Sonnet 94

Shakespeare Sonnet 94

THey that haue powre to hurt, and will doe none,
That doe not do the thing, they moſt do ſhowe,
Who mouing others, are themſelues as ſtone,
Vnmooued, could, and to temptation ſlow:
They rightly do inherrit heauens graces,
And husband natures ritches from expence,
They are the Lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but ſtewards of their excellence:
The ſommers flowre is to the ſommer ſweet,
Though to it ſelfe, it onely liue and die,
But if that flowre with baſe infection meete,
The baſeſt weed out-braues his dignity:
For ſweeteſt things turne ſowreſt by their deedes,
Lillies that feſter, ſmell far worſe then weeds.

Sonnet 94 is one of the more challenging of the sequence and has been much discussed: this has partly to do with whether readers respond to it as a straightforward piece or as one laden with irony. It lacks the personal pronouns, “I,” and “thou,” being presented as an impersonal and detached statement, introduced and concluded by aphorisms that verge on proverbs. Yet the reader feels compelled to view it as a poem directed at the youth, something the surrounding sonnets also urge. Throughout, Shakespeare seems to have had in mind the adjacent accounts of the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 5 and 6, beginning with, “Blessed are the poore in spirit, for theirs is the kingdome of heauen,” and “Blessed are the meeke: for they shall inherite the earth” (5.3 & 5; GV). Matthew 6 contains the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “And leade vs not into tentation” (13), and the instruction about earthly riches, “Lay not vp treasures for your selues vpon the earth (glossed as “vaine riches”), where the mothe & canker corrupt . . But lay vp treasures for your selues in heauen, where neither the mothe nor canker corrupteth . . Ye cannot serue God and riches” (19-25, passim; “canker” will be picked up in Sonnet 95). Having condemned outward show, the passage asks, “why care ye for raiment? Learne howe the lilies of the fielde doe growe: they are not wearied, neither spinne: Yet I say vnto you, that euen Solomon in all his glorie was not arayed like one of these” (28-29). The comparison between the lilies and Solomon was customarily framed as ‘brauer’ or ‘outbraving:’ Henry Smith argues that “Salomon was not so glorious in all his royaltie, nor the Lillies which are brauer than Salomon, as he which is clothed with Christ,” while Gerard in his Herbal claims Solomon was never too proud to bend toward “lowly plants:” “King Salomon . . (though the Lillies of the field outbraued him) he  . . thought no scorne to stoupe vnto the lowly plants.” 1

The sonnet’s opening adage, “They that haue powre to hurt, and will doe none,” is Shakespeare’s rendering of a well-known sententia of Publilius Syrus, a 1st century B.C. collector of Latin adages, “Nocere posse et nolle laus amplissima est” (‘to have the power to hurt and to will not to exercise it, is the greatest praise;’ the phrase was developed by the rhetorican, Ausonius, in his Septem Sapientium Sententiae, “Quod prudentis opus? cum possis, nolle nocere. / Quid stulti proprium? non posse et velle nocere” [What is the task of the prudent man? When you are able, not to wish to hurt. What is the mark of the stupid? Not to be able, and to wish to hurt]). The aphorism was available to Shakespeare, having already been translated by Sidney: “the more power he [Plangus] hath to hurte, the more admirable is his praise, that he will not hurt.” 2 The sonnet’s “will doe none” is possibly a future tense but more likely means, ‘choose not to do,’ being Shakespeare’s rendering of “nolle.” Such people are praiseworthy as are those who refrain from doing the very thing – exercising the power beauty has – that their outward appearance most demonstrates: they seem to be one thing, but won’t act upon it.

