SOme ſay thy fault is youth, ſome wantoneſſe,
Some ſay thy grace is youth and gentle ſport,
Both grace and faults are lou’d of more and leſſe:
Thou makſt faults graces, that to thee reſort:
As on the finger of a throned Queene,
The baſeſt Iewell will be well eſteem’d:
So are thoſe errors that in thee are ſeene,
To truths tranſlated, and for true things deem’d.
How many Lambs might the ſterne Wolfe betray,
If like a Lambe he could his lookes tranſlate,
How many gazers mighſt thou lead away,
If thou wouldſt vſe the ſtrength of all thy ſtate?
But doe not ſo, I loue thee in ſuch ſort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
Although separated from Sonnet 91, Sonnet 96 appears its adversative. Like Sonnet 91 it is an example of “the figure of comparison” or, “Paragon,” and is indebted for its central image to Puttenham’s instance of the figure, where jewels are linked to the praise of a queen:
pearles, diamonds, rubies, emerodes, and other precious stones: specially of faire women whose excellencie is discouered by paragonizing or setting one to another, which moued the zealous Poet [Puttenham himself], speaking of the mayden Queene, to call her the paragon of Queenes. 1
The sonnet opens with a “fault” / “grace” paradox: “Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonesse.” The poet presents a set of opinions only: the youth’s waywardness is due to his young years or to his licentious living. On the other hand some argue that his youth is a “grace,” a perfection, as is his “gentle sport;” “gentle” suggests ‘decent’ rather than ‘licentious,’ although “sport,” the way he comports himself, can hint at the sexual (compare Sonnet 95.6, “making lascious comments on thy sport”). The poet’s point is that, whether a grace or a fault, the youth’s behaviour is loved by (“lou’d of”) men of high and low station (“more and lesse”). The friend makes “graces” out of the “faults,” that search him out (“that to thee resort;” see the “vices” in Sonnet 95, that “chose thee out”).
Shakespeare next employs Puttenham’s jewellery metaphor: the “basest Iewell,” when put on the finger of a “throned Queene,” one sitting in full glory, gains in estimation, “wil be well esteem’d.” Similarly things, that in the friend are seen as “errors,” are transmuted (“translated”) or changed “to truths” and adjudged “true things.” (Famously, Bottom’s appearance is similarly “translated:” “Blesse thee Bottome, blesse thee; thou art translated.” MND 3.1.122.) The metaphor now becomes that of the wolf and the lamb (of both aesopian and biblical roots; see Matthew 7.15): if the pitiless (“sterne”) wolf were either to transfix a lamb with his looks or change his appearance into that of a lamb (“like a Lambe . . his lookes translate”), how many more lambs might he deceive? By parallel, how many of those who gaze upon the friend (“gazers”) might be diverted or lead astray (“away”), if the friend were to turn on them the full range of his powers (“the strength of all thy state”)? He must avoid bringing such powers to bear, because the poet loves him in such a way (“in such sort”), that, possessing him (“thou being mine”), his “good report” or reputation is the poet’s property.
The final couplet is identical in spelling and shape to that of Sonnet 36, the sole instance of such repetition in the sequence. Either it is a deliberate or a mistaken repetition on the part of Shakespeare, or something was confused in the copying of the manuscript, or it is a compositor’s repetition, erroneous or otherwise. The couplet fits here satisfactorily, although a number of factors suggest mistakenly: its assocations with 2 Cor. 6.8 more cogently link it with the lines that precede it in Sonnet 36; the fact that, if the two couplets are super-imposed on each other, their settings coincide exactly, suggests that the same couplet, once keyed, was used twice and the lines were not reset; finally its rhyme, uniquely, is repeated from earlier in the sonnet. (A case for the couplet’s suitability here can, however, be made, based on the concluding “report,” whose etymology (re + portare = again + to carry) is allied to that of “translate” (trans + latum [ferre] = across + to carry). Then the legal sense of possession contained in “translated” (see Cooper’s Thesaurus, “translatum . . to translate frome ones possession to an others”) becomes explicit in the poet’s possession of the friend and his “report.”)
96.1. Puttenham 195-6.
96.2. Cooper, Thesaurus translatum.