O! for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer's hand:
Pity me, then, and wish I were renewed;
Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink
Potions of eisel 'gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
Even that your pity is enough to cure me.
This sonnet continues the poet's defence of his conduct, which on the surface looks bad. It has brought him shame and disgrace and a swerving away from his beloved. However he decides to put most, if not all the blame upon fortune, which has not provided him with noble birth or wealth, with the result that he must ply his wares in the market place.
Commentators since the late eighteenth century, starting with Edmund Malone, have noticed that this sonnet seems to refer directly to Shakespeare's career in the theatre. Whether this is indeed the case cannot be proven, but it is impossible not to be curious about the life of one so famous, and to speculate on the possible direction of these references. The poem by John Davies of Hereford, printed at the end of this page, seems to confirm that being associated with the playhouse brings a stain to the character in the common view. The Puritans certainly believed so, and maintained continuous opposition to the theatres. They believed them to be the breeding gound of all manner of sin and viciousness, and in the additional notes below there is a typical text railing against the evil influence of plays and interludes.
However it is not possible to be certain on this matter. The language of 'strong infection' and 'double penances' required to assuage 'harmful deeds' seems to be too extreme to refer only to a career upon the stage. One feels tempted to ask 'What other strange errors of commission or omission lie behind these confessions?' Perhaps the sin is no other than a visit to a brothel, followed by a severe dose of the pox, a strong infection in other words, which brings a stain upon the character both moral and physical. That would indeed require some strong potions of eisel to effect a cure, given the uncertain state of medicine at the time. Or perhaps it is no more than a social gaffe, an assumption of familiarity with a social superior which was not justified, and brought ridicule upon the foolish poet who presumed too much. It is possible also that there is an element of allegory, and that the strong infection is a temporary adherence to the 'wrong' religion. Potions of eisel and double penance would be very appropriate in such circumstances and the poet is looking forward here to his redemption and return to the fold.
Alas we cannot know what lies behind all this, whether allegorical or factual, or both, but it is nevertheless fascinating that we have a potential insight into the life of our famous poet, an autobiographical vignette which tells us something about how he lived and thought. For there is nothing in the plays which is so direct and revealing, and we see here face to face for one brief moment what elsewhere is hidden behind a curtain of distance, detachment and intrigue.
The 1609 Quarto Version
OFor my ſake doe you wifh fortune chide
The guiltie goddeſſe of my harmfull deeds,
That did not better for my life prouide,
Then publick meanes which publick manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receiues a brand,
And almoſt thence my nature is ſubdu'd
To what it workes in,like the Dyers hand,
Pitty me then,and wiſh I were renu'de,
Whilſt like a willing pacient I will drinke,
Potions of Eyſell gainſt my ſtrong infection,
No bitterneſſe that I will bitter thinke,
Nor double pennance to correct correction.
Pittie me then deare friend,and I aſſure yee,
Euen that your pittie is enough to cure mee.