounded implications. Kill me.
And that’s the rub with being a universalist. You don’t get to turn away from this charge. Yes, I’m me, and me matters, but there’s love too, and, like it or not, love matters more. Get off the mat, poet, and get back in there and find a way. Grace is what gives you the vision, now hold up your end of the bargain and love (and forgive). Who said it was going to be easy?