Study Guide

Sonnet 94 Analysis

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Not much, actually. Sonnet 94 is the 94th sonnet in a sequence of 154 sonnets, penned by the late, great William Shakespeare. We're betting ol' Willy wasn't feeling too creative when he slapped that title on. But no matter—the poem speaks for itself.

    The fact that it's number 94 tells us that the poem falls in the first section of Shakespeare's sonnets, which, most scholars agree, are poetically addressed to an unidentified young man. Most folks call this group of sonnets the Fair Youth sequence.

    Does that give us any analytical ammo? You bet your sonneteering behind it does. Think about it this way: back in the Renaissance, when Shakespeare was churning these suckers out, it was seen as noble and good to exercise power with restraint. A-ha! Now there's a lightbulb moment.

    If you read this poem as cautioning folks to use their powers carefully, to avoid hurting others, and to keep their mad skills under humble wraps, well, doesn't it make perfect sense that this would be addressed to a young guy? We mean, who's cockier then a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed lad ready to take on the world? So maybe Shakespeare's just telling this kid to cool his jets, lest he meet with a nasty infection and become corrupted by his talents.

  • Setting

    We start in extreme close-up, the camera focused directly on a mysterious group of people, "they." We don't know who "they" are, or exactly where "they" are, but as the camera pulls back, we start to get an idea of the scene.

    Where is it? Hard to say—this is the Renaissance, after all, so there isn't any electric lighting yet. But it must be somewhere suitable for such mysterious, powerful people. Yes, that flash of gold is unmistakable: we're inside an opulent royal court, and the powerful people are right in the middle of it, at home. Everyone else is moving, doing their bidding, but they themselves, the powerful people, are motionless at the center.

    But then, just when we feel that our eyes have adjusted to the candlelight, the scene shifts. Now we're somewhere else, somewhere dark, somewhere deep inside… something. And we're looking at a motionless, cold stone. Weird. But then, like a strange dream, we are whisked away again.

    Now we are in the countryside, where a young man is being handed a rolled-up deed to a property. Time is flying by: the young man is growing up; we see him carefully going through his accounts, making sure that none of "nature's riches" are wasted; now we see his face in extreme close-up; now we see the poor people who work for him, laboring away in his gardens. Now this scene, too, disappears, and we are in a completely different location.

    If the poem was filmed in live-action up to this point, now we're in CGI. Before our eyes, as if in time-lapse photography, a flower opens its petals to the sunlight. Night comes, then day, then night. Slowly, we start to realize that the flower isn't doing so well.

    Slowly, a new plant, hidden before at the base of the flower, grows up out of the ground, until it towers over it. Is this a disaster movie, after all? Yep, the weeds are taking over. Now we cut to a montage of the destruction. A young girl licks an ice-cream cone and makes a face: it's sour. The camera pans over piles of rotting lilies, stench pouring off them in waves of steam. Fade to black. Roll credits. Wait for the sequel.

    What's that? Oh, sorry. Shmoop was just getting a bit carried away with the visuals. The truth is, in the strictest sense, this poem doesn't have much of a setting at all. It's more of a meditation than anything. But the imagery, combined with our imagination, can take us to all kinds of figurative places, if only we let it.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of this poem sounds very conflicted in his attitudes towards the people he's talking about. For one thing, it's very hard to tell if he's trying to praise these powerful people or criticize them. But it goes even deeper than that.

    Did you notice that he never actually says anything like, "I'm criticizing these people because of x," or, "I'm praising these people because of y." Throughout most of the poem, the only way you can tell if he's criticizing or praising is by looking at the things he says and deciding for yourself if they're positive or negative qualities. (The only exception is when he uses the word "rightly" to describe how the powerful people "inherit heaven's graces" in Line 5.) But deciding if it's positive or negative is also hard, because most of the things he says can be taken in more than one way—and also because this poem is a sort of Bizarro-Land, where things that would ordinarily be bad are suddenly good (like being a hypocrite, for example).

    Clearly, the poem itself raises more questions about the speaker than it answers. Is there another path we could take to try to figure out what the speaker is getting at? How about imagining where he's coming from, what life experience he is drawing on to make the statements he makes here.

    Obviously, this is totally up to interpretation, so we're just offering the following suggestions as food for thought. But what if we thought about the poem as break-up poem? It is a sonnet after all, and most sonnets are all about the L-word. The bitterness of the last two lines, especially, seems like something that a jilted lover might say about his or her ex—somebody that the person once loved, but who let them down. Or perhaps it's a wise father-figure type, offering sage advice about how to handle your talents and gifts. Could some back-story like this explain the bizarre tangle of emotions we find in Sonnet 94? We don't know, but we welcome you to Shmoop amongst yourselves.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Sure, the actual words ol' Shakey uses here don't seem all that confusing. But you can read this poem in about eleventy billion different ways, so that's why we're bumping up the difficulty here.

