28 February 2001
He's Only Kidding, Right?:
Warnings in Shakespeare's "Sonnet 95."
William Shakespeare is the
master of subtle humor and sexual puns. In
his "Sonnet 95," a poem to a blond young man, both are seen while pointing
out a couple of realities about sexual sin. He speaks directly to a young
man whose physical beauty compensates for his lack of sexual morality.
Shakespeare would like for this young man to realize that his handsomeness is
the sole aspect of his person that prevents absolute disapproval of his
behavior in other people, and he also wants him to be aware of the ultimate
consequences of his actions. Through a clever use of diction, imagery, and
meter in a typical Shakespearian format, Shakespeare warns his young friend
of the risks involved with the overindulgence of sexual activity.
In the first quatrain, Shakespeare presents the young man to the readers
by contrasting his beauty and his character. He tells the young man that he
renders "shame" (1) "sweet and lovely" (1). That is, he is much too handsome
to be overshadowed by his questionable conduct. His "shame" may not be a
dominant trait, but it does sneak around behind the scenes "like a canker"
(2). A canker is a nasty internal ulceration, or growth; it is a flaw that
cannot be seen in an otherwise beautiful object, such as a "fragrant rose"
(2). This flaw in the young man, sexual vice, may "spot" (3), or taint his
image later on in his life, as he is still "budding" (3); he is still young,
and there is plenty of time for his reputation to be completely damaged by
his sexual impropriety. This young man is indeed beautiful and he is lucky
to have such "sweets" (4) in which to hide his "sins" (4). Shakespeare opens
his poem with very oxymoronic imagery, such as loveliness and shame, a flaw
in a beautiful rose, and sweetness and sin. This signifies the irony that is
produced when these two qualities of the young man, beauty and sin, clash.
This gives the poem a more realistic edge when compared to the exaggerated
ideals found in much of English poetry. The meter, iambic pentameter,
expresses the generalities of the first quatrain; sex is not actually
specified, but one usually assumes sex when speaking of physical beauty and
sin. There is one initial trochee in the fourth line, which emphasizes the
exclamation of "O" (4).
The second quatrain focuses on the manner in which others view this young
man. Shakespeare speaks of "that tongