Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none,
- The poem starts off by talking about a certain group of people, "they." What we learn about this group of people in the first line is pretty interesting: on the one hand, they have the ability to wound other people ("have pow'r to hurt") but, on the other hand, they don't wound anybody ("and will do none.")
- Note that Shakespeare doesn't make clear what type of wounding or "hurt" he is talking about here. Is it physical "hurt" or emotional "hurt"? We've got no clue.
- By the same token, we don't know what kind of "pow'r" (that is, "power") the speaker is talking about. If the "hurt" is physical, then we could imagine the "pow'r" as physical strength. On the other hand, if the "hurt" is emotional, then we could imagine the "pow'r" as the ability to manipulate others emotionally.
- But couldn't the "pow'r" also be political power? And couldn't someone in a position of political authority cause both physical and emotional "hurt"?
- These are just a few of the many mysteries brought up by the first line of Shakespeare's poem. We can't promise that reading the rest of the poem will solve all of them, but it may make some a bit clearer. In any case, let's read on.
- Spoiler alert: despite the lack of swoony lovey dovey stuff here, we're reading a sonnet, which means this line, and all the others that follow will be in iambic pentameter, and there's gonna be a rhyme scheme. See if you can spot it as you read, and then head on over to "Form and Meter" for the scoop.
That do not do the thing they most do show,
- This line looks tricky on a first reading, but it becomes a lot clearer once you understand that "the thing they most do show" simply means "the thing they seem most likely to do," or "the thing that their powers make them most likely to do."
- What do you think "they" seem most likely to do? Given what we learned in line 1 (that "They […] have pow'r to hurt"), don't you think "they" probably seem likely to hurt you? And, since we learned in Line 1 that they don't actually hurt anybody, doesn't that fit up nicely with what we learn here, that they "do not do" what they seem most likely to do?
- We know that the phrasing of this line is a bit of a mind-bender—a little bit like that old "Don't do what Johnny Don't does" bit from The Simpsons.
- If you think about it though, this confusion makes total sense. The speaker of this poem is totally having his mind blown by these people ("they") who act so differently from the way they look. So it makes sense that his language would be a little contorted at this point.
- But the real emphasis here seems to be on the fact that while these people have the power to hurt others, they don't. They show restraint. They keep it cool.
Who moving others are themselves as stone,
- Here we learn a bit more about what "they" do. Like with Line 2, this phrasing might look a little tricky at first, but the meaning becomes a lot clearer once we untangle one tangled bit. Here, the main part that might be throwing you off is the phrase "as stone." This just means, "like a stone," in other words, "motionless." Simile alert.
- So you've got a contrast between how "they" are "moving others" while remaining motionless themselves. This keeps up the contrast we've already been seeing in Lines 1 and 2 between how "they" are on the outside and how they are on the inside.
- Of course, one thing you might be wondering is, what does "moving others" mean in the first place? To tell you the truth (and Shmoop cannot tell a lie), we don't think it's all that clear either.
- We get a little bit of help from the critics who compare those who have "pow'r" to a magnet, which can move other things (by attraction or repulsion) without moving itself.
- But even if thinking of the powerful people as magnets helps clear up the image in our minds, it still doesn't explain why the powerful people are like magnets, does it?
- Here's our guess: we'd be willing to bet that Shakespeare is talking about some sort of emotional power—some ability to "move" people so that they do what you want them to, even while you yourself remain calm, cool, and collected.
- Beyond that, though, we don't think we can give too many specifics. Do "they" have the power to "move" others to love them? Or are they more like political leaders, who can "move" others to fight and die for them? Hard to say.
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow—
- Question: does this line just repeat the information we already learned in Line 3, or does it add anything new?
- We'd say both. The first two words of this line, "Unmovèd" and "cold" do mainly repeat the idea of the "stone" from the end of Line 3. But "and to temptation slow" seems to add something different—something that might help explain what the speaker meant when he said that the powerful people "move" others but remain motionless themselves.
- The phrase "to temptation slow" is just a reordering (for the sake of the rhyme?) of the phrase "slow to temptation," which we still use in modern English. The idea is that these powerful people don't give in to temptation easily. Could this be what the speaker meant by calling them "as stone" in the line before this one? (Stones are not known for giving in easily to temptation.)
- If being as stone means not giving in to temptation, then does "moving others" mean tempting others? If so, isn't it starting to look like what we're dealing with here is emotional power, probably with a strong sexual component? In other words, couldn't the speaker be saying that "they" wield power over others by getting them sexually interested, and then, to put it indelicately, not giving up the goods?