William Shakespeare – Sonnet 57

Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu;
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are, how happy you make those.
   So true a fool is love, that in your will,
   Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

  This recalls the theme of Sonn.26,
Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,

but here the servitude has become more bitter and oppressive. The subjugation of self which love of the youth has demanded is painted in terms which leave no doubt of the pain inflicted. Words of injurious and base humility and bitter pain are frequent – slave, tend, services, world-without-end, bitterness, absence, sour, servant, jealous, sad, slave, fool, ill. All these combine to counteract the overt message of devotion, and one is left with a deadly realisation that the youth is not what love has made him out to be, but a harsh despot who abuses his power, or at least that is how the poet, in his worst moments sees him.

 The sonnet could well be written in response to some direct criticism, such as ‘Why are you so demanding? Why do you question everything that I do?’ Both this and the following sonnet provide the poet’s explanation and excuse.

Because of the repeated ironies, fears and self repression, or perhaps despite them, there is an uncanny sense of beauty and pathos which hovers about the poem. Like several others which portray humility and subservience we read into it a meaning which is totally opposed to its ostensible declarations. For all the protestations of not resenting the beloved youth’s treatment of him, one realises that there is a festering sore which cannot heal and that the declared slave is standing on the brink of open rebellion. Yet the willing unwillingness of his love makes one marvel at the truth of its depiction and at the tortured psychology which forces lovers into the anguish of such impossible situations.

The 1609 Quarto Version

BEing your ſlaue what ſhould I doe but tend,
Vpon the houres,and times of your deſire?
I haue no precious time at al to ſpend;
Nor ſeruices to doe til you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end houre,
Whilſt I(my ſoueraine)watch the clock for you,
Nor thinke the bitterneſſe of abſence ſowre,
VVhen you haue bid your ſeruant once adieue.
Nor dare I question with my iealious thought,
VVhere you may be,or your affaires ſuppoſe,
But like a ſad ſlaue ſtay and thinke of nought
Saue where you are , how happy you make thoſe.
   So true a fool is loue,that in your Will,
   (Though you doe any thing)he thinkes no ill.


1. Being your slave what should I do but tendtend = attend; serve. As a vassal serves his master. But since it is the hours and times which are being tended, the meaning slips over into ‘await’. The idea of devoted slavery was a common theme in love sonnets. For example Sidney:
What, have I thus betrayed my liberty?
Can those black beams such burning marks engrave
In my free side? or am I born a slave,
Whose neck becomes such yoke of tyranny?
black beams = Stella’s eyes.
The theme of vassalage is used again in the sonnets to the dark lady. Here it probably includes an element of ironic parody, because the beloved is not a beautiful woman, but a young man to whom such language might appear out of place.2. Upon the hours, and times of your desire?hours and times of your desire -all the occasions when you are free to do as you please; the times when you feel lustful. This line, together with 9-10 and 13-14 convey the suggestion that the youth is away whoring somewhere. There is a pun on hours, which was monosyllabic and pronounced somewhat like whores.3. I have no precious time at all to spend;precious = dear, special to me, costly.4. Nor services to do, till you = duties of a servant. Perhaps also a reference to divine service. In a world where servants were ubiquitous, the word service was much more frequently used than it is nowadays. Shakespeare uses it 262 times (including the plural). but only twice in the sonnets, here and in 149. This is the only use of it in the sonnets to the youth, although the chivalric tradition of devotion to a beloved (usually a woman) through thick and thin embraced the idea of service and slavery.5. Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,chide = criticise, reproach.
world without end hour = the everlasting, seemingly endless hours. There is an echo of the formulaic prayer:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The loved one effectively prevents the poet’s complaints, but despite being supressed, they are all too evident here, and in the bitterness of absence, and in the jealous thought of line 9.6. Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,my sovereign – my ruler, my king. Vocative, addressed to the youth. But could be in apposition to I, thus implying that he, the poet, is sovereign ruler of himself, or should be, but has reduced himself to servility.
watch the clock for you – to watch the clock implies waiting for some event to happen. for you tacked on to the end indicates a) that he has been commanded by the youth to wait; b) he is waiting for the youth; c) because of the youth and his (unreasonable) behaviour he is forced to clock watch.7. Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,The mere mention of the bitterness of absence indicates that he is thinking it is so, despite the denial.8. When you have bid your servant once adieu;adieu – rhymes with you, the English pronunciation being used.
once = on any one occasion; with finality, as in ‘I’ve told you once and I will not tell you again’; once and for all.9. Nor dare I question with my jealous thoughtNor dare I – An implied prohibition and fear of transgressing it. question – consider mentally; discuss; raise doubts over.
jealous thought – the typical concerns of the jealous lover are now raised. But jealous also had the meaning of zealous, or attentive, as well as its more traditional meaning, which predominates here.10. Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,your affairs suppose = make conjectures about how you are occupied. affairs did not have the meaning of ‘sexual liaisons’ which it now has.11. But, like a sad slave, stay and think of noughtsad – dejected, despondent; wretched looking. But also with the older meaning of steadfast, constant, of serious purpose. (OED.2 & 4a). As perhaps in
And the sad augurs mock their own presage
; Sonn. 107.
think of nought – empty my brain of all thought. He dare not think of anything for fear of thinking the worst. The punctuation of Q encourages the reading ‘I think of nothing but where you are, and how happy you make those who are with you’. Modern punctuation tends to separate the meaning of the two lines. There is possibly a bawdy pun intended on nought (equivalent to nothing in Sonn.20).12. Save, where you are, how happy you make those.Save = except.
how happy you make those – how happy you make all those who are fortunate to have your presence.13. So true a fool is love, that in your will,true = absolute, total; true-hearted.
in your will = whatever your desires are. Will is often used for sexual desire or performance, or parts. (Sonnets 136-7). With a pun on the name Will, hence ‘In my thoughts’. (Note that Q has capital W for Will.)14. Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.Though you do anything – Whatever you do, however licentious you are. The fears raised in the previous lines make it inevitable that this has a meaning of sexual unfaithfulness, a betrayal of love, a meaning that is enhanced by ill at the end of the line. The poet thinks no ill because, as he acknowledges, love has made a fool of him.


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