Same Time, Different Style: Sonnet 94 by William Shakespeare
Although Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 differs in many ways from the other sonnets written at the same time, it has become a popularly studied and explicated sonnet, drawing attention from academics for several reasons, including the strange shift in tone, the placement of the volta, the detached and impartial withholding of judgement until the last couplet, and the combination of three quatrains and a couplet although many have argued that it is set up in an octave-sestet order. Although it is not a particularly hard sonnet to read, the underlying levels of judgment, reversal of social order, the right to refuse procreation, and sexually transmitted diseases can be uncovered during a close reading. By using Carol Thomas Neely’s essay collection titled “Detachment and Engagement in Shakespeare’s Sonnets” and Helen Vendler’s book The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I will perform a close reading that engages all levels of the text, including tone, imagery, rhyme schemes, general context, and connotations. The stark differences between this sonnet and the other sonnets within its sequence provide insight into the speaker’s evolving view of the subject of the sonnet and the line-by-line progression to a final judgment of the subject suggests a moral or physical “infection” (10) that will eventually reveal the subject’s impurity.
The opening lines of the sonnet categorize it immediately as contrasting in tone to the other sonnets in the sequence to which it belongs, beginning with Sonnet 87 (Neely 84). The language and the subject of the sonnet has become vague: “they that have the pow’r to hurt, and will do none” (1) scrambles the idea that the speaker had been addressing a lover, which is clear in both the former and the following sonnets. The language of the first quatrain seems to be less interested in the subject of the poem as a character, but more in the power that the subject wields over others. “Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,/ Unmove`d, cold, and to temptation slow,” (3-4) suggests that the subject of the sonnet is willful in fighting temptation, although the speaker is not necessarily praising this as one might expect of an Elizabethan voice of reason. On the contrary, the speaker actually seems to be accusatory towards the subject’s ability to rebuke temptation in a way that seems reminiscent of the first 18 sonnets, whose main concern is procreation and the importance of creating a new generation to inherit the world (Vendler 404). The language within the first quatrain is reflective of the speaker’s tone: the repetition of the verb “do” accentuates both the speaker’s desire for action by the subject and the sonnet’s references to sex. The use of the word “stone” to describe the subject in line 3 categorizes the impersonal “they” as cold and reserved, which references the Petrarchan image of the unattainable, beautiful woman unswayed by temptation (Neely 84). On a separate level entirely, it should be recognized that the use of the element “stone” within the sonnet is placing the subject in alignment with the lowest of earthly elements, suggesting that the cold, unmoving nature of stones is not stoic, but selfish.
The second quatrain shifts the tone of the sonnet by using language that makes the subject more appealing: “They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,/ And husband nature’s riches from expense;” (5-6). This rightful inheritance of heaven’s graces and earthly riches reveals suddenly to Elizabethan audiences that the subject of the sonnet, although cold and selfish, still holds the divine right of an aristocrat, and in that sense should still be respected. Although it is not yet directly stated, the tone begins to shift with the idea that the subject’s selfishness is not entirely condemnable. In fact, the tone of the sonnet seems to take care to create an impersonal, controlled tone that is slow to judgment. By focusing the second quatrain of the sonnet on the saintly, almost divine qualities of the subject, the speaker is allowing the audience to balance the first and second quatrain against one another, leaving a somewhat impartial feeling. In Carol Thomas Neely’s collection of essays “Detachment and Engagement in Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” he argues that, unlike the other sonnets in its sequence, sonnet 94’s speaker “seems to be addressing no one and, until the last lines, judging no one,” (84). The second quatrain supports Neely’s argument in that none of the lines appear to suggest a judgmental tone, but an impartial, and at times praising one: “They are the lords and owners of their faces,/ Others but stewards of their excellence,” (7-8). Shakespeare’s use of language in the second quatrain allows the subject to become more appealing while making the nature of their “pow’r” more clear. This is distinctly important in setting up the third quatrain and the final couplet, which reveals the underlying judgment that the speaker rejects in the quatrains.
The third quatrain, which seems to switch directions completely with a description of a flower, is offering a parallel between the subject and the natural process by which a flower blooms and dies in a self-contained cycle: “The summer’s flow’r is to the summer sweet,/ Though to itself it only live and die,” (9-10). The language of the flower’s sweetness paired with its tendency to live and die for itself only suggests that the subject of the sonnet should be allowed a similar liberty, to live and die in his own beauty without the burden of reproduction (Neely 86). A new argument begins to take root in these lines— the speaker is suggesting an alternative ideology to the first 18 sonnets in that a lack of procreation might not be selfish, but the personal right of the subject. His beauty, the speaker is suggesting, is enough to provide him merit, like a summer flower that can be looked upon but is not concerned with its own future generation. This idea is followed by the volta, which appears in a strange place in this sonnet because of its position in the middle of the third quatrain: “But if that flow’r with base infection meet,/ The basest weed outbraves his dignity,” (11-12). These lines provide a shift in attitude that represents the opposing side of the first two lines of the third quatrain. The speaker is suggesting that, like a summer flower, the subject has every right to live and die for himself only (without reproducing) as long as there is no “base infection” at the core of the flower, in which case any weeds will outrank him in moral order. The “infection” can be read as any moral corruption, but it has been suggested that the use of the words “sourest” and “fester” that come in the following couplet connote to a physical infection: venereal disease. This reading is easily followed through the final two lines, a couplet, in which the speaker finally appears to allow judgement of the subject.
The sudden change in tone after the volta (“But if that flower…”) is pushed even further by the final two lines, which seem to allow judgment of the subject. By using the “base infection” of the flower as a euphemism for the subject’s potential venereal disease, the speaker openly judges the subject: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;/ Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” (13-14). In these final lines, the speaker appears to drop the cover of impartiality and directly condemn the subject, but only by the appearance of the infection, or sexually transmitted disease. With the final lines, the speaker is suggesting that the subject, who appears pure and selfish in his unwillingness to reproduce, should be able to live free of judgment, but the presence of an infection will reveal him as impure and thus worthy of harsh judgment. Vendler argues that this becomes clear through the language that Shakespeare uses to compare the subject of the sonnet to their inferiors (405). In lines 3, 5, 7, and 8, the subject of the sonnet is compared to his inferiors as stronger, “unmoved,” willful, and ruling, while the condemnation in the final couplet suggests that, with the “infection” (moral or physical) the subject lowers himself in moral order to fall beneath those previously inferior to him: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” (14). This direct judgment of the subject acts in deep contrast to the first quatrain’s detached explanation of the subject and the second quatrain’s light praise, leaving the audience with a sense of moral authority over the subject.
Carol Thomas Neely, author. “Detachment and Engagement in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: 94, 116, and 129.” PMLA, no. 1, 1977, p. 83. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2307/461416. Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. vol. First Harvard University Press pbk.
Edition, Harvard University Press, 1999. EBSCOhost, proxy1.wagner.edu:2048/login url=direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=960281&site=eds-live.
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