sonnetXLI

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.

The saga of betrayal continues, but now the lover's crime has been softened, in name at least, to one of those 'pretty wrongs that liberty commits', and more extenuating circumstances are found to justify the wrong and show that the youth himself was hardly responsible for the deed. It was his youth and his beauty which were responsible, for such qualities are rare and even though they may not be active agents they are always open to attack from preying women.

 

Yet even so, muses the poet, you might have restrained yourself, and held back from this cruel betrayal, for it has caused you to break your own vows and her to break hers - a two-fold crime which is doubly heinous and for which you are responsible (the woman's guilt in the betrayal is not here taken into account. But see however sonnet 152).

It is interesting to see that this sonnet ends on a note of accusation, a comparatively rare event, for reconciliation or self effacement are the usual outcomes of those situations where fault has been found. The concluding couplets of 69, 84 and 94 are also critical of the youth, but in a more general sense. Here the accusation of troth-breaking is more specific and hurtful, a potential cause of a permanent divorce of the loving relationship.

The 1609 Quarto Version

Thoſe pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
When I am ſome-time abſent from thy heart,
Thy beautie,and thy yeares full well befits,
For ſtill temptation followes where thou art.
Gentle thou art,and therefore to be wonne,
Beautious thou art,therefore to be aſſailed.
And when a woman woes,what womans ſonne,
Will ſourely leaue her till he haue preuailed.
Aye me,but yet thou mighſt my ſeate forbeare,
And chide thy beauty,and thy ſtraying youth,
Who lead thee in their ryot euen there
Where thou art forſt to break a two-fold truth:
   Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
   Thine by thy beautie beeing falſe to me.

Commentary

1. Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits,
pretty - although the word partly suggests frivolousness, because of its resemblance to petty and because it is often applied to trivial and slight objects, its effect here is mainly to state that the crime commited is actually quite likeable, certainly forgiveable, and of no great consequence either. For so, at this stage, the speaker has tried to convince himself.
liberty = social or moral freedom to behave as one chooses. But it can also have the meaning of libertinage or sexual wantonness, as in

.....breathe his faults so quaintly
That they may seem the taints of liberty,
The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind,
Ham.II.1.31-3.

                                                 Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That 'gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot!
Tim.IV.1.25-8.

Note that lust, liberty and riot coincide in the 'Timon' extract, as they do in this sonnet, except that lust is not named, only implied. Timon is calling down execrations on his countrymen.

2. When I am sometime absent from thy heart,
sometime = sometimes. Implying that the faults are infrequent, the lapses of occasional forgetfulness.
3. Thy beauty, and thy years full well befits,
befits - the subject is wrongs in line 1. The verb ending in 's', when one would expect befit, is common in Elizabethan English. befits = suits, is appropriate to. 'The pretty wrongs are fitting for one of your age and beauty'.
4. For still temptation follows where thou art.
still = always. temptation follows - usually temptation leads one into sin, but here the image is of temptation first seeking out the potential sinner in order to lead him into darkness.
5. Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won,
Gentle = kind, considerate; of noble birth, a gentleman.
therefore to be won = available to be seduced; bound to be seduced
6. Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed;
assail'd = vigorously courted, seduced.
7. And when a woman woos, what woman's son
When a woman takes the initiative, what man is so foolish as to resist?
8. Will sourly leave her till he have prevailed?
Editors are divided on the merits of retaining the he of Q or changing it to she, an emendation suggested by Malone, since it is the woman who does the wooing in this case. Leaving it as he suggests possibly that the woman allows the man to feel that he has made the conquest. In such circumstances the man might wish to think that he is the one who has prevailed.
9. Ay me! but yet thou mightst my seat forbear,
Ay me! - a homely exclamation indicating wonder tinged with sorrow. Compare Sonnet 148:
O me! What eyes hath love put in my head

As HV points out, this is an example of 'truth breaking in' (using a phrase coined by Frost in Birches). The sophisticated analysis and provision of fulsome excuses which has prevailed so far breaks down and the poet exclaims against the youth, since now he contemplates the real effect of 'those pretty wrongs' - the youth has leapt into his seat and is now riding his mistress. my seat forbear - abstain from using my favourite, reserved place. The meaning is however strongly sexual, (seat = pudendum), showing all the possessiveness of sexual jealousy. See Oth.II.1.289-90:
....I do suspect the lustful Moor
Hath leap'd into my seat.
10. And chide thy beauty and thy straying youth,
chide = restrain by chiding. beauty...youth - the youth's years and beauty are cited in line 3 as being the justification and forgiving background for his lustful behaviour, which there is described with moderate euphemisms. Now it has become straying and riotous youth.
11. Who lead thee in their riot even there
Youth , lust and riotousness are often grouped together (perhaps justifiably). The links between them were proverbial, since the days of the prodigal son and earlier. See the passage from Timon of Athens above (line 1).
riot = Wanton, loose, or wasteful living; debauchery, dissipation, extravagance. (OED.1.a.).
12. Where thou art forced to break a twofold truth:
truth - probably closer to the word troth in the marriage service 'I plight thee my troth', where the meaning is fidelity, allegiance, promise. troth is a variant form of truth. A link here also I suspect to the true love of the previous sonnet (line 3). See also 152, where the situation is seen from the perspective of the poet betrayed by the woman.
In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,
But thou art twice forsworn, to me love swearing,
In act thy bed-vow broke and new faith torn,
In vowing new hate after new love bearing.
13.   Hers by thy beauty tempting her to thee,
His beauty forces her to break her promise (of faithful love to the speaker), and tempts her into his arms. See the note above.
14.   Thine by thy beauty being false to me.
thine = your good faith, your promise of love to me. The two offences are that his beauty seduces the woman and his beauty (which in this line almost becomes the youth himself) betrays his friend and steals his friend's lover. (Both offences are almost the same thing). Note that the woman herself is not accused.