Sonnet 95

Shakespeare Sonnet 95

HOw ſweet and louely doſt thou make the ſhame,
Which like a canker in the fragrant Roſe,
Doth ſpot the beautie of thy budding name?
Oh in what ſweets doeſt thou thy ſinnes incloſe!
That tongue that tells the ſtorie of thy daies,
(Making laſciuious comments on thy ſport)
Cannot diſpraiſe, but in a kind of praiſe,
Naming thy name, bleſſes an ill report.
Oh what a manſion haue thoſe vices got,
Which for their habitation choſe out thee,
Where beauties vaile doth couer euery blot,
And all things turnes to faire, that eies can ſee!
Take heed (deare heart) of this large priuiledge,
The hardeſt knife ill vſ’d doth looſe his edge.

Sonnet 95 works a favourite Shakespeare image, the canker in the rose, found also at Sonnets 35.5, 54, and 70.7-8. It is also linked to the preceding sonnet’s final couplet. The youth’s shame is compared to the canker-worm which eats at the rose’s interior while the leaving the bud’s exterior untouched. For the image Shakespeare needed to look no further than Whitney’s “Turpibus Exitium” (‘Ruin from Vices’), where the device is a scarab or canker inside a rose and the subscriptio observes that it “cannot indure the sente / Of a fragant [sic] rose,” echoed in Shakespeare’s “like a canker in the fragrant Rose.” 1 The youth covers his shame with a rose-like exterior that is “sweet and louely.” The shame mars or despoils his emerging reputation (“Doth spot the beautie of thy budding name”); “spot” and ‘without spot’ were biblically associated with sin and being without sin. In the poet’s exclamation, “Oh in what sweets doest thou thy sinnes inclose,” “inclose” intends ‘shut up in’ or ‘contain,’ but the roseate context evokes a garden enclosed, a hortus conclusus, used typically of an immaculate state without spot of sin.

Another voice (“That tongue”), unidentified but possibly the rival poet by metonymy, is now introduced. The voice provides an account of the youth’s actions (“the story of thy daies”) and colours it with lewd remarks (“lasciuious comments”) either about the way the youth displays himself or his lecherous behaviour (“sport”); “lasciuious,” both ‘lecherous’ and ‘sportive,’ was used of people meaning ‘wanton’ or ‘effeminate’ (Florio associates under “Lasciuo,” “lasciuious, wanton . . womanish”), of plants meaning ‘prolific’ (compare Cooper, Thesaurus Lasciuio, “To growe or spring rankly”), and of words meaning ‘wanton’ (see Nicholas Udall, Flowers or Eloquent Phrases, “For lasciuus properly is hee that is lecherous both in liuing & also in words”). 2 Paradoxically the “tongue,” while intending to condemn (“dispraise”), ends up only praising, because associating the youth’s name with any action, even sinful, only enhances it (“naming thy name, blesses an ill report”).

The poet’s second exclamation, “Oh what a mansion haue those vices got,” echoes Whitney’s further paradox, “for his meate, his mansion is his fare;” the canker worm chooses the rose as its house and its food. Vice likewise has selected the youth’s body as its house: “mansion” was used of the body when enclosing the soul (from 2 Cor. 5.1, “oure erthy mācion of this dwellyng;” GB) and was linked with licentiousness through the further biblical use of “mansion” meaning ‘to dwell within sexually’ (both the Bishops’ Bible and Geneva Version gloss the whore’s name, Ahobilah, in Ezekiel as “Aholibah signifieth my mansion in her”). Shakespeare uses it of Lucrece, “Her house is sackt . . / Her mansion batterd by the enemie, / Her sacred temple spotted.” 3 The vices have chosen the youth as their dwelling (“habitation”), where the covering that beauty affords (“beauties vaile”) masks every disgrace or sin (“euery blot”) and converts everything visible (“that eies can see”) into something comely (“faire”).

The poet ends on a cautionary note, advising the youth (“deare heart”) to preserve carefully his ample (“large,” with a hint of sexual largesse) privilege. 4 The final line, “The hardest knife ill vs’d doth loose his edge,” appears proverbial: a knife made of the most tempered steel, if misused, becomes blunt. The phrase, “Take edge away, the knife can cut no more,” was axiomatic and the metaphor of losing one’s edge or becoming blunt was applied particularly to passion. 5 William Cornwallis argues from Seneca that, “affections vse, is like the vse of a whetstone for a knife, onely to giue it an edge, and then lay it by, for vse it continually or oft times, it maketh the mettal thinne and weake; and thus affection doth to men.” 6 Either the youth’s appetites, through misuse, will lose their edge (compare Sonnet 110’s resolution, “Mine appetite I neuer more will grin’de”) or, with a rose’s pruning-knife in mind, the youth’s sexual profligacy will be pared back by over-use.


95.1. Whitney 21.

95.2. Nicholas Udall, Flowers or Eloquent Phrases of the Latine speech, gathered out of al the sixe Comoedies of Terence (London: Thomas Marsh, 1581) X2r; compare Cooper, Thesaurus, “Pagina [lasciua]. . A writing that containeth wanton things.”

95.3. Luc. 1170-72.

95.4. Compare Ant. 3.6.93-94, “Onely th’adulterous Anthony, most large / In his abhominations,” and Rom. 2.4.92, “Thou would’st else haue made thy tale large.”

95.5. Thomas Churchyard, A Handeful of Gladsome Verses, giuen to the Queenes Maiesty at Woodstocke this Prograce (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1592) A3r.

95.6. William Cornwallis, Discourses vpon Seneca the Tragedian (London: Edmund Mattes, 1601) G7v.