Study Guide

Sonnet 94

Sonnet 94 Summary

The speaker begins by talking about some mysterious group of people he identifies as "they." At no point in the poem do we find out, specifically, who "they" are. What we do get, though, is a description of what "they" are like. Even this is mysterious, however, because most of the information is contradictory.

We first learn that "they" have the ability to hurt other people, but that they don't do it—but that they really, really look like they are going to do it. Hm. Weird. Next we learn that they have the capacity to "move" other people. We also learn that, even if "they" can move other people, on the inside, "they" remain emotionless and cold.

After all this, we get a big surprise in line 5, when we learn that "they" will "inherit heaven's graces"—and that, according to the speaker, this is just as things should be. Not only that, but he thinks that everybody who isn't one of these cold, mysterious, powerful people is basically a servant. Yikes.

While we're still reeling from this weirdness, Shakespeare completely switches gears in Line 9 and starts talking about the most special flower of summer, and how beautiful it is—even if it does nothing but simply blossom and die. But if this flower happens to become infected, he tells us, it will turn out worse than a weed.

The closing couplet of the poem seems to connect the flower section to the section about the mysterious powerful people. Apparently, by keeping their inner selves hidden, they keep themselves from becoming corrupted, and so are able to remain as beautiful as flowers. The way Shakespeare puts it is much more of a downer, though, and the closing line shows the consequences of corruption, inviting us to smell festering "Lilies" whose stench, he assures us, "is far worse than weeds."

  • Quatrain 1

    Line 1

    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.

    Line 2

    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.

    Line 3

    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.

    Line 4

    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?
  • Quatrain 2

    Line 5

    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.

    Line 6

    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.

    Line 7

    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.

    Line 8

    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.
  • Quatrain 3

    Line 9

    The summer's flow'r is to the summer sweet,

    • Whoa, where did this come from? Are we in the same poem? What the heck is Shakespeare talking about here?
    • If reading line 9 makes you ask questions like these, don't worry: you're not alone. Probably everybody who has ever read this poem has been just as surprised as you are at this point. With a poet as skillful as Shakespeare, you can bet that this is no accident.
    • Because we trust Big Willy enough to think he knows what he's doing, we'll let him clear everything up in his own sweet time. That said, even if we don't yet know how this line fits into the rest of the poem, we can still try to understand it on its own terms, at let our understanding develop as the poem rolls along. 
    • Okay, so we've shifted from talking about powerful people and non-powerful people to talk about… flowers. But wait, is Shakespeare talking talking about flowers? No, he's talking about one flower, "the summer's flow'r."
    • Not only is this the summer's own, personal flower, but the summer also finds it "sweet." That's because, when Shakespeare says the flower is "to the summer sweet," he is using the word "to" the way we do when we say, "to me, you're wonderful." In this context, the word "to" could be rephrased as "in my opinion," or, "as far as I can see." Thus, "to the summer sweet" really means, "sweet, in the summer's opinion." 
    • So, we've got a very special flower, the summer's personal favorite. How does this connect to the rest of the poem? Let's keep reading and see if we can figure it out.

    Line 10

    Though to itself it only live and die;

    • Here we run up against another one of the tricky parts of this very tricky poem. This time around, most scholars are agreed that the word "to" is being used in at least two different meanings.
    • The first meaning of the word "to" here is the same as the "to" in line 9, which is the same meaning we use in everyday speech when we say something like, "to me, that movie was incredible." In this context, "to" could be rephrased as something like, "As far as I can see."
    • Following this meaning of "to," you could rephrase lines 9-10 as "The summer's flower is sweet, in the summer's opinion, / Even though, as far as the flower can see, it only lives and dies." When you interpret the lines this way, the gist probably seems to be something like, "The summer knows something that the flower doesn't know: it knows that the flower is sweet, even though the flower can't see beyond the limited perspective of its own brief life." Right? 
    • But the word "to" here in line 9 could mean something else. It could also have the meaning it does in ordinary speech when we say, "I've got this cake all to myself," or, "Leave it to me." In these contexts, the word "to" could be rephrased as something like, "for my benefit," "in my possession," or "under my control." 
    • Following this meaning of the word "to," lines 9-10 could be rephrased as, "The summer's flower is sweet, in the summer's opinion, / Even though it only lives and dies for its own benefit." This time around, the gist seems to be that the summer is generous in finding the flower sweet, even though the flower is totally self-centered. 
    • Now, we think it is ten kinds of unclear which of these two meanings of "to" is the go-to reading in this context. 
    • That said, don't you think the second meaning of "to," the one where it means "for the benefit of" might help us connect this flower passage to the rest of the poem? Doesn't the self-centered flower kind of link up with the images of the self-centered powerful people we've already learned about in Lines 1-8? Is the "flow'r" the same as the "they"? And hey, flower rhymes with power, so maybe we're not totally off base here. Rhymes often indicate connections, after all.
    • Let's try to connect this part of the poem to the earlier lines. If this poem is all about great and powerful people who are capable of hurting others, well then maybe these flowers are a metaphor for those people. That's going to make the next couple lines very interesting.

