Sonnet 66

Shakespeare Sonnet 66

Tyr’d with all theſe for reſtfull death I cry,
As to behold deſert a begger borne,
And needie Nothing trimd in iollitie,
And pureſt faith vnhappily forſworne,
And gilded honour ſhamefully miplaſt,
And maiden vertue rudely ſtrumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully diſgrac’d,
And ſtrength by limping ſway diſabled,
And arte made tung-tide by authoritie,
And Folly (Doctor-like) controuling skill,
And ſimple-Truth miſcalde Simplicitie,
And captive-good attending Captaine ill.
Tyr’d with all theſe, from theſe would I be gone;
Saue that to dye, I leaue my loue alone.

Taedium vitae (tiredness of life) or the condition of world weariness, often accompanied by profound depression, was first described in the classical period. Seneca and Pliny both provide analyses and examples of the malaise, which could lead to the taking of one’s life. (Roman Law allowed taedium vitae as one of the few justifiable motives for suicide.) Seneca in De Tranquillitate describes the symptoms: “tedium and desultoriness of self and turmoil of the mind which is never at rest . . hopes are so constricted and without escape as to choke themselves.”  The mind is forced to lament the age in which it lives (“de saeculo querens”) and “those afflicted are driven to death, because they find themselves in a vicious circle, able to seek nothing new. Life and the world itself become so tedious that they experience but dwindling pleasures; they ask, ‘How long can we keeping doing the same thing?’” 1 In his Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium Seneca takes issue with Epicurus who claims, ‘It is nonsense to pursue death because of taedium vitae’ (“ridiculum est currere ad mortem taedio vitae”), replying that the condition is one of contraries and of interminable but negative balance. He exclaims again, “To what end these things?” (“Quousque eadem?”), and continues, “Will I wake or will I sleep? Will I eat or will I go hungry? Will I shiver or will I sweat? There is no end to anything, but everything is connected in a circle . . I do nothing new; I see nothing new; finally one tires of it all. There are many who think that to live isn’t bitter, just superfluous. Farewell.” 2

The classical precedents of the disease were well known in Shakespeare’s England. Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy quotes Seneca among others and cites Suetonius’ account of Claudius who had “a spice of this disease, for when hee was tormented with the paine of his stomacke, he had a conceipt to make away himselfe.” Burton’s is the most extensive contemporary account of the condition, typified by a vacillating between opposites, the disconsolate being the dominant, and by a weariness that finds its only relief in death.

Taedium vitae. Hence it proceeds many times, that they are weary of their liues, and ferall thoughts to offer violence to their owne persons, come into their mindes, taedium vitae is a common symptome . . they are soone tired with all things; they will now tarry, now be gone; now pleased, then againe displeased, now they like, by and by dislike all, weary of all . . discontent, disquieted, perplexed vpon every light, or no occasion, obiect: often tempted, I say, to make away themselues; Viuere nolunt, mors nesciunt [Seneca]; they cannot dye, they will not liue: they complaine, weepe, lament and thinke they lead a most miserable life, every poore man they see is most fortunate in respect of them, every begger that comes to the doore is happier then they are, they could be contented to change liues with them . . And so they continue, till with some fresh discontent they be molested againe, and then they are weary of their lives, weary of all, they will die. 3

From the classical period onwards there existed also the convention of writing out a balance sheet of the conditions of one’s life – or of the world, especially the political – before taking one’s life. Tabular lines of contrariety would be balanced across each other, often weighted towards the negative, a practice Shakespeare has observed exactly in Sonnet 66 by allowing its equipoised lines to preempt the way he normally divides a sonnet’s argument. Also relevant to the sonnet is the sense found with taedium vitae of being inextricably trapped in a circle: as Seneca notes, “There is no end to anything, but everything is connected in a circle” (“Nullius rei finis est, sed in orbem nexa sunt omnia”). The taediosus’ customary circularity is imitated by the rhetorical circularity and repetition of sonnet’s opening and closing, “Tyr’d with all these.”

