Essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94

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.

This sonnet is broken up into three quatrains and a closing couplet, with the first quatrain describing a particular kind of person, the second considering the consequences of being that kind of person, and the third exploring some other possibilities through a metaphor of flowers and weeds, along with a problem, and an ending couplet that expresses a kind of warning. Shakespeare avoids altogether including any first or second person references, which is unusual among the other sonnets. Instead, he begins with the third person plural “they,” and then switches to third person singular “itself,” in the third quatrain. Between the second and third quatrain there’s a turn not only from the human to the natural world, but also from a sense of agency to a lack thereof.

The first quatrain begins a description of a particular kind of person; those who are able to hurt, but will not; who do not do that which they most show; and though they move others, are stone-like, cold, slow to temptation. What is it, then that they most show, but will not do? Does it go with the next line, moving others? Perhaps they most show attraction, beauty, charm; and yet themselves are unsusceptible to the love that they inspire. Is that intentional, as a kind of dishonesty, or simply natural? It seems from the next quatrain that they might do otherwise – if they re “masters of their faces” it would suggest that they might choose to show something closer to what they truly are.

Some effects of the kind of person described come out in the second quatrain. “They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces” – because of the things mentioned above, their slowness to temptation, restraint, coolness – they can deserve and rightly keep “heaven’s graces.” What are these graces? The thing which “they most show?” Is it associated with a kind of outward grace, primarily; beauty, poise, intelligence? Or more inward, in the form of virtues and wisdom? Rightly because they will not misuse them? “And husband nature’s riches from expense;” they care for and live off the abundance of nature, presumably their own nature as we’ve seen it, and perhaps the physical world as well? What does “from expense” mean? Is it properly “husband… from expense,” with husband meaning something more like preserve the graces against expense (otherwise I would read from as “out of” as in being from a place, but that meaning doesn’t make much sense here)? To keep them from being squandered?

Then, “they are the lords and owners of their faces;” what does it mean to own your face, or to not own it? Such people rule their countenance, make it do their bidding. Perhaps being able to control it so that you only show what you wish. I tend to contrast that a bit with my own face – I certainly don’t master it, though sometimes it might be nice to; instead it reflects just about everything that passes through my mind and heart. What would it mean for there to be such a separation between heart and expression that someone would command his face in this way? that seems useful, especially in society, but a little awful as well. There’s a lot of agency here and in the first two lines – a choice of how to appear, when to refrain from action, and personal restraint. But then there are “others, but stewards of their excellence.” At first I read that as these other people are stewards of their own excellence, in contrast to being their own lords, but now I’m not certain. What if they were stewards of the excellence of those others; borrowing some of their attributes, but not owning them? In the first case it seems linked in a way to us being stewards of that which is given us by Nature or God; responsible for guarding and using our riches, but ultimately we hold it in trust.

The third quatrain introduces a strong shift; suddenly, the cold, proud, self contained yet lordly people have vanished, and we are in a field with flowers and weeds. Presumably it’s a metaphor for those same people, but the imagery if far different. Instead of hard, cold, immutable things, there is warmth and growth – but also decay, fragility, and ephemerality. “The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet:” why “to the summer,” rather than to you or I or us? As through the rest of the sonnet, there’s an intentional attempt to keep things impersonal. We would find the flower and the summer sweet; what the summer would be to itself is as unimaginable as the internality of the flower. Why is it important that “to itself it only live and die?” That’s the scope of a flower’s existence: is it also of a human’s? What else might there be? To choose, reflect, be lords, owners, even stewards of ourselves? To only do what we do – what comes naturally to out being – and no more seems different from the division between possibility and action from the first part; flowers cannot do otherwise than grow and live and die. Can they refuse to do the thing which they most show? What would that mean?

“But if the flower with base infection meet, the basest weed out braves his dignity.” What was before sweet, lovely, innocent – to others, if not to itself – is now susceptible to infection because of the fragility that comprised its very beauty before. Is the weed also the steward from above? The weed, it seems, though less impressive, is also heartier, and will continue being what it is, without infection. Is there something about greatness that makes one more easily infected? Or simply that makes the infection more damaging once it is contracted. What kind of infection? There are certain afflictions that may only be contracted by those with particular intelligence and sensitivity; but that doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who has been described thus far. A certain kind of depravity that can only take root in souls with sufficient integrity and breadth?

The final couplet concludes: “for sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” It reads as a moral, or perhaps a warning. The second to last line is a kind of reversal of the first line of the sonnet: in place of that which can hurt, but does not, there is now that which should be sweet, but in action is sour. Then the image intensifies; not only is it a
sweet turned sour, but a lily – one of the more dramatic flowers, usually associated with purity, – festering and stinking, like it’s dying in bits even while alive. It is a theme that is well known from literature, and perhaps from history: the more substantial a soul’s worth and ability, the greater the disaster if it goes bad. The archetypal example being that of Lucifer, greatest of the angels, turned God’s greatest enemy. This is on a much smaller scale, but not so small as to become comic, as the weeds might be.

It’s interesting that a poem with so pointed a message should be so vague about who it addresses, and the feelings or the author. As though a person were to write a letter to someone he believed was about to make a terrible decision that started “there are some kinds of people out there who might think it a good idea to do x. But some other people might observe that it was unwise on account of y.” Would the person the poem was written about have been offended if it were more straightforward, or were they not on the friendliest of terms at the time. There’s also a possibility that it really is meant to be only a general observation, but looking at the other sonnets and the pointed nature of the conclusion, that seems less likely.

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