Shakespeare Sonnet 96: "Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness"

Updated on February 16, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The real "Shakespeare"
The real "Shakespeare" | Source

Introduction and Text of Sonnet 96

The speaker variously addresses his muse, his poems, and sometimes he bemoans writer’s block in this group of poems, sonnets 18 through 126. A close reading of this group of sonnets reveals that there is, in fact, no person in them at all.

Sonnet 96, similar to Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 36, is addressing the poem itself.

Sonnet 96

Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are lov'd of more and less:
Thou mak'st faults graces that to thee resort.
As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteem'd,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deem'd.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
But do not so; I love thee in such sort,
As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

Reading of Sonnet 96


First Quatrain: "Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness"

In the first quatrain, the speaker tells the sonnet that some people discredit its value by claiming that it merely portrays adolescent values or mere lust, while others say it is that very youth that gives the sonnet "grace" and "gentle sport."

But the speaker simply avers that both grace and faults have their place in poetry, and people "more and less" recognize that fact.

And besides, the speaker claims, the sonnet is the place where the crafty writer converts those faults into graces.

The speaker is, once again, addressing his poem in order to compliment its value as well as he own writing talent that accomplishes that value.

Second Quatrain: "As on the finger of a throned queen"

The second quatrain employs a simile to compare "errors" in a sonnet to "the basest jewel" on the finger of a queen.

The jewel will be considered valuable because of who wears it; the errors will be "translated" from error to truth in the sonnet. Use of the term "translate" supports the speaker’s idea that his sonnets have power through language.

Translation refers primarily to language, particularly conveying one language into another. The speaker is confident that error and lack can be "translated" into truth and value in the sonnet, created by a talented craftsman.

Third Quatrain: "How many lambs might the stern wolf betray"

In the third quatrain, the speaker makes another comparison, between the sonnet and a wolf. If the wolf could "translate" or change himself into a lamb, he could make off with his prey.

The speaker asks rhetorically, "How many lambs" might the wolf be able to attract through his mutation? The speaker is implying that the number is substantial.

Then the speaker asks, how many readers might the sonnet attract, if it would "use the strength of all [its] state!"

The sonnet has the power to capture the minds of its readers, as a wolf has the power to capture lambs, if only the wolf and the sonnet appear in the proper form.

The Couplet: "But do not so; I love thee in such sort"

The speaker informs his sonnet that it need not change, because the poem has the speaker's heart. The sonnet belongs to the speaker, and through his substantial talent, he has created a truthful and viable piece of art.

The speaker tells the sonnet that it will represent him well as it moves through the centuries. He knows that his own skill is responsible for the value of his worthy creations.

Repeated Couplet in Sonnet 36

Sonnet 36, in which the speaker also addresses the sonnet directly, has the identical couplet of Sonnet 96. The couplet works well with either sonnet because in both cases the speaker is affirming his identity as the poem’s creator.

In both sonnets, the fact that they will go forth and engage readers in a way that reflects on the poet is asserted. However, even though, or perhaps because, the couplet works with both sonnets, the possibility of a publishing error exists. It is difficult to see how that would occur, but it cannot be ruled out.

A Brief Overview of the 154-Sonnet Sequence

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."

Muse Sonnets 18-126 (Erroneously "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.

Two Problematic Sonnets: 108 and 126

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.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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