Sigh No More, Ladies

 Overview

This poem/song is meant to sooth all girls who have been hurt by a man’s cheating. It is quite a cheerful little tune blaming men’s nature for their indiscretions and encouraging girls to avoid depression and not get hung up on these cheaters, but carry on with their lives in a positive and happy frame of mind.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
          Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
          To one thing constant never.
               Then sigh not so,
               But let them go,
          And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
          Into ‘hey nonny, nonny’.

Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
          Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
          Since summer first was leavy.
               Then sigh not so,
               But let them go
          And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
          Into ‘hey nonny, nonny’.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

If you didn’t know, Shakespeare was a fairly competent playwright in Elizabethan England, so much so that even today a few of his plays are still studied from time to time… I know you’re not an idiot really, so I’ll skip to the specific background to this poem/song.

This poem/song appears in Much Ado About Nothing (Act II Scene III) which is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. The story revolves around two sets of lovers and their ups and downs as others trick them into believing their other half has been unfaithful. It is performed by Balthasar, a relatively minor character, the court singer, who is addressing the main manipulators.

The message about male trickery and deceitfulness seems to address the false rumours that have made Claudio think his true love Hero has been unfaithful and ditch her at the altar. Don’t worry though, they end up happily ever after at the end!

 Themes

The main thing here is love and the different approaches to it by men and women; depending on how you choose to read this you could take it to be deeply misogynistic (negative towards women) or pretty offensive towards men… or just as a harmless song of soothing.

You could also argue their is a reflection on the way people should live their lives. Carpe diem – seize the day, would sum up what the singer is trying to tell the women the song is intended for.

Content

At first this might look like a largish poem, but notice that there is a chorus that takes up half of each stanza.

Both stanzas follow a similar pattern. The opening lines aim to console miserable ladies and to put the blame of their misery firmly on the shoulders of men. However, as mentioned above, we can view this from two different perspectives.

Women are being asked to avoid moping around in misery because of men, but surely they have every right to be upset if their partners have been unfaithful to them? Is this poem just a way of justifying some pretty terrible behaviour from men by saying that it is a natural instinct and something that has happened forever?

Alternatively can we view this as being pretty offensive to men. All men are unfaithful and unable to commit to a monogamous relationship? Really? All men throughout history are fraudsters?

We could also view the poem as being pretty neutral and not meaning to cause such indignation. If this is meant to sooth a depressed lady then this is just a way of placing blame on another party’s shoulder.

Okay, back to the specific of stanza one. After pleading with the ladies to stop sighing miserably, the song casts all men as having a deceiving nature, compares them to sailors having partners all over the place and then says they can’t commit to one woman.

Stanza two pleads with the ladies to stop singing melancholy tunes lamenting their loss, before again slagging all men off as being fraudsters since the birth of humanity.

The chorus encourages women to move on and not wallow for want of one man. There is a suggestion that they should hide their misery and try to appear positive and happy, and we’ll explore the reasons for this in the next section.

Language and techniques

I’m going to start with the chorus here, not for any particular reason other than it struck me first as being more interesting.

The singer is telling the ladies to be ‘blithe and bonny’, which is archaic language with a rough modern day translation as cheer up and smile. However, he is not telling them off for feeling as they do, but wants them to hide their ‘sounds of woe’ with a pleasant and merry demeanour. As mentioned above, we could read something sinister into this, but I think this is an acknowledgement that they are entitled to feel miserable, but also that by acting this way they will only pull themselves into a spiral of misery that will be never ending. If you brood on something it always seems worse than it is and misery is said to breed misery.

‘Hey nonny, nonny’ may sound interesting, but is really only an imitation of a cheerful song he is requesting the ladies to take up to replace their misery. However, telling ladies to ‘let them go’ is quite interesting (maybe just to me) as the implication is that women are prone to mope around after a lover even though they have done the unthinkable rather than moving on with their lives. Good advice from the poem and advice that I wish my childhood sweetheart would have taken when we moved away for university!

 The opening stanza starts with the repetition of ‘sigh no more’ which emphasises the futility of being a melancholy lover. This line positions women as innocent victims in love being manipulated by, in the following line, men who ‘were deceivers ever’, so never to be trusted. This is a universal statement that tars all men with the same brush, as liars, tricksters and cheaters. However, this line also excuses men as it is no longer an individual’s fault, but it is the curse of their gender.

Next we move on to a metaphor that links the behaviour of all men to sailors. ‘One foot in sea, and one on shore’ could be compared with the common belief that sailors used to have a different girl in every port, but the phrases also means that men cannot commit to one way of life or another as the following line clarifies; ‘To one thing constant never’ links back to this idea of changeability in male lives, but also reflects directly upon their relationship with women and suggest that they are not prepared to commit to one woman forever.

