Sonnet 41: where thou art forced to break a twofold truth

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.

William Shakespeare

Sonnet 41:  where thou art forced to break a twofold truth (2) (2013-03-20)

March 2013

Sam Alexander reading this sonnet

The drama of the sonnets sequence is still stuck within the impossible love triangle the speaker finds himself in: two of his lovers, the young man and a lady, have found their way into each other's arms, thus breaking the twofold truth, i.e. betraying his trust twice. And if the previous sonnet attacked the very word, love, turning it into lascivious, this one focuses on the ambiguity of agency in love's pretty wrongs and deconstructs the concept of free will.

The agency in committing pretty wrongs is ascribed to a variety of forces beyond young man's apparent control: liberty, youth, temptation, a woman, and, most importantly, beauty. It's only at the turn between the second and third quatrains that the speaker appeals to the young man's ability to resist these forces, if only for the sake of being loyal to himself.

The first hint of it comes when he uses the expression woman's son instead of "man" in the seventh line: it links the sonnet to his own poem, "Venus and Adonis", and thus suggests the possibility to resist even the goddess of love herself. The second one is hidden in the unexpected change of agency in the next line:

what woman's son // Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed.

There seems to be a continuing disagreement between editors and commentators of the sonnets with respect to the pronoun shown in bold above (Stephen Booth, p. 201): he in this context is how the sonnet was first published, but many editors replace it with she, since that would seem more logical: the one who woos should be the one who, eventually, prevails, not the other way round. And yet, this logic doesn't seem so logical in the context of the poem's play with agency, especially just before the speaker's appeal to the young man to exercise his free will in blocking all temptations of youth and beauty: here, the transfer of agency to him by the end of the second quatrain prepares the third one.

Helen Vendler (pp. 214-215) reads this appeal, this acknowledgement of the young man's agency, in terms of sincerity "breaking through" the initial insincere excuses. What I find more interesting here is how Shakespeare's treatment of "free will" here agrees with what the modern neuroscience tells us about it: the impulses for our actions really originate beyond the reach of our conscious awareness and direct control; but we can still veto them (chide them away) consciously if we catch them in time. Just like when you find yourself in front of an open fridge, with your arm outstretched towards something you haven't had any conscious intent to consume: this is the moment when you can still chide the initial impulse that has led you into temptation; this is the moment to exercise you free will. So I don't believe this change of agency in the poem is about sincerity vs. insincere excuses. I think this description comes from the lifetime of attentive observations of one's inner life, the internal workings of mind: the same treasure that still keeps Shakespeare relevant to our lives, even after all these centuries.

In any event, in the drama of sonnets sequence, the power of veto hasn't been exercised, and beauty breaks the twofold truth. This is the fascinating idea which I've tried to convey in this painting, with its explicit, unresolved conflicts between the image and the picture plane, between the colour and the line.