Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
- Now here's the kicker. Bet you didn't see this coming. After all that talk about how "they" are powerful, and could hurt you, but don't, but really look like they could hurt you, and how they can emotionally manipulate you, even while remaining emotionless themselves, now we learn that they "inherit heaven's graces"?
- Wait, scratch that: now we learn that they "rightly do inherit heaven's graces"? Why would the speaker think this? What the heck is going on here? We mean, these people seem a bit shady to Shmoop. Being two faced is not a straight ticket to heaven if you ask us.
- But don't forget, it's not just the power to hurt that helps these people get to heaven—it's the fact that they have this power, but don't use it that's really what gets them into God's good graces.
- Here, our speaker seems to be arguing that exercising restraint and holding yourself back when you have a ton of power is a very good thing.
And husband nature's riches from expense;
- The first thing you've got to know about this line is that "husband" isn't being used in the way we ordinarily do in everyday speech.
- First of all, it's working as a verb here, not a noun. And secondly, the verb doesn't refer to marriage. Instead, it's being to mean something like, "exercise smart, prudent management." (We do use this meaning of the word in everyday speech when talking about "animal husbandry," the practice of raising animals as livestock and managing their breeding.)
- The next thing you've got to know is the meaning of the word "expense." In this context, the word just means "waste"—it doesn't necessarily have to do with anything being costly or highly priced (though it's easy to see the link between the modern meaning of "expensive" and the idea of "waste.")
- So, basically, the speaker is saying that these powerful people prudently manage "nature's riches" and prevent them from being wasted. But what are the "nature's riches" that the speaker talking about? And how do the powerful people help conserve these?
- We're betting those riches are the talents and skills of these powerful people. By properly managing them (and themselves, to boot), these people are doing the right thing. We mean, you could be ten kinds of talented. But that's all a waste if you don't know where and when to apply those talents in moderation—that's the key.
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
- Think back to Lines 1-4 of the poem; there, we got a lot of contrasts between how the powerful people are on the outside, and how they are on the inside.
See, they seem powerful and frightening on the outside, but, on the inside, decide not to hurt you. Or, on the outside, they have the ability to be "moving others," but, on the inside, they remain "Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow."
- Could this type of contrast between inside and outside be what Shakespeare is getting at in line 7? If the powerful people have all kinds of secret thoughts that go against their outward appearance, doesn't that mean they have to be careful not to let what's inside show through?
- In order to do this, they would have to have control over their faces, to keep a lid on their emotions. One way of talking about controlling something is to say that you are the "lord" of it, or its "owner." Yep, Shakey's getting' metaphorical.
Others but stewards of their excellence.
- This line contrasts with what we learned in line 7. To bring the contrast out, you have to imagine that the word "are" is in here, even though Shakespeare didn't actually write it.
- So the gist of lines 7-8 is, "They [the powerful people] are the lords and owners of their faces, / Others [are] but stewards of their excellence."
- So far so good. But what does "stewards of their excellence" mean?
- Let's start with the word "stewards." Basically, a "steward" is a type of servant; more specifically, it means someone who takes care of something. In this way, it echoes the idea of "husband[ing]" back in line 6.
- So if the other people, the non-powerful people, are "stewards of their excellence," that means they take care of it.
- But here's the question (and it's one that has puzzled readers and scholars for generations): who does "their" refer to? Are the non-powerful people (a) "stewards" of their own "excellence," or, (b) are they "stewards" of their, i.e. the powerful people's, "excellence"?
- Whether we choose option (a) or option (b) makes a big difference for interpretation. If we go with option (a), then the idea is that the non-powerful people's problem is that they are too busy taking care of their own business, with their own excellence; if they only weren't so self-centered, they too might be able to "husband nature's riches from expense" (6) and become the "lords and owners of their faces" (7).
- On the other hand, if we go with option (b), it's the powerful people who look self-centered; they spend their whole time focused on keeping their own "faces" under control, while everybody else is busy serving them.
- We at Shmoop think the case is far from closed, but we're leaning towards option (b). If you think about the poem so far, the powerful people do sound pretty self-centered, don't they? And, if they are so powerful, wouldn't it make sense for other people to be serving them in some way or another?
- This is just our opinion of course, and we encourage you to come up with your own. Whichever way you interpret this line, though, you should try to connect it up with your understanding of what the poem as a whole is saying.
- Cool? Cool. Now take a deep breath, because quatrain 3 is about to take this poem in a new and surprising direction.