Ol' Shakey starts off Sonnet 94 identifying a very particular group of people: "They that have power to hurt." But wait a hot minute. Isn't that, well, everybody?
'Tis indeed, dear Shmoopers. While it seems like Shakespeare's 94th sonnet is all about powerful, talented folks, it's got a universal message that just about everyone can learn from, because we're all capable of hurting others in one way or another. His message is to control yourself, to exercise restraint, to resist the urge to do bad things, even when they seem oh so easy.
Okay, wait another hot minute. Isn't this a sonnet? And aren't sonnets supposed to be about L-O-V-E love? In a word, yes. That makes number 94 stand out in a crowd. In a sequence of some of the most famous love sonnets ever written ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" anyone?), this one seems more like sage advice from your favorite uncle than a swoony series of romantic declarations.
No matter. What Sonnet 94 lacks in the swoon department, it more than makes up for in tasty nuggets of wisdom and interpretive possibilities. This is one of the most talked about, pondered over, and debated sonnets in Shakespeare's oeuvre, and we've Shmooped it, just to your liking. So dig in.
Why Should I Care?
Believe it or not, but there have been more scholarly articles written on Sonnet 94 than any other sonnet. This is especially weird, because, for the general public, Sonnet 94 is far from the most famous of Shakespeare's poems. Ask anybody to recite their favorite sonnet, and you'll probably hear a lot of "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day…" (Sonnet 18), "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments" (Sonnet 116), and the like.
You'll probably have to ask loads of people before you get somebody who starts rattling off, "They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none," the beginning of Sonnet 94. In a way, this really isn't surprising; after all, the Sonnets are a famous collection of love poems, so it makes sense that people open the book looking for stuff that makes them swoony.
But Sonnet 94 isn't really that type of poem. Instead of being about love, it's more about admiration—but not admiration for the type of people you'd expect. The speaker seems to be speaking in praise of a bunch of cool, calculating, merciless people who keep their true selves under wraps. You know—cold, hard phonies. And his admiration goes hand in hand with some mysterious warnings about the bad fate that may be in store for these people. What can Shmoop say? It's complicated.
Think The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's masterful film trilogy about the Italian-American Mafia. The characters of The Godfather movies are all pretty nasty pieces of work. The adjectives "cold," "calculating," and "merciless" fit them to a tee. But you can't simply say that the movie says they're bad and that's it. We think that most people who watch these movies feel that the Mafia life comes off as romantic and attractive, in a dark and dangerous kind of way way. As much as we disapprove of their actions, we bet that more than a few of us admire Don Vito, Michael, and the rest of the Corleone clan in one way or another. And still, there's one key difference between the powerful folks in Sonnet 94 and all the Mafiosi in Coppola's world: our sonnet people can hurt people, but they don't.
This is exactly the set of emotions that the speaker is getting at in Sonnet 94—and their complicated nature also explains why scholars have spilled so much ink, and taken up so much computer memory, in trying to figure it all out. They get themselves all in a twist trying to suss out whether the speaker likes these guys or thinks they're scum. This is where you get to use your knowledge of The Godfather to outwit the scholars at their own game; clearly, it doesn't have to be one way or the other, but a mixture of the two.
And if you have any experience of reading Shakespeare, you'll know that he loves mixtures; any sort of complexity—whether it's wordplay, conflicted emotions, or a tangled plot full of deceptions and disguises—is just what gets his creative energy crackling. Even though it isn't the most widely known of the Sonnets, we at Shmoop think it is definitely one of the best, and well worth your time in reading. Of course, like The Godfather, Sonnet 94 is likely to whet your appetite for a sequel.
You won't find these in Shakespeare's Sonnets, however. To catch his ongoing thoughts on the nature of power and deception, you'll want to turn to his masterful plays about history and intrigue, like Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Julius Caesar, and just about every other play he wrote. We'd like to think that's an offer you can't refuse.