    Is he praising powerful people or blaming them? It isn't easy to say. We at Shmoop certainly can't give you all the answers (we don't know them ourselves). We'd even be willing to bet that Shakespeare felt pretty conflicted about these problems, too. What we can do is show you where the main problems lie, to help you come to your own understanding of what the poem is communicating.

  • Calling Card

    Tragic Outlook, Sonnet Form, Complexity

    Like many of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Sonnet 94 is all hot and bothered about problems of death and decay. These ideas first appear in line 6, where we learn how the powerful people are able to counteract the decay of nature, and then really come to the forefront in quatrain 3, where we learn how the lives of the powerful people parallel the life and death of "the summer's flow'r." These themes, and the speaker's generally bummed out attitude toward them, are typically Shakespearean.

    Also very Shakespearean is Sonnet 94's use of the sonnet form, not to state the obvious or anything. Like most of the sonnets, Sonnet 94 divides its ideas up into three main sections, following the divisions of the rhyme scheme. The first four lines—quatrain1—talk about powerful people, and how they show one face to the world, while keeping their inner selves hidden. Quatrain 2 talks about the success of the powerful people compared to others, and quatrain 3 compares this whole situation to flowers in a garden. Then, the couplet (the last two lines) sums up all these ideas.

    Finally, another feature of Sonnet 94 that has Shakespeare written all over it is its sheer complexity. This poem is full of lots of weird switchbacks in emotion, so you can never quite tell if Shakespeare is praising these powerful people, criticizing them, or a bit of both. Putting it all together is bound to be tricky—which is just what we've come to expect from Shakespeare's fertile mind.

  • Form and Meter

    Shakespearean Sonnet

    It's called a sonnet, and it's written by Shakespeare. We know, we know—resist the urge to say duh. Then, allow Shmoop to help you out with a handy breakdown of this popular form.

    This type of sonnet falls into four major sections, rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The first three sections are known as quatrains 1-3, and the last section is known as the couplet. And as you can see from the rhyme scheme we just laid out, the Shakespearean sonnet lends itself most naturally to the poet working out a different idea in each of the three quatrains, and then summing everything up in the couplet. By and large, Sonnet 94 follows this pattern: talking about powerful people in lines 1-4, what the powerful people get in lines 5-8, the summer's flower in lines 9-12, and the fates of people and flowers in lines 13-14.

    So much for the poem's form. What about its meter? The meter of Shakespeare's sonnets (and his plays) is everyone's old favorite: iambic pentameter. Classic. This term is definitely a mouthful, but it's not so hard once we break it down. Let's start with the word "pentameter." The "-meter" part is easy. That just means some way of dividing up or measuring (in the sense of a "measure" in music) the words in the poetic line. As for the "penta-" part, that just comes from the Greek word for "five."
    So a "pentameter" is a line that is divided into five sections or feet.

    As for "iambic," that just means that each of those measures, or "feet," is going to follow a certain rhythm, known as an iamb. An iamb is made up of two syllables: the first syllable is lightly accented and the second syllable is strongly accented, giving the rhythm daDUM.

    To see this rhythm in action, let's take a look at a line from the poem

    That do not do the thing they most do show, (2)

    Hear that daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM? That's iambic pentameter in action folks, and it's a beautiful thing.

    Of course, it would be pretty boring to have every single line of your poem follow the same rhythm. Poets with mad skills tend to mix things up a bit, for example by taking one of the iambs and replacing it with a trochee, or the opposite of an iamb (DAdum). Sometimes seeing where the rhythm has flipped is a matter of interpretation. In Shmoop's humble opinion, the first foot of line 8 is flipped into a trochee, giving us the following rhythm:

    others but stewards of their excellence. (8)

    That trochee emphasizes the otherness of those others. We know right off the bat that we're switching gears a bit, to shift the focus from the powerful people to the lesser ones—the ones to watch out for.

    So there you have it. That said, to really get a sense of the full range of Shakespeare's rhythmical effects, try reading the poem to yourself a few times out loud (you could even try to memorize it). You'll probably find bits of cool language rhythms coming back into your thoughts when you least expect it.

  • Power

    The first 4 lines of Shakespeare's poem describe some pretty frightening people. The most obvious thing that makes these people frightening is their "pow'r to hurt." Not only are they quite capable of hurting others, they also give the impression that this is what they are most likely to do; in Shakespeare's words, their capacity to hurt others is what "they most do show." On the plus side, the speaker tells us that they actually don't hurt others—but this doesn't make them any less scary. If anything, it makes them even more frightening, because we learn that these powerful people have completely hidden inner selves that the world doesn't know about. If that doesn't send a chill down your spine, we don't know what will.

    • Line 2: The second line of Shakespeare's poem features what looks like a paradox: two statements that seem to contradict each other, but that somehow both seem true. This happens when Shakespeare tells us that the powerful people "do not do the thing they most do show." Then, when you think about it a bit, you realize this might not be a paradox at all. Shakespeare is just saying that the powerful people don't do what they seem most likely to do, which is something we've probably all experienced in life, and so isn't really contradictory after all. That said, it does seem that Shakespeare wants us to feel puzzled at first, even if he lets us figure it out later. Why else would he keep repeating the word "do" like that? The sense of confusion is also heightened by the alliteration of D and TH in this line.
    • Lines 3-4: Like line 2, these lines seem to be hitting us up with a paradox. How can the powerful people move others without themselves being moved? Does that even obey the laws of physics? Sure it does. When Shakespeare, using a simile, compares the powerful people to "stone," he is probably thinking of a "lodestone," an old word for magnet—and a magnet certainly can attract or repel things without moving itself. In other words, it turns out that this isn't a paradox at all—but we'd be willing to bet that Shakespeare wanted us to think it was a paradox before we actually puzzled it out, just like he did back in line 2.
  • Landowners

    In lines 5-9 of Shakespeare's poem, he switches imagery tracks, ever so slightly. Here, the focus is still on the powerful people, but the type of power changes. Where lines 1-4 focused on personal magnetism (literally), lines 5-9 concentrate more on legal authority—specifically, legal ownership of property. In line 6, we hear that the powerful people "husband nature's riches from expense." Doesn't it almost sound as if they are in charge of keeping all of nature under control? That's a tall order. In the next line, however, the range of the powerful people's ownership and authority becomes much more limited; now, they are nothing more than the "lords and owners of their faces." Unless their faces are really, really big, that is. The final line of this section keeps up the motif of ownership, but turns its eye on the less fortunate, who are merely the powerful people's servants.

    • Line 5: This section of the poem begins with a cliché—a statement we've all heard so many times that it stops being very powerful. In this case, the cliché is probably also an allusion to the Biblical Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew (5.5), where Jesus tells his followers, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." For one thing, as you've probably noticed, he changes the phrasing somewhat, speaking of "heaven's graces" instead of "the earth." Which one of these two do you think is better to inherit? If you think "heaven's graces" are better, then would you say that Shakespeare's poem is making Jesus' prophesy more extreme? But there's another difference between Jesus' words and Shakespeare's—and, frankly, it's a doozy. The really big deal isn't about what is getting inherited, but who is doing the inheriting. Remember that the "They" at the beginning of this line is referring to the same people who got described in Lines 1-4. Did they sound very "meek" to you? Far from it. Why do you think Shakespeare would want to twist around the Biblical prophecy so that it predicts a good future for cold, calculating people (who are still good in some ways)? Is he just going for shock value? Or is he actually trying to criticize the Bible?
    • Line 8: Do you really believe that "Others" (that is, everyone who isn't one of the cold, calculating, powerful people described in the poem so far) are nothing but the servants or "stewards" of the powerful people's "excellence"? We at Shmoop certainly find it hard to believe—and we find it hard to believe that Shakespeare ever thought so either. This looks to us like a case where the speaker is going over the top in putting the "Others" down, so that he can go equally over the top in building the powerful people up—such as by saying that they are going to "inherit heaven's graces," and so on. Over the top? That, dear friends, is hyperbole.
  • The Summer's Flower

    Quatrain 3 might come right out of left field, but here's the thing: "summer's flow'r" (9) is actually a metaphor for the powerful people, so long as they keep their inner selves untainted. When the story of the flower takes a turn for the worse—showing how the flower becomes infected and gets outclassed by the "basest weed"—it can be interpreted as a cautionary tale. If the powerful people aren't careful, they could end up like that flower. One way of interpreting this would be to say that the powerful people need to keep their true selves hidden, and keep refraining from evil deeds. 

    • Lines 9-12: This section of the poem acts is an allegory for the rest of the poem. In this case, it looks like the "summer's flow'r" stands in for the powerful people, while the "basest weed" (12) stands in for the "Others" (from line 8) who are usually subservient to the powerful people, but sometimes get the upper hand.
    • Line 13: Is it necessarily true that the "sweetest things" become the "sourest" because of their bad "deeds"? Like, what if there was some really, really nasty person (remember: "sweetest things" refers to people), who never did anything nice to anybody in his entire life—would that person really be less "sour" than a good person who did one or two bad things? We find it hard to believe, but maybe we're missing Shakespeare's point. Isn't he just trying to say that we feel worst when we get let down by somebody we admired, had trust in, or loved?
    • Line 14: As for the last line, it makes basically the same argument as line 13, though this time using the metaphor of the stinky lilies.
    • Steaminess Rating


      There isn't any explicit sex in this poem, but sometimes you see an undercurrent of desire that would definitely earn this poem a Parental Guidance rating. This mainly comes up in Lines 3-4, where we learn about how the powerful people are good at "moving others" even while they themselves are "to temptation slow." What kind of "temptation" are they luring others into and not giving into themselves? We'd say sexual temptation is a safe bet, though, in keeping with the general mysteriousness of this poem, Shakespeare doesn't give us any specifics, so there's nothing too steamy afoot.