sonnetLXVI

Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
As to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
   Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
   Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

The poet laments the corruption and dishonesty of the world, from which he desires to be released. This is a sonnet which strikes a chord in almost any age, for it tells the same old story, that graft and influence reign supreme, and that no inherent merit is ever a guarantee of success. For that depends on social structures and conditions already set in place long ago. As often as not they aid and promote the unworthy, the malicious, the wealthy, the incompetent and those who are just good at manipulation of the system.

A parallel passage is found in Hamlet, in the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, but Hamlet’s world-weariness springs from rather different causes. However the phrase ‘the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes’ is an interesting summary of the complaint of this sonnet. The relevant part of Hamlet’s speech is given below.

From Hamlet’s soliloquy:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
Ham.III.1.69-76.

KDJ draws attention to the placing of this sonnet in this position, as No. 66. "Multiples of six have adverse connotations, alluding to the biblical ‘beast’ associated with universal corruption: all human beings ‘had the marke, or the number of his name . . . and his number is sixe hundred threescore and sixe’. (Revelation, 13.16-18)."
KDJ 66 Headnote, p.242.

The 1609 Quarto Version

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 honor 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 captiue-good attending Captaine ill.
   Tyr'd with all theſe,from theſe would I be gone;
   Saue that to dye,I leaue my loue alone.

Commentary

1. Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,
Tired with all these = exhausted, wearied, disgusted with all these - then follows the list of social evils with which he is tired. Possibly with a suggestion of attired with, in the sense that the evils cling to him like clothing, and he cannot divest himself of them.
2. As to behold desert a beggar born,
As = as, for example, all these following.
desert = a deserving person, a worthwhile person. In each succeeding line either praiseworthy or degenerate qualities are personified. Thus needy nothing, purest faith, gilded honour, maiden virtue, right perfection etc. all refer to the person or persons endowed with such characteristics.
a beggar born = born into poverty.
3. And needy nothing trimm'd in jollity,
needy nothing = a nonentity who is needy because he is lacking in all good qualities. At first glance it appears that the phrase suggests the opposite of that intended, for being in a list of socially desirable types whom society has downtrodden, one automatically accepts it as being of the correct type to fit the general flow of the poem i.e. one of the better and praiseworthy examples. Further consideration shows that this is not so, and needy nothing turns out to be one of the nasties who has managed to get himself kitted out in the latest fashion, no doubt at the expense of desert in the line above .
trimm'd in jollity = (undeservingly) done up in frivolous and expensive clothes and ornaments.
4. And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
purest faith = one who exhibits trust and trustworthiness; one who is pure in heart.
unhappily = through evil fortune, unluckily; wretchedly.
forsworn = tricked by false promises, betrayed.
5. And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
As in line 3, gilded honour is not an example of virtue ill-treated, but of unworthiness well rewarded. Gilded honour stands for the pomp and paraphernalia of office and authority, the gold regalia of office, but here it is misplaced, because it has been bestowed on those who are not fit to receive it.
6. And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
maiden virtue = unblemished virtue; an innocent maiden.
rudely strumpeted = forced to become a whore, proclaimed a whore. Figuratively, virtue is forced into evil ways. The resemblance of the word strumpet to trumpet hints at the possibility of public shaming of the innocent.
7. And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
right perfection = genuine, honest perfection.
wrongfully = sinfully, evilly, unjustly.
8. And strength by limping sway disabled

strength = the strength of knowing the right course of action.
limping sway = influence, which is typified by a crippled, shuffling figure working behind the scenes. The irony is that strength, which is hale and hearty, is disabled by influence and corruption, which is limping and crippled, but nevertheless manages to make strength like himself. KDJ sees a possible reference to the authority of the ageing Elizabeth in restricting the activities of young male courtiers, for example the Earl of Essex in 1600/01. But it is unlikely that Shakespeare would have needed to look to the very top of society for examples of young talent and enterprise suppressed by the aged and infirm. Youth in any age can feel itself repressed by precedent, tradition, and the influence and authority of those already in power. In Elizabethan England, being of the right family and having contacts with those who could pull strings was vital for success, and many talented youths must have discovered that their prospects were severly blighted by the conventions of the times and the limited prospects for advancement.

9. And art made tongue-tied by authority,
art = skill, knowledge. A person who possesses these. The word was less often applied to what we would call the creative arts.
authority = a person in authority. SB mentions that this could refer to censorship, which did operate in Elizabethan times, albeit rather erratically.
10. And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,

folly = stupidity, ignorance.
doctor-like - as an academic doctor; pretending to be learned. Skill is used by Shakespeare of the physician’s art also, so the reference could here be to a doctor of medicine.
………There's something in't,
More than my father's skill, which was the greatest
Of his profession
AWW.I.3.233-5
Sir, I will use
My utmost skill in his recovery,
Per.V.1.73-4.
controlling
= restraining, exercising authority over, restricting, hampering. skill - used in a general sense to signify those who have knowledge, those who are skilled in a branch of science. But perhaps the reference is more to an academic situation, in which a person flaunting academic dress controls those who are more knowledgeable than him, but who do not have such a high academic standing. In the traditional personification of Folly, such as that depicted in Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, he was given learned pomposity and academic garb to suit it. See SB.p.249.n.10.

11. And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
simple truth = plain truth, unadorned truth. miscalled = wrongfully named.
simplicity = stupidity, idiocy.
12. And captive good attending captain ill:
captive = having been captured; enslaved, having no freedom; attending = serving in a menial capacity; taking instruction from.
captain ill = evil (an evil person) in a position of authority. The title referred to a military rank, but was often used in a more general sense to mean a military person in high authority,
Who does i' the wars more than his captain can
Becomes his captain's captain
AC.III.1.21-2.
13. Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Wearied with all this graft and corruption, I wish to escape from it all.
14. Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

Save that = except that.
to die = by dying; if I die.
I leave my love alone = I abandon my love and leave him defenceless; the only thing that I regret leaving is my love.

Reynolds Robinetta

 

Robinetta.  Stipple Engraving by John Jones, after Sir Joshua Reynolds. 

Published 1797.