Sonnet 66’s rhetorical figures are those of Repetition and Obsecration. Each line opens with “And” and the lines’ insistent repetition causes the customary division between octet and sestet to be elided. The poet’s obsecration (“I cry”) is for “restfull death,” death that brings the fullness of rest and peace. The reason for the prayer is that the poet is “Tyr’d with all these.” A list of “these” elements follows, introduced by “As to behold,” meaning ‘these things such as one can behold.’ The first factor inducing taedium is “desert a begger borne;” in this world turned on itself anything deserving merit is ‘born a beggar,’ either receives no recompense or is shabbily treated or clothed as a beggar. (A beggar on a taediosus’ list was common, see Burton above, “euery beggar.”) The poet complains that “needie Nothing [is] trimd in iollitie.” “Nothing” is utter deprivation, totally in need; but in this age it is dressed up (“trimd”) in finery (“iollitie”) or it is decorated over (“trimd”) by revelry and laughter (“iollitie”). In this world religion or loyalty or even troth-vows (“faith”), that are simple and undefiled (“purest”), are sadly (“vnhappily”) denied or dishonoured or broken (“forsworne”). Rank or decency (“honor”) of the highest quality (“gilded” intends ‘golden’ rather than ‘gilded over’) is put to wrong purpose or placed in wrong hands (“misplast”); “virtue” that is unsullied and intact (“maiden”) is commonly (“rudely”) prostituted abroad or sold cheaply (“strumpeted”); “perfection” that is upright and unfallen (“right” with a hint of ‘correct’) is by contrast “wrongfully” (‘unjustly’ rather than ‘mistakenly’) sullied or made to fall (“disgraced”); power, even political power (“strength”) is made impotent (“disabled”) by hesitant authority and lame rule (“limping sway”). Cleverly the line with only 4½ feet itself limps.

In the poet’s world “arte” of any kind, artistic, scientific or even political, is rendered silent and ineffectual, even censored (“made tong-tide”) by “authoritie,” by misapplied power. “Folly,” traditionally the subject of misrule, is here like a master (“Doctor-like”), who rules over true knowledge (“skill”). Here “simple-Truth,” undivided and unadulterated truth (compare Sonnet 138.8, “simple truth supprest”) is defamed or wrongly titled (“miscalde”) “Simplicitie,” of the realm of the simpleton or fool. The list’s final item is “captiue-good attending Captaine ill:” goodness is held inextricably in the service of or is unable to escape from the clutches of dominant evil (“Captaine” can intend both dominant and Captain), the traditional symptom of taedium vitae.

The concluding couplet returns to the opening imprecation with the poet classically resolving to be quit of such burdens through death, “Tyr’d with all these, from these would I be gone,” but is prevented from so doing by the thought that, if he were to do so, he would leave his beloved forsaken: “Save that to dye, I leaue my loue alone.” On the tabula or balance-sheet the beloved outweighs all the factors that induced world-weariness in the poet.


66.1. Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 2.10, “taedium et displicentia sui et nusquam residentis animi volutatio . . in angusto inclusae cupiditates sine exitu se ipsae strangulant;” 2.15: “Hoc quosdam egit ad mortem: quod proposita saepe mutando in eadem revolvebantur et non reliquerant novitati locum, fastidio esse illis coepit uita et ipse mundus, et subiit illud tabidarum deliciarum: ‘Quousque eadem?’”

66.2. Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium 3.26, “ nempe ex pergiscar dormiam,edam esuriam, algebo aestuabo. Nullius rei finis est, sed in orbem nexa sunt omnia . . ‘Nihil novi facio, nihil novi video: fit aliquando et huius rei nausia.’ Multi sunt qui non acerbum iudicent vivere sed supervacuum. Vale.”

66.3. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. What it is, with all the kinds causes, symptomes, prognostickes, & seuerall cures of it. In three partitions, with their severall Sections, members & subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, opened & cut vp. By. Democritus Iunior (Oxford: John Lichfield, 1628) 175-6.

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