Shakespeare (1599) Sonnet 91 is a classic English sonnet. In this poem, the speaker characterizes his love of the aristocratic object of desire in terms of the aristocratic pursuits and passions that the lovely boy would understand, and then intimates the possibility of the young man rejecting him.
The sonnet begins with a direct appeal to the hierarchical nature of society, underscoring the difference in positions that the speaker and his object of desire occupy. "Some glory in their birth" (l. 1) is at once a direct appeal to the young man of the sonnets, who does "glory" in his birth at a higher status in society than the speaking voice of the sonnets, and it is also, more generally, a description of the hierarchical system of which both are a part. The first quatrain is a list of aristocratic and courtly pursuits and interests. Courtiers were expected to be, of course, wealthy (l. 2) and well-dressed (l. 3), but they were also expected to have some skills in equitation, falconry, and hunting (l. 4). Indeed, the sonnet's speaker even comments on the perennial subject of the English court's interest in new French and Italian fashions in line 3 "though newfangled ill."
The second quatrain acts as a pivot for the sonnet, allowing the third quatrain to return to the ground covered by the first with a different approach. The second quatrain is even divided easily into two grammatical units. The first unit is the sentence that grammatically completes list of dependent clauses of the first quatrain. This unit, lines 5-6, draws on the theory of the four humors, a theory of medicine, psychology, and physics whereby each individual thing or person is attracted to, or repelled by, another thing or person based on its humor (predominant bodily fluid). A phlegmatic person, by this theory, would not be drawn to falconry, because the primary element of the phlegmatic person is water. Thus, according to the theory of the humors, "every humour hath his adjunct pleasure" (l. 5) is quite literally true, as certain types of people will be drawn to certain types of activities and social alliances. The second unit of the second quatrain begins the turn back to the beginning of the poem by stating that the sonnet's speaker finds "one general best" (l. 8)—that is, the young man, who is better than "these particulars" (l. 7).
The third quatrain revisits the same list that the first quatrain did, but prefaces it with "Thy love is better than . . ." (l. 8), inverting the stratified system that the first quatrain points to and placing the young man at the apex of a new hierarchy of desire. Wealth, fashion, and the gentlemanly pursuits stand in a pale shadow to the love that the speaker has for the young man. The final line of the third quatrain even goes so far as to upset the humorial theory that the second quatrain had relied on, by claiming the young man is singularly loved by "all men," regardless of their humor.
The consequences of this reversal of the hierarchy is not recognized until the couplet, when the speaker notes that to put such an emphasis on the affections of one person subjects him to the possibility of devastating rejection. While he has the affections of the young man, the speaker is totally happy with only one exception— that the possibility remains of the young man rejecting him, taking "all this away" (l. 14) and leaving him utterly wretched. It is the doubt of others, the possibility that the one whom the speaker loves would reject him so callously, that is at the heart of the sonnet.
See also Shakespeare, William; Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Shakespeare's sonnets: Sonnet 93 ("So shall i live supposing thou art true") William Shakespeare (1599) As is common in the structure of many sonnets by William Shakespeare, this is a series of four sets of rhyming lines. The first three sets are each four lines long, with the first and third lines of each quatrain rhyming, as do the second and fourth lines. The last two lines of the sonnet form a rhyming couplet. Often, in what is called a Shakespearean sonnet, or English sonnet, the last two lines deliver a final twist in the message.
The speaker of the poem expresses his great affection for his lover, especially for his or her physical beauty. But this is the irony of this very melancholy poem—the speaker knows that the beloved's beauty hides the fact that he or she has actually found someone else who they now love, making this sonnet distinct from the famously romantic ones.
In the second half of line 1, the word choice of supposing shows that, at best, the relationship is going on as if they are pretending. The portrayal, like that by a performer on stage, is as if their love is "true," which does not simply mean it to be factual but also to be faithful to a pledge or vow. The state of the relationship is revealed when the speaker describes himself as being "Like a deceived husband" (l. 2). This use of the conditional establishes that while the speaker is not the lover's husband, their relationship is as profound (and probably as public) as that of a married couple. While a cuckold was often seen as a bawdy, humorous figure, this speaker holds hope for a reconciliation.
The first quatrain is actually one sentence, but its beginning, "so shall I live," potentially makes it an interrogative even though there is no question mark at its end, depending on how "shall" is read. The second quatrain continues the internal, and possible public, conflict of emotions. While the lover's eye shows "no hatred" (l. 5), which is usually a good thing in a relationship, the speaker's torture has not ended because the lover's expression is false. So the common virtue of a lack of hatred is, in Shakespeare's poem, an uncommon sign of the vice of unfaithfulness.
The beginning of the next line presents an interesting technical puzzle. The word many's (l. 7) is written as if a possessive, which means it would be read as a noun, not an adjective, as is its normal use. There seems to be a noun missing from the line's syntax that is being replaced by this unique possessive, such as "many people," "many hearts," or "many relationships." Until now, this anguish may have simply been in the speaker's imagination or a momentary falling-out with the lover, but once the accusation escalates to the beloved's own "false heart's history" (l. 7), it seems the speaker has evidence of a record of unfaithfulness. History also carries the added pain, for the speaker, of something that is known and acknowledged publicly. If so, then the missing word is something like people or friends.
Line 8 lists signs of this false affection. The first is "moods," or emotions, but the next two are physical qualities of the face: "frowns," and therefore sadness, and "wrinkles," which would appear with a frown but also can be an echo of advancing age. This may show the speaker fears the fate of living within a heartless facade of a marriage until death.
The third quatrain brings the first implication of God and Christianity through the use of "heaven" (l. 9). To the speaker, God "did decree" (l. 9), either to be taken as announced or ordered, that the lover's "sweet" (l. 10) face belies its true meaning of falseness. If that is so, then God wanted apparent sincerity to be a sign of sin, though why God would wish for such a masquerade is an unasked question. Thus, it is only the image of love that "dwell(s)," in the beautiful face (l. 10), and those "looks" produce "nothing . . . but sweetness tell" (l. 12), with tell pointing to perception, not fact. The speaker may seem to be complimenting the lover's beauty, but it is by an indirect negation—in other words, by reminding us what is not there.
The couplet at the very end again focuses on religious imagery, with a reference to the very well-known biblical story of Eve, the first woman—and first tempt-ress—who was unfaithful to God. The lover's "beauty" is now finally compared to "Eve's apple" (l. 13), the original forbidden fruit that the lover has metaphorically copied by finding a different romantic companion. Like Eve's original sin, the infidelity does not represent or "answer" (l. 14) the lover's beauty, and the lover's sin will continue to "grow" (l. 13) if there is not true "virtue" (l. 14) to match the appearance of love. Despite all the previous despair, in this last line the speaker seems to be holding onto the faintest hope for their own renewed happiness and the lover's redemption.
See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
Shakespeare's sonnets: Sonnet 94 ("They that have power to hurt and will do none") William Shakespeare (1599) Sonnet 94 plays on the Petrarchan convention common to many other Elizabethan sonnet sequences, that of the beloved as a coldhearted mistress. Starting with the basic Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet form of setting up the problem in the initial octave before resolving it in the final sestet, William Shakespeare spends the first eight lines talking about people and then the next four lines talking about flora before, in a uniquely Shakespearean twist on the topic, comparing people and flora in the final couplet, to the former's disadvantage.
The sonnet begins by explaining that people who have the power to hurt others, yet do not hurt them, are not doing what would be the most natural thing for them to do. Though capable of moving others, whether through their words or actions, they are themselves like stone—unmoved, cold, not easily tempted. These people fittingly inherit heaven's graces and do not squander their gifts; they own their own images while others can only serve them. Similarly, the summer flower makes the summer sweet, though the flower merely lives and dies. However, if the flower is infected, then the basest weed outlives it. In this manner, sweet things (and people) can be turned sour by the things they do, just as dying lilies smell worse than weeds.
Reworking the floral imagery that previously appeared in Sonnet 54, the poem places an ironic twist on the topic of estrangement. Using a biblical allusion to the parable of the talents, the speaker justifies severing his connection with the young man because he is "cold" and has been "unmoved" (l. 4) by the speaker's proffered friendship. Editorial choice results in variations in the punctuation at the end of line 12, rendered as either a period or a colon. This choice shifts the emphasis placed on the final two lines as the poem ends with either a complete sestet or a quatrain and a couplet.
See also Shakespeare's sonnets (overview).
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