In the second stanza, the opening changes slightly, but has the same meaning. Stop with your miserable songs, it’s not going to change anything is an approximate translation, perhaps with a bit less sympathy. Again this leads on to a castigation of men as the ‘fraud of men was ever so’, a phrase that again both criticises and excuses male actions as it makes cheating part of the male anatomy.

Structure

This is probably one of the easier poems to sound convincing about when discussing the use of structure.

Each stanza is a four line verse followed by a six line chorus. The verses are pretty sombre affairs trying to sooth the wounds to ladies’ hearts and this can be seen with the use of caesuras in both opening lines (and on the third line of stanza one) throughout the verses that slow the pace down to a soothing, conciliatory speed.

In contrast, the choruses end with enjambment as we speed joyfully into a bout of ‘hey nonny, nonny’. Notice that the second stanza’s chorus is subtly different as the ‘let them go’ doesn’t include a comma here so their is enjambment here, maybe suggesting that the poet’s instruction for the ladies to be more merry is being taken and he feels more confident in his jolliness.

Tone

Imagine you were trying to cheer your best friend up; you need to sound a bit sympathetic so they know you’re not just fed up with them (as the friend in Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? clearly is), but then you need to slag their partner off and talks to them about going out for a party to get over them. Well, this poem is basically the same: sympathetic, but only for a little bit and then quite merry and positive.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

18 thoughts on “Sigh No More, Ladies”

    1. Hi Varsha,

      It is a reference to the promiscuity of sailors. One foot is on shore where they might have a permanent family, while one foot is at sea where they basically go off and act as if they have no commitments: think about the expression ‘a girl in every port’ and you’re close to the idea.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  1. Hold on, with all the enthusiasm, i forgot to ask MY question:

    The layout for answering a poetry question is, intro, explanation of each stanza with the tied stylistic devices and evidence i.e ‘pluck…plumes’, conclusion and mention of tone,theme,title and rhyme scheme?

    Please add anything else 🙂

    1. You’re basically right, but I would avoid getting into the mindset that you are simply retelling the narrative of the poem. Start with the most important point to understanding the poem and you can pull information from all over if it supports the point.

      I’ve promised an essay masterclass to others and will get round to writing a killer post to answer all questions… hopefully sometime before the next millenium.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  2. This is an excellent analysis.
    But when shakespeare seems to be telling the women,or anyone for that matter, just move on in life, it simply does not end there, for shakspeare is telling everyone that if someone deceives you, just be positive. And that’s fantastic. The themes: love and how to live life, can be summarized to state that in both , people do deceive eachother..but ya’know, we gotta move on singing “nonny, nonny”. This poem is positive. In fact, the negativity is hushed, if not eradicated as we read on.
    Believably, in stanza 2, it says ‘since summer first was leavy’- when is summer ever leavy? It’s hot and bright . So shakespeare talks of men being ‘deceivers’ ever since light entered the world, so women should simply ignore them deceivers , heal and be cheerful again.
    Had someone such as Lady Mary Wroth written this poem, firstly there would be alot of pessimism and secondly more irrational, biased views. However shakespeare wrote the poem with no bias, and a viewpoint that does not pin-point men or women. He shows how women get easily affected in pitiful states and how men are deceivers, and he being a man, comforts the women and rids of the mens flaws. Pretty simple huh?

    Thanks!

    1. I’d agree with most of your comment, but I think there is a bias in the poem as it is looking at love from a female perspective (although the voice is that of a man). I don’t think it is meant as a criticism of men, but there is an implication that we are all dirty dogs and should never be trusted.

  3. What you have provided separately as in context, theme, content e.t.c is suppose to be taken together in our answer essays on analysis..right? I mean all these things included in our essays will ensure high marks?

    1. Yeah, included it all. However, you’ll probably not be able to write as much in an hour as I have on most posts, but get the main ideas down across all the main areas I cover.

      1. Yes exactly you just reminded me of a very very important thing…time management!!! Oh my God that was the only reason I couldn’t get A* in my O level English exam. Any tips there please..like I am literally unable to manage time in essays!!!!!:0

  4. Sorry for previously asking for notes on stories of ourselves, didn’t know you don’t teach them. Secondly, considering the fact that I am from Pakistan where English is not the mother language,it sometimes takes me a little longer to understand stuff which your students might easily can, so only if you could elaborate the fact where you wrote, “you could take it to be deeply misogynistic (negative towards women)”, in the theme section. I can’t understand how this can be negative towards women:(

    1. It’s awhile since I wrote the post, but… you could perceive it as misogynistic as it is basically letting men off with being unfaithful. It suggests women just have to suck it up as men are genetically predisposed towards cheating, which is patently not true and therefore could be seen as anti-woman in its expectation that they should suffer in silence and get over it when a man is an arse to them. Hope this makes it clearer.

    1. Thanks, it’s one of a few errors that my kids have also taken great pleasure to point out. Will get it sorted now!

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