IntroductionAlthough John Donne’s “The Flea,” and William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” may each contain elements of honesty and deceit, Shakespeare’s work is far more honest than Donne’s. A thorough examination of the two works lends evidence to this claim.
There is a certain level of honesty in “The Flea.” For instance, Donne says the following:
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead
It is true that when a flea bites two people, it may cause one person’s blood to “mingle” with the other’s. Donne compares this mingling to the mingling of blood during sex and suggests that if his lover sleeps with him, she will be guilty of nothing more than this. There is some truth to this as well. It is also true that is some similarity between having intercourse and being bitten by a flea. Both, for instance, carry with them the risk of spreading or contracting diseases. Fleas can transfer diseases from one bite victim to the next. Donne also suggests that by biting them both, the flea has combined three lives. He is right in suggesting that if his lover kills the flea, she will end, not only the flea’s life but also life which belongs to both her and the narrator. Blood cells have a life span of up to 70 days.
Yet Donne’s intent is not to paint an honest picture for his beloved. It is to seduce her. To this end he writes, “Mark but this flea, and mark in this, How little that which thou deniest me is.” Here, Donne suggests that his beloved’s virginity is a little thing – yet losing virginity can deeply effect an individual on a physical, emotional and financial basis. Women who become pregnant often end up with children to bear and to support financially. It can change their futures. Contracting a sexually transmitted disease can do the same. Both childbirth and STDs can even end a woman’s life prematurely. Losing one’s virginity, then, is hardly a small thing – particularly when the parents of the one whose virginity is desired oppose her involvement with the person asking for it. Furthermore, although it is true that the blood cells of the narrators beloved could live in a flea, he is dishonest when he says that killing the flea would be “self-murder.” Even when the flea died, both the narrator and his love would continue their lives.
There is at least one part of Shakespeare’s Sonnet that might be dishonest. When he writes, “I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare,” he may be flattering her. Few men look at just one woman. Men seem biologically disposed to desire variety. It is therefore likely that some women appeal to Shakespeare’s narrator more than or at least as much as the lady he calls his mistress. Nevertheless, his poem is far more realistic and believable than Donne’s. Shakespeare describes a very real sounding woman, saying the following:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
No real woman’s eyes are truly like the sun. Few have lips that are naturally as deeply red as coral (though with the help of lipstick today, many can achieve a deeper color now) and even the fairest women have skin darker than snow. It is not hard, therefore, to believe Shakespeare when he tells us these things. It is even easier to believe him when he humanizes his lover even more, saying of her the following:
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
Here he describes a woman with breath that reeks and with a voice that is less pleasant than music. Yet he still admits that he loves to hear her speak. Because he acknowledges his lover as human, his kind words about her have more meaning than they might if he were full of flattery. Therefore, when he writes, “By heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare,” it is easy to believe that he truly loves his mistress and to give his words more credence than those of Donne’s narrator.
While there are elements of truth and dishonesty in both Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” and John Donne’s “The Flea,” Shakespeare’s narrator’s willingness to list the negative qualities of his beloved and the absence of flattery in his writing make his poem seem more honest than John Donne’s.