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Shakespeare Sonnet 94

The Shakespeare 154-sonnet sequence remains essential in my poetry tool kit. Masterfully crafted, they dramatize love, beauty, and truth.

The real "Shakespeare"

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 94

In Shakespeare sonnet 94, 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.

The De Vere Society

The De Vere Society

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 example, Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets has opined:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

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.

Three Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99

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.

Sonnet 99 might be considered somewhat problematic: it features 15 lines instead of the traditional 14 sonnet lines. It accomplishes this task by converting the opening quatrain into a cinquain, with an altered rime scheme from ABAB to ABABA. The rest of the sonnet follows the regular rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional sonnet.

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."

Questions & Answers

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.

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes