A summary of Shakespeare’s 41st sonnet
As opening lines go, ‘Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits’ is not up there with some of the opening lines that we’ve had earlier on in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, such as the rightly celebrated opening lines to Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 20. Nevertheless, this poem has some curious features which make it worth closer analysis.
Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
Thy beauty, and thy years full well befits,
For still temptation follows where thou art.
Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
And when a woman woos, what woman’s son
Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?
Ay me! but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
Who lead thee in their riot even there
Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth:
Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
Thine by thy beauty being false to me.
Paraphrase kills poetry, they say, but nevertheless, for the benefit of summarising and elucidating the meaning of Sonnet 41, we may have to run that risk. Below is a short paraphrase of the sonnet:
First, a paraphrase of the octave: ‘Those beguiling little sins you commit, and are free to commit, when you’re absent from me and forget about me, makes full sense, given your good looks and your youthful age – you must be constantly tempted by pretty women wanting to be with you, after all. You are kind (and well-born), and so worth wooing; you’re attractive too, so worth pursuing. And what man is there alive who can resist a woman when she throws herself at him?’
Then we move to the sestet: ‘Yet you might actually resist the temptation to jump into bed with my mistress (jumping into my “seat” as though you’re riding my horse), and tell yourself that youth and beauty are no excuse for acting on your lust in this way, since your youth and beauty are what lead you to bring about two infidelities: my mistress’ towards me, since your beauty tempts her to be unfaithful with you; and yours towards me, for giving your beauty to her rather than to me.’
Thus the bizarre love triangle introduced in Sonnet 40 is elaborated on in this sonnet, with Shakespeare analysing the state of his affairs (in both senses of that word: he does, after all, have a mistress and he appears to be in love with the Fair Youth now). There are some nice touches: we like the apparent pun on ‘gentle’ in the fifth line, its significance emphasised by the trochee, where the word seems to suggest both the Fair Youth’s tender manners and his high-born status. (Whether or not he was Henry Wriothesley remains unknown, but elsewhere in the Sonnets he certainly seems to be well-bred.)
Don Paterson, in his provocative analysis of the Bard’s sonnets, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, refers to a ‘famous’ acrostic that can be found in this sonnet, which alludes to the name of the Southwark tavern in which Shakespeare may have supped some ale during the late sixteenth century. However, Paterson doesn’t highlight where in the sonnet this acrostic can be found, and our research has uncovered nothing. It’s been suggested that Shakespeare drank in a Southwark pub called the George, though we still can’t find ‘George’ spelt out acrostically in Sonnet 41. If anyone has any suggestions for how to solve this little puzzle, do let us know. It would certainly make a slightly underwhelming sonnet (when placed alongside some of the gems in the sequence) a little more interesting!
If you enjoyed this analysis of Sonnet 41, you can learn more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.