From Shakespeare:

Fair is my love, but not so fair as fickle;
Mild as a dove, but neither true nor trusty;
Brighter than glass, and yet, as glass is, brittle;
Softer than wax, and yet, as iron, rusty:
A lily pale, with damask die to grace her,
None fairer, nor none falser to deface her.

Her lips to mine how often hath she join'd,
Between each kiss her oaths of true love swearing!
How many tales to please me hath she coin'd,
Dreading my love, the loss thereof still fearing!
Yet in the midst of all her pure protestings,
Her faith, her oaths, her tears, and all were jestings.

She burn'd with love, as straw with fire flameth;
She burn'd out love, as soon as straw outburneth;
She fram'd the love, and yet she foil'd the framing;
She bade love last, and yet she fell a-turning.
Was this a lover, or a lecher whether?
Bad in the best, though excellent in neither.

What could be the meaning of the bolded sentence?

I looked up all the meanings of "framed" and "foiled", and I already knew them. There must be something I'm failing to grasp. What is this "framing"?

  • 1
    I'm no student of Shakespeare, but I read it as "she dictated the boundaries of the relationship but did not keep them herself."
    – Mick
    Oct 22, 2016 at 8:52
  • It means "I dug this chick the most but she didn't have eyes for me." Oct 22, 2016 at 8:53
  • @P.E.Dant It's enough to drive a man to assonance.
    – Mick
    Oct 22, 2016 at 9:00
  • 1
    By the way, the attribution to Shakespeare is uncertain. The publisher put Shakespeare's name on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, and it certainly contains some works independently and plausibly attributed to him; but it also includes works known to be by others. Oct 22, 2016 at 12:12

1 Answer 1


She fram'd the love, and yet she foil'd the framing

This is a very complicated pun which involves multiple senses of both foil and frame.

The primary sense of frame for the Elizabethans was

  • to "shape" or "create" or "devise"—the poet's mistress brought love into being.

But it also had extended senses:

  • to "direct" activity toward a specific end—implying she had an ulterior purpose
  • to "contrive" a false account—implying her love was a fraud
  • to set something within a frame, so it appears to better advantage—implying she made her love appear deeper or more sincere than it was in fact

Foil is even more complicated; there are actually three unrelated words with this spelling, and two are involved here:

  • One, derived irregularly from OF fouler, has three distinct senses:

    • to "trample under foot", to "overthrow"—the mistress destroyed the very love she created
    • to "frustrate" or "baffle"—her actions made the love impotent or ineffective
    • to "pollute"—her actions corrupted love, defiled it
  • The second, derived ultimately from L folium, "leaf", is the ancestor of our noun foil, as in aluminum foil. In Shakespeare it usually refers to the silver or gold foil placed behind a jewel in its setting, to reflect light back through the jewel and make it sparkle more brilliantly.

I guess that it is probably this last sense which would spring to the Elizabethan reader's mind upon encountering foil'd conjoined with framing—both imply artifice employed to make a beautiful thing reveal its full beauty. But in the context of the first hemistich, and in the context of the lover's complaint, all the other senses of both foil and frame are also evoked.

So there is no base 'meaning' here; there are rather multiple conflicting meanings, which reflect the paradoxes of thwarted love.

  • So if we strain our imagination, we can read it as "she created an artificial impression of love, but yet, by her presence, she beautified this love, even though it was false". Great. Oct 22, 2016 at 13:38
  • 1
    What is 'OF fouler'? Oct 22, 2016 at 16:04
  • 1
    @AlanCarmack The Old French word fouler.
    – user230
    Oct 22, 2016 at 17:33
  • 1
    Very enjoyable read, and many thanks to @snailplane who reminded me that OF stands for Old French. But... isn't this post more appropriate to EL&U? The terms framed, and foiled, are used quite differently today, although to frame someone = to make an innocent person appear guilty, is still current.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 22, 2016 at 19:06
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA All of the senses I give of frame are still current, and it's easy enough to find all the senses of foil in M-W. (To be sure you do have to push through to noun definitions; but 'verbing' is common enough that any sophisticated learner will probably know to do that without prompting.) I have no objection to moving it; but OP is a longstanding participant here who seems to find ELL more congenial than ELU. Oct 22, 2016 at 20:06

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