William Shakespeare – Sonnet 58
That god forbid, that made me first your slave,
I should in thought control your times of pleasure,
Or at your hand the account of hours to crave,
Being your vassal, bound to stay your leisure!
O! let me suffer, being at your beck,
The imprison’d absence of your liberty;
And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check,
Without accusing you of injury.
Be where you list, your charter is so strong
That you yourself may privilege your time
To what you will; to you it doth belong
Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.
I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,
Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.
A continuation of the argument of the previous sonnet. The poet accepts the right of the young man to be free and fulfill his own pleasure, and submits with all the humility of a vassal before his liege lord. But here again we are forced to read the words in their opposite sense, and to come round to the view that the youth does not have the rights and privileges that the poet bestows on him. As with all love there is giving and receiving, and the standard of love that the speaker sets himself is so high that it involves total self-abnegation. At the end of the poem the struggle is almost abandoned, and the frank confession is made that he will abide the return of the loved one, though it be an absolute hell of waiting, and he will do his best to avoid blame and censure of the youth, (but probably will not succeed).
The 1609 Quarto Version
THat God forbid, that made me firſt your ſlaue,
I ſhould in thought controule your times of pleaſure,
Or at your hand th’ account of houres to craue,
Being your vaſſail, bound to ſtaie your leiſure.
Oh let me ſuffer( being at your beck)
Th’ impriſon’d abſence of your libertie,
And patience tame,to ſufferance bide each check,
Without accuſing you of iniury.
Be where you liſt,your charter is ſo ſtrong,
That you your ſelfe may priuiledge your time
To what you will,to you it doth belong,
Your ſelfe to pardon of ſelfe-doing crime.
I am to waite,though waiting ſo be hell,
Not blame your pleaſure be it ill or well.
1. That god forbid, that made me first your slave,That god forbid – may be read in two ways, as a pious wish ‘may that God forbid etc.’, or with forbid as the old form of the past tense of forbid ‘that God forbade me (long ago) etc.’. The God was presumably the God or Goddess of love, Eros, or Cupid, or Venus, depending on which section of mythology the poet wished to appeal to.2. I should in thought control your times of pleasure,control = influence; restrict, overpower. The proximity of account in the next line suggests an earlier meaning of ‘to check accounts’ (OED.v.1.) However Shakespeare nowhere else uses it in that sense. Cf. Sonn.66: And folly doctor-like controlling skill.
your times of pleasure = the time that you devote to pleasure. Although the phrase has the rather bland meaning of ‘how you please to amuse yourself’, there is undoubtedly the dark cloud hanging over it of ‘the time you spend in dissipation and sexual infidelity’.3. Or at your hand the account of hours to crave,at your hand = in your hand writing; directly from you, from your hand.
the account of hours an account of how you spend your time. Here there is probably a pun intended with whores for houres and a cunt for account.
to crave – to request; earnestly desire to have. (That God forbid) that I should crave. The word is often used when associated with servility. As in:
I then crave pardon of your Majesty. 3H6.IV.6.8.
Humbly on my knee / I crave your blessing R3.II.2.105-6.4. Being your vassal, bound to stay your leisure!your vassal – your slave. A vassal was a term appropriate to feudalism, when the Lord owned his slaves or vassals. It was less in evidence in Elizabethan times, although land ownership often resulted in the keeping of large numbers of retainers, or servants. The absolute power of the feudal lord over his vassal, though still remembered, was very much a thing of the past. Generally it had been superceded by other more modern forms of economic dependence.
bound – used here in the legal sense of having certain inalienable duties to perform.
to stay your leisure = to await the commands which you choose to give when it pleases you (at your leisure). to stay = to await.5. O! let me suffer, being at your beck,suffer = endure. With further meaning of ‘be subjected to pain’.
being at your beck – being at your command. to beck was to give a mute command by a gesture. It is cognate with the word ‘beckon’. See the following examples:
Ah, know you not the city favours them,
And they have troops of soldiers at their beck? 3H6.I.1.67-8.
…….O’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me. AC.III.11.58-61.
I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in Ham.III.1.124-5.
Look how thy servants do attend on thee,
Each in his office ready at thy beck. TS.Ind.2.31-2.
The phrase ‘to be at the beck and call of’ OED does not record earlier than 1875. Wyatt’s famous poem Madam, withouten many words uses the expression : And with a beck ye shall me call.
