Study Guide

Sonnet 94 Themes

  • Power

    Sonnet 94 is about a group of powerful people. We don't know exactly who they are, or where their power comes from, but they definitely have some impressive abilities. Not only do these people have the "pow'r to hurt," but they have the ability to control themselves, so that they do not hurt others. Not only can they influence others, but they can also keep their own emotions in check. By the end of the poem, however, our perception of these people changes, and we learn that often the most admirable folks are the ones who are most easily corrupted.

    Questions About Power

    1. Which form of "pow'r" does the speaker find more impressive: the ability to hurting others, or the ability to refrain from hurting others, even though you can?
    2. In line 5, when the speaker says the powerful people "inherit heaven's graces," we could just take this as a statement of how the powerful people end up doing well in life. But when he says they "rightly do inherit heaven's graces," he makes it sound like he approves of this process. Why do you think the speaker would say this? 
    3. Are the powerful people described in this sonnet people who are high up on the social hierarchy? Or are they simply people with an unusual ability to hide their true personalities behind a mask? Which one sounds more frightening? 
    4. Quatrain 3 of this sonnet seems to compare the powerful people to the "summer's flow'r." This flower doesn't come to a good end: one little infection is all it takes for the "basest weed" to surpass it in "dignity." Does this mean that the "basest weed" is actually more powerful than the supposedly powerful people?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is much more impressed by will power than by physical force.

    Even though many of Sonnet 94's metaphors reference the Renaissance social hierarchy, this doesn't necessarily mean that the power it talks about is only social.

  • Hypocrisy

    Here's a question: does Sonnet 94 actually recommend hypocrisy as legit? It sure seems like it. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker mostly speaks about the powerful people's hypocrisy in an admiring way. He is really impressed by their ability to keep themselves hidden, to influence other people without being influenced themselves, and to be the "lords and owners of their faces." By the end of the poem, though, he seems not only to admire hypocrisy, but also to be actively recommending it. What's up with that, Big Willy?

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Does Sonnet 94 portray hypocrisy as always bad? Always good? Somewhere in between? How can you tell?
    2. What is the most hypocritical aspect of the powerful people's personalities? Does this have any modern day parallels in your world?
    3. Are there any descriptions of the powerful people that don't show them as hypocritical?
    4. Is the speaker recommending hypocrisy? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    Sonnet 94 shows that hypocrisy can have some positive aspects, like when people seem like they could hurt you, but actually don't.

    The speaker seems to be recommending hypocrisy, if it can prevent you from letting your negative qualities appear for the world to see.

  • Isolation

    One striking feature of the powerful people from Sonnet 94 is how isolated they are. On the one hand, the powerful people are isolated because they are more powerful than everybody else. Which makes sense—people with highly specialized or developed talents often find themselves isolated, and have difficulty relating to other people. But the powerful people are doubly isolated from others because they keep their true selves hidden behind a mask. What's strange about Shakespeare's sonnet is it seems to think that this isolation is a good thing, because it helps keep the powerful people stay safe and exercise restraint, so they don't stomp all over the rest of us suckers.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Which type of isolation is Sonnet 94 mainly about: social isolation or emotional isolation? Or are those two related?
    2. What does the speaker think is the best reason for the powerful people to stay isolated?
    3. Does the speaker portray isolation as having any downsides? 
    4. Does the poem offer any alternatives to isolation?

    Chew on This

    Even though it uses metaphors that reference social isolation, Sonnet 94 is mainly about emotional isolation.

    The speaker thinks that the best reason for people to stay isolated is so that they can avoid becoming "infected" by other people.

  • Admiration

    One of the strange things about Sonnet 94 is that the speaker almost never out-and-out tells you what he thinks about the powerful people he is describing. That is to say, he almost never writes something like "I'm praising these powerful people because of x," or, "I'm criticizing them because of y." In fact, the only place where he really comes out and says what he thinks is when he sticks the word "rightly" into Line 5, to tell you that he approves of the fact that the powerful people "inherit heaven's graces." That said, we do seem to get a sense of admiration from the way the speaker portrays the powerful people. But why? Is it because they have power in the first place? Or is it because they choose not to hurt people with that power, even though they could?

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Through most of the poem, the speaker doesn't tell us outright what he thinks of the powerful people; we just have to guess what he thinks from the way he says things. Why do you think he chose this approach to the subject matter? 
    2. What does the speaker admire most about the powerful people? 
    3. How does the speaker use the sound of his poetry to communicate his admiration? 
    4. For the speaker, is admiring someone the same thing as thinking that he or she is a good person?

    Chew on This

    The speaker admires people who keep their emotions under wraps; so why would his poem lay it all out on the table?

    The speaker doesn't admire all powerful people—he only likes the ones who exercise that power with restraint.

  • Man and the Natural World

    The subject matter of Sonnet 94 seems about as far from nature as you can get: a group of cold, calculating people who keep their true selves hidden behind a mask and try not to take everybody out when they wield their power. Given this topic, we wouldn't think that flowers would be the go-to metaphor to describe these powerful peeps, but Shakespeare pulls it off here. Sure, the poem's not about nature, but it finds some convenient thematic parallels in the natural world.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Which best describes the nature imagery in Sonnet 94: people are compared to flowers, or flowers are compared to people? 
    2. What (if anything) does the "summer" represent in line 9? 
    3. Is it actually possible for a person to live like the "summer's flow'r" in line 9, without any responsibilities to any other person? 
    4. Does the speaker of the poem think there is really a meaningful parallel between humans and nature, or is the flower imagery just stuck in there for decoration?

    Chew on This

    The "summer" in line 9 might represent either Nature itself or God.

    The "summer" in line 9 doesn't represent anything, and that's just the point: the flower doesn't need the approval of anyone else to exist.