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Shakespeare Sonnet 94: "They that have power to hurt and will do none"

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 94: "They that have power to hurt and will do none"

In sonnet 94 from the classic Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence, the speaker is exploring the notion of outward beauty compared to inward character. How does one determine which is more valuable and more useful for a purposeful life? The speaker offers his own suggestions as he dramatizes the plant kingdom with its spectrum of beautiful flowers to ugly weeds.

In the long run, which is more honest? A rotten stinking once lovely flower or a stalwart though ragged and ugly weed? The speaker's philosophical nature can always be traced to his ultimate stance on the purpose and function of poetry.

The philosophy of speaker who desires above all else to create honest art should remain consistent, and readers will be able to determine such a consistency as they continue to experience the entire set of 154 sonnets. This speaker has made it clear that he disdains mere showiness in drama. His dramas must fulfill a definite purpose, and they must always reveal a basic truth about life and art.

Sonnet 94: "They that have power to hurt and will do none"

They that have power to hurt and will do none
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Reading of Sonnet 94

Commentary

The speaker is arguing a philosophical point that despite a pleasing appearance and personality, an individual’s behavior might still remain unacceptable.

First Quatrain: The Philosophy of Personality

They that have power to hurt and will do none
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;

The first quatrain of sonnet 94 finds the speaker waxing philosophical, as he describes a type of personality that is the repository for the power to hurt other individuals. That particular personality type may show his power as he fails to act upon it. That sort of personality can also remain "Unmoved, cold" and thus not succumb to the temptation of displaying any ostentatious emotional outbursts.

The first quatrain merely describes the personality type as having this innate power and at the same time having the cool control over outward appearance. He leaves his conclusion about the nature of that individual for the next quatrain.

Second Quatrain: Innate Tendencies

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.

The speaker then remarks that such individuals who exhibit the personal behavior as described in the first quatrain "rightly do inherit heaven’s graces." The cool, slow to enrage type comes by his temperament, not by learning but by innate tendencies.

That person, in addition to inheriting his evenmindedness, has the ability to "husband nature’s riches from expense." The control, with which such an individual is born, may be used in controlling the nature of others. While the controllers are "lords and owners of their faces," other people are the ones who reap the benefit, or harvest the penury, depending upon the true depth of personality that eventually will be dramatized by the powerful personality.

Third Quatrain: Weed Appeal

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

The speaker then offers a comparison to the plant kingdom to demonstrate further his observations about those supposed cool personalities. While a flower may be "to the summer sweet," "to itself," it does nothing more than "live and die." But if that same flower becomes infected by a canker worm, it is less appealing than an ordinary weed.

The natural weed that remains healthy "outbraves" the "dignity" of the formerly sweet flower. Even the weed that naturally exudes no pleasant odor will not fling forth a stench as putrid as a rotting formerly sweet-smelling flower.

The Couplet: Beauty and Behavior

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

The couplet then contains the point of the philosophical theorizing: "sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds." "Pretty is a pretty does"—as the old adage goes. Thus "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." Despite the original beauty of the face, or sweetness of the personality, the value of the personality will be determined by the person’s behavior.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the persona exploring in sonnet 94?

Answer: In Shakespeare sonnet 7, the speaker is exploring the relationship between outward beauty and inward character.

Question: How does Sonnet 94 bring out the contrast between honesty and hypocrisy in friendship?

Answer: In Sonnet 94, the speaker argues a philosophical point that despite a pleasing appearance and personality, an individual’s behavior might still remain quite objectionable.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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