See Wyatt’s miscellaneous poems.6. The imprison’d absence of your liberty;Although the meaning is fairly clear, the grammar of these two lines (6-7) defies analysis. The meaning of this (including the above line) is approximately ‘Let me endure, since I am at your command, the self imprisonment that falls on me due to your absence, and as a result of your enjoyment of your own liberty’. As SB points out, absence cannot be imprisoned, so a logical reading of this line is hardly possible. It is the necessity of conveying the ideas in a limited space that creates the compression of thought. Imprisonment calls up the opposite idea of liberty, which the youth enjoys. But the pain and suffering is caused by the loved one’s absence and infidelity, which metaphorically imprisons the poet in the dark world of his own tortured reflections. Liberty also carries the idea of wantonness and libertinism, which is at the forefront of the poet’s mind.7. And patience, tame to sufferance, bide each check,Several interpretations are suggested of this line, which all tend in the same direction because of the basic meaning of the words. The general sense is probably ‘And in addition my patience will school itself to permit your charter, and I will endure each restraint you impose on me’. However the meaning may be altered depending on how one reads tame to sufferance, and to a lesser extent on how the line is punctuated. tame could be taken as a verb governing patience, or as an adjective, or as connected directly to patience giving the hyphenated adjective patience-tame. sufferance may be the undergoing of pain, or the granting of permission, the latter meaning being brought more to the forefront because of the legal language connected with charter which follows. Another likely interpretation is therefore ‘And having patience, which is mild and schooled to endure suffering, [I will] put up with each restraint [which you impose] without etc.’
bide each check = endure each restraint. bide is now only used in the phrase to bide one’s time. Here it means to endure, or to put up with. As in :
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm. KLIII.4.28-9.
check = restraint on one’s liberty, an obstruction, a rebuff, a military repulse.
Perforce against all checks, rebukes, and manners,
I must advance the colours of my love MW.III.4.79-80.
The word seems originally to come from the game of chess and putting a king ‘in check’, and from military usage.8. Without accusing you of injury.accusing – this introduces the legal terminology of the next four lines. Apart from his determination to endure patiently all wrongs (which are not wrongs) the poet will not accuse the youth of mental cruelty for the reasons which follow.9. Be where you list, your charter is so strongwhere you list = wherever you desire to be. to list is an obsolete verb, meaning to desire or to wish. (OED.v.(1). 2.b.) It is more often used in an impersonal construction, as in ‘wheresoever it listeth him to go’ meaning ‘wherever he wishes to go’.
charter = a legal document, a permit granted by the appropriate authorities. The word originally meant a leaf of paper, and by transference came to mean the legal document written on that paper or parchment. The Great Charter is a term used for the Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215 at Runnymede, defining the rights and privileges of the barons. Shakespeare uses the word in connection with privilege in Richard III.
Then, taking him from thence that is not there,
You break no privilege nor charter there. R3.III.1.53-4.10. That you yourself may privilege your timeprivilege your time = grant to your own free time the privilege to do what it chooses. Thus, grant freedom to yourself to do as you will when you choose. Shakespeare uses the word privilege as a verb three times in all:
…he took this place for sanctuary,
And it shall privilege him from your hands CE.V.1.94-5.
Such neighbour nearness to our sacred blood
Should nothing privilege him, nor partialize
The unstooping firmness of my upright soul: R2.I.1.119-21.
Wilt thou be glass wherein it shall discern
Authority for sin, warrant for blame,
To privilege dishonour in thy name? Lucrece.619-21.11. To what you will; to you it doth belongTo what you will = to do as you please (with your time). ‘What You Will’ is the secondary title of ‘Twelfth Night’, and there may be some hidden connection. will – here, as elsewhere, is suggestive of sexual desire and license, and given the surrounding references to liberty, charter, privilege and self-doing crime it inevitably bears that secondary meaning.12. Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime.A strong charter would no doubt make a baron or Lord unassailable in the courts, and he would be in a position to pardon himself of any and every crime. In reality the hearing would not even reach the courts and the pardon would be granted before the summons was drawn up.13. I am to wait, though waiting so be hell,I am to wait = I must wait, I must attend upon your wishes. though waiting so be hell = though waiting is such hell. The unusual construction also allows the meaning ‘though waiting in these conditions is such hell’.14. Not blame your pleasure be it ill or well.blame = reproach, rebuke; accuse. Cf. :
I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;
But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest Sonn.40.
your pleasure – the word pleasure is innocent enough in isolation, but the suggestion that it might be ill, i.e. evil, no good, illicit and a sexual betrayal is enough to condemn it.