Study Guide

Sonnet 94 Landowners

By William Shakespeare


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.