    Line 11

    But if that flow'r with base infection meet,

    • Uh-oh. It looks like even the summer can't protect the flower all the time. Sometimes, that "flower" is bound to encounter "base infection." We're guessing that's a fungus, or some other gross disease.
    • If we're going with this whole the-flowers-are-the-powerful-people interpretation, then what might that infection be? Well, remember that early on in the poem, the speaker mentioned that he's talking here about powerful people who are capable of harming others, but don't. People who keep their powers under wraps. 
    • So maybe that infection is those powerful folks giving in to the temptation to hurt others, simply because they know they can.
    • But wait, isn't Shakespeare kind of leaving us hanging here? Line 11 says, "But if" the flower gets infected. Well, what then? It looks like this is a cliffhanger ending. We'd better read on. 
    • Before we do, though, we just want to mention one last thing: remember the sexual connotations in line 4? Well, you might say they're popping up again here. As if the speaker's saying that those who give in to sexual temptation are sure to meet with infection. And hey, fair point, Shakey. That's Sex Ed 101, right there.

    Line 12

    The basest weed outbraves his dignity.

    • If you're an Olympics buff like Shmoop, you've probably heard a lot of repetition of the words "out-compete," "out-perform," and the like. Well, "outbrave"—the verb in line 12—follows exactly the same formula. 
    • The idea is that the "basest weed" comes off as more brave than the "dignity" of the flower. In this context, the word "brave" doesn't refer to courage, but means something like "being decked out in nice duds." 
    • Remember how we suggested, in talking about line 10, that the flower could be a metaphor for the powerful humans referred to in Lines 1-8 of the poem? If so, then wouldn't it make sense for the "basest weed" to have a human meaning as well? What type of person could be referenced here? 
    • The word "basest" certainly suggests that the image is referring to someone of a lower social class, or to someone less powerful than those, you know, powerful people we've been talking about all along. 
    • If so, could this match up with the "Others" mentioned in line 8, who could be described as the "servants" of the powerful people—depending on what you interpret the word "their" as referring to (see our discussion of line 8, above).
    • In any case, the word "weed" had a double meaning in Shakespeare's day (no, not the one you're thinking of): it could also refer to clothing. Could this be designed to reinforce the human dimension of this image
    • So we've learned that when the most special flower of summer gets infected, the most low-class weed surpasses it in fanciness and general awesomeness. 
    • If that's true, then that means that when powerful people really do hurt others, and don't restrain their powers, they're outclassed by folks who used to be below them. 
    • Still, these lines are highly metaphorical, so they're open to a lot of possible interpretations. Let's turn to the couplet, and with any luck, it will set us straight.
  • Couplet

    Line 13

    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

    • So what's the speaker talking about here? Is he still talking about the flower from lines 9-12, or has he reverted back to talking about humans?
    • Given that flowers aren't usually known for their great "deeds," we're going to go with humans on this one.
    • Note the word "For" at the beginning of this line; this is a clue that Shakespeare thinks of it as offering an explanation for what has come before. It's like he's saying, "because" or "as" instead.
    • Basically, he's saying that the "sweetest things"—that is, the best people—"turn sourest by their deeds"—that is, their deeds turn them into the worst people.
    • From the context, we can assume that this is because their "deeds" are bad. And you are what you do—or so they say.
    • When you have very high expectations of someone to begin with—and we'd say that calling a group of people the "sweetest things" sounds like pretty much the highest expectations—the chances are high that they'll disappoint eventually. And, when they do, they can seem like they turned into the worst people overnight. 
    • If any of this sounds at all familiar (and Shmoop bets it does), you should have a clear idea about what Shakespeare is talking about here. Now we can see why he was so impressed by the people who have "pow'r to hurt and will do none." By not doing bad "deeds," the powerful people can remain in the speaker's good books. They don't turn sour.
    • But if they do succumb to temptation and hurt other folks, well, then they're just the worst. The living worst.

    Line 14

    Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds. 

    • It looks like lines 13 and 14 are a one-two punch. Line 14 really goes for the gut, doesn't it?
    • Shakespeare's spot on here, too. Lilies that have rotted really do smell terrible, and they smell way worse than any weeds we've ever smelled.
    • In any case, it isn't hard to see how this line matches up to the ideas in line 13, just as the flower imagery in Lines 9-12 matches up with the human imagery in lines 1-8. As you've probably figured out, the "Lilies" are like the "sweetest things," which, as we know, are really powerful people. Just as the "sweetest things" become the "sourest" when they behave badly, so do "Lilies" turn out to smell worse than "weeds" once they rot. 
    • So what's this mean for the poem as a whole? Well it goes back to those powerful people way back in line one. If those people who have the power to hurt hold themselves back and manage not to hurt others—in other words, if they show restraint—well then they'll stay lilies. 
    • But if they do hurt people, they're even worse than weeds—they're rotten, stinky, and generally awful. So a great and mighty person who does something bad is way, way worse than a person who wasn't all that great to begin with. Ah, Shakespeare. Lesson learned, buddy.