The next descriptors are less straightforward: such people, while attracting others (“moouing others,” hinting at personal magnetism as a lodestone attracts), remain themselves, “as stone, / Vnmooued, could, and to temptation slow;” “as stone” suggests ‘impassive’ and ‘stony-faced;’ “Vnmooued,” ‘obdurate’ and ‘without requital’ (to be ‘as still as stone’ was common); 3 “could” evokes a tomb’s cold stone (one could have a ‘stone-cold heart’ just as one could be ‘stone-dead’); “to temptation slow,” suggests those unprepared to take risks or to be enlivened, if only by sin. Though they seem virtuous, theirs is an empty virtue: in not acting or acting only by omission they are lifeless. To them correctly and as of right (“rightly”) belongs the inheritance of “heauens graces,” those promised in the Beatitudes; they manage or “lay vp” (see Matt. 6.19 above) the “ritches,” that nature provides, from wasteful spending or from being spent at all (“from expense”). (To “husband,” meaning ‘to till,’ anticipates the concluding botanical conceit.) They are self-contained and show themselves masters of how they present to others (“They are the Lords and owners of their faces”). All others are merely in the service (“stewards”) of what they present as excellent (“of their excellence”).

While “summers flowre,” either the perfection of summer or a flower particular to summer, is thought by summer to be beautiful or perfumed (“sweet”), to itself, being occupied within itself, it is unknowing of anything other than its living and dying. If, however, it were to meet with “base infection” such as a “canker” that might corrupt it (see above Matt. 6.17 and Sonnet 95.2), then the “basest weed out-braues his dignity.” The “basest weed” is either the most infected or the most “lowly plant” (see above); “out-braues” intends outstrips as the “the Lillies of the field outbraued” Solomon (see above); the more highly ranked flower’s “dignity” suggests the “glorie” in which Solomon is arrayed; finally “weed” also recalls the biblical “raiment” and “out-braues” then gains a context of finery (compare Jth. 10.4, where Judith “decked her selfe brauely”).

The final couplet returns to the proverbial: “sweetest things turne sowrest by their deedes.” Two Latin adages were available to Shakespeare, “Corruptio optimi pessima”  (Corruption of the best is the worst), which Samuel Purchas in his Pilgrimage calls an “old saying,” and “Optima corrupta, pessima” which Felltham cites, when condemning effeminate lovers: “when they proue bad, they are a sort of the vilest creatures: Yet, still the same reason giues it: for, Optima corrupta, pessima: The best things corrupted, become the worst.” 4 Shakespeare’s line, with its inclusion of “by their deedes” is closer to the second version. The final line’s “Lillies that fester, smell far worse then weeds” is true from experience: rotting lilies do stink. It also draws on the proverbial: Tilley quotes Lodge’s Rosalynde, “Lillies are faire in shew, but foule in smell.” The line is also found exactly in an anonymous play, The Raigne of King Edward the third, written in the early 1590s, entered in the Stationers’ Register on 1 December 1595 and published by Cuthbert Burby in 1596, parts of which have been attributed to Shakespeare: “Lillies that fester, smel far worse then weeds, / And euery glory that inclynes to sin, / The shame is treble, by the opposite.” 5 (The whole speech is a working of “Optima corrupta, pessima.”) Here the maxim cannot be separated from the youth and is a warning that, despite a beautiful and dignified exterior, the worst corruption is the sin of choosing not to act.


94.1. Smith, Sermons 331; Gerard, Herball (1597) To the courteous and well willing Reader.

94.2. Publilius Syrus, Sententiae Nocere; Ausonius, Septem Sapientium Sententiae, Bias Prieneus 6-7; Sidney, Arcadia (1590) 169r; see Tilley H170, who gives ample evidence of its contemporary currency.

94.3. Compare Exod. 19.16, “stil as a stone” (GV).

94.4. Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in Al Ages (London: William Stanley, 1617) To the Reader ¶5v; Felltham 96; the whole passage runs, “It was neuer found, but in two men only, that their loue exceeded that of the feminine Sexe: and if you obserue them, you shall finde, they were both of melting dispositions. I know, when they proue bad, they are a sort of the vilest creatures: Yet, still the same reason giues it: for, Optima corrupta, pessima: The best things corrupted, become the worst.” The adage was ancient, being found in Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 8.10.1-2) and in Aquinas.

94.5. Tilley L297; Lodge, Rosalynde B2r; Anonymous, The Raigne of King Edward the third (London: Cuthbert Burby, 1596) D2r.