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Shakespeare Sonnet 57: "Being your slave what should I do but tend"

Updated on April 23, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 57

In Sonnet 57, the speaker dabbles in a paradox: while he deems himself a slave to his muse, and at the same time, he declares a soul freedom that the very music-slavery affords him.

This speaker traces his cleverness back to the same source of his dead-on talent. He explores his ability from all sides. He is especially interested in elucidating his own dedication in the sonnet. By allowing that he is, in fact, a captured slave to the Muse, the speaker is at the same time demonstrating his independence from all kinds of snobbery, puffery, and buffoonish solipsism.

Sonnet 57: Being your slave, what should I do but tend

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.

Reading of Sonnet 57

Commentary

The speaker is dramatizing his relationship with his muse to whom he deems himself a slave. The importance of his muse is emphasized by averring his own dedication.

First Quatrain: Addressing His Muse

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.

The speaker begins the first quatrain by addressing his master (mistress), his muse, declaring that he is, in fact, a "slave" to his music talent. This speaker cannot do anything without permission from the muse. He has committed himself to waiting "[u]pon the hours, and times of [the muse’s] desire."

The speaker declares that he has "no precious time at all to spend." He is so indebted to his music talent that he does not even possess a shred of time. This dedicated speaker also has nothing to do, no services to perform, until the muse bids him act. His dedication is complete.

Second Quatrain: Refusing to Complain

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;

Despite his absolute obeisance to his master muse, this speaker refuses to complain. He has learned to move comfortably in chains, so to speak. Unlike the ordinary slave who quietly performs his service while plotting revenge and escape, this speaker refuses even to "chide" anyone regarding his slavery. This speaker does not sulk in bitterness while the muse is away. He does not dare moan and whine when Master Muse "bid[s her] servant once adieu." He willingly accepts his servitude.

Third Quatrain: No Jealousy

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.

The speaker does not badger his muse with jealous demanding of the whereabouts of the muse, as lovers would likely do to each other. This speaker has dignity and independence, even while deep inside the muse's constraints. This confident speaker continues to behave like an independent human force, not like "a sad slave." He never bothers to blight his heart and mind with an imagination gone wild featuring his muse traipsing off and lavishing her time on others.

The obverse of what the speaker does not do holds especial sway here. The poet/speaker has examined and portrayed many times in many sonnets the strength of his own talent. The power this speaker possesses and the confidence he displays result from his own self-awareness. He can be content even when his most important possession, his muse, his poetic talent, takes hiatus, as that creative entity is wont to do from time to time.

The Couplet: Muse as Spiritual Reality

So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.

Of course, the muse manifests herself as the spiritual reality of the speaker’s intense love, his strong soul love that informs his art. The speaker realizes that his own worth allows him to "think[ ] no ill" even while his muse seems to be off frolicking elsewhere.

This speaker/poet understands that his love is absolutely not a fool but the best kind of genius that will serve him perpetually. This speaker often employs the poetic device of hyperbole, as he is doing here so freely and eloquently.

A Brief Overview: The 154-Sonnet Sequence

Scholars and critics of Elizabethan literature have determined that the sequence of 154 Shakespeare sonnets may be classified into three thematic categories: (1) Marriage Sonnets 1-17; (2) Muse Sonnets 18-126, traditionally identified as the "Fair Youth"; and (3) Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154.

Marriage Sonnets 1-17

The speaker in the Shakespeare “Marriage Sonnets” pursues a single goal: to persuade a young man to marry and produce beautiful offspring. It is likely that the young man is Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton, who is being urged to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the oldest daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Many scholars and critics now argue persuasively that Edward de Vere is the writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare." For more information regarding Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real writer of the Shakespearean canon, please visit The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Traditionally classified as "Fair Youth")

The speaker in this section of sonnets is exploring his talent, his dedication to his art, and his own soul power. In some sonnets, the speaker addresses his muse, in others he addresses himself, and in others he even addresses the poem itself.

Even though many scholars and critics have traditionally categorized this group of sonnets as the "Fair Youth Sonnets," there is no "fair youth," that is "young man," in these sonnets. There is no person at all in this sequence, with exception of the two problematic sonnets, 108 and 126.

Dark Lady Sonnets 127-154

The final sequence targets an adulterous romance with a woman of questionable character; the term “dark” likely modifies the woman’s character flaws, not her skin tone.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

Sonnet 108 and 126 present a problem in categorization. While most of the sonnets in the "Muse Sonnets" do focus on the poet's musings about his writing talent and do not focus on a human being, sonnets 108 and 126 are speaking to a young man, respectively calling him "sweet boy" and "lovely boy." Sonnet 126 presents an additional problem: it is not technically a "sonnet," because it features six couplets, instead of the traditional three quatrains and a couplet.

The themes of sonnets 108 and 126 would better categorize with the "Marriage Sonnets" because they do address a "young man." It is likely that sonnets 108 and 126 are at least partially responsible for the erroneous labeling of the "Muse Sonnets" as the "Fair Youth Sonnets" along with the claim that those sonnets address a young man.

While most scholars and critics tend to categorize the sonnets into the three-themed schema, others combine the "Marriage Sonnets" and the "Fair Youth Sonnets" into one group of "Young Man Sonnets." This categorization strategy would be accurate if the "Muse Sonnets" actually addressed a young man, as only the "Marriage Sonnets" do.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 are also somewhat problematic. They are classified with the Dark Lady Sonnets, but they function quite differently from the bulk of those poems.

Sonnet 154 is a paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they carry the same message. The two final sonnets dramatize the same theme, a complaint of unrequited love, while outfitting the complaint with the dress of mythological allusion. The speaker employs the services of the Roman god Cupid and the goddess Diana. The speaker thus achieves a distance from his feelings, which he, no doubt, hopes will finally liberate him from the clutches of his lust/love and bring him equanimity of mind and heart.

In the bulk of the "dark lady" sonnets, the speaker has a been addressing the woman directly, or making it clear that what he is saying is intended for her ears. In the final two sonnets, the speaker is not directly addressing the mistress. He does mention her, but he is speaking now about her instead of directly to her. He is now making it quite clear that he is withdrawing from the drama with her.

Readers may sense that he has grown battle-weary from his struggle for the woman’s respect and affection, and now he has finally decided to make a philosophical drama that heralds the end of that disastrous relationship, announcing essentially, "I’m through."

Third Quatrain: "Nor dare I question with my jealous thought"

The speaker does not badger his Muse with jealous demanding of the whereabouts of the Muse, as lovers would likely do to each other. This speaker has dignity and independence, even while deep inside the Muse's constraints.

This confident speaker continues to behave like an independent human force, not like "a sad slave." He never bothers to blight his heart and mind with an imagination gone wild featuring his Muse traipsing off and lavishing her time on others.

The obverse of what the speaker does not do holds especial sway here. The poet/speaker has examined and portrayed many times in many sonnets the strength of his own talent.

The power this speaker possesses and the confidence he displays result from his own self-awareness. He can be content even when his most important possession, his Muse, his poetic talent, takes hiatus, as that creative entity is wont to do from time to time.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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