6. Reflections on Sonnet 94 and Othello


Sociocultural elements are rarely taken into consideration to help explain Shakespeare's sonnets or plays. Yet they may contribute to the understanding of some sonnets. In the paper "Ten lines that shake the world" we have pointed to the concept of "honesty" that shows through in the opening line of sonnet 29. "In disgrace with men's view" may mean that someone was judged by his peers not to behave properly and "proper behaviour" was termed "honesty".  No one will doubt that "honesty" is a central notion in Othello where the noun and its derivatives occur approx.  forty-seven times, far more than in any other play. But it seems that the concept of honesty could also bring some additional light into sonnet 94, which some commentators have esteemed to be one of the darkest in the cycle.


They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow ­-
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces,
And husband nature's riches from expense,
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence:
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flow'r with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

            "Take heed not to act as I did and always to honour those who will recommend you to have your acts guided by reason and to subject your passions to honesty," a French viscount counsels his son about 1585.[1] "Passions subject to honesty," which Sir Thomas Elyot termed "temperance," and with regard to speech explicates as follows: "deliberate and grave pronunciation," and other features making up for a countenance, behaviour, language subsumed under the general term "honesty" are the qualities which according to Elyot a "governor" ought to display.

            Helen Vendler (1997) comments on this sonnet: "The mask of impersonality is always assumed for a reason - at least in a sequence so determined to use personal pronouns throughout. Because the young man's ill deeds are yet concealed (they will erupt as vices in 95) , he seems on the surface irreproachable. Therefore, the first generalized description of people resembling him can offer only the reproach of the asymmetrical absence of mutuality: moving others, they are themselves unmoved; they are lords, others but stewards. The description can also point out a discrepancy between appearance and action: they do not do the thing they most do show. Linked to 93 by face and show and sweet, heaven, husband, and live, 94 puts these words into question afresh."[2]

            While I subscribe to the last sentence, the preceding explanation is one of the very rare instances I dare disagree with Vendler. The octave does not seem spoken to the youth. The first line "They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none," can be epitomized as "self-restraint" in action, "self-control," the third line as "control of the affections", equally the seventh line "They are the lords and owners of their faces." The second line can be epitomized as "dissimulation."

            On the figure of allegory a contemporary courtier expounds: " As by the last remembered figure the sense of single words is altered, so by these that follow is that of whole and entire speech: and first by the courtly figure Allegoria, which is when we speak one thing and think another, and that our words and our meanings meet not. The use of this figure is so large and his virtue of so great efficacy as it is supposed no man can pleasantly utter and persuade without it, but in effect is sure never or very seldom to thrive and prosper in the world that cannot skilfully put in use, insomuch as not only every common courtier but also the gravest counsellor, yea and the most noble and wisest Prince of them all are many times enforced to use it, by example, say they, of the great Emperor who had it usually in his mouth to say, Qui nescit dissimulare nescit regnare."[3]

He that cannot dissimulate cannot reign. Those that possess qualities as summed up in the octave of the sonnet rightly rule the country. "Heaven's graces" might be understood as an allusion, a rather ironical one, to the divine right of the absolute monarch from which the other political leaders deduced their own claim to power. I am not sure about the meaning of "And husband nature's riches from expense." The explanation given by Alexander Schmidt's Shakespeare Lexicon and Quotation Dictionary indicates that "they manage nature's riches so as to prevent them from being ill-spent." But as spending, the courtly aristocracy's "symbolic capital" as Norbert Elias puts it, was the way the leading aristocratic class kept the economy going, this explanation too may hold and would be more in line with the description of how a political leader had to behave.

Political leadership satisfies narcissism, the narcissism of the doer. The narcissism of doing naturally invites to think of another category of narcissism: the narcissism of being which has its center in itself. The narcissism of being is traditionally thought more proper to woman than to man, more to the child than to the woman and is most absolutely symbolized in the flower "that only lives and dies to itself". From Venus' tears and Adonis' blood sprang the flower called Adonis aestivalis (summer pheasant's eye). It is this narcissism the poet admires and loves in the youth ("A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted" in sonnet 20, "Adonis is poorly imitated after you" in sonnet 53). From this viewpoint there can be nothing surprising in the poet's change from the political world to the natural world. Yet, that this narcissism is not necessarily safer from corruptibility than doing is the warning expressed in the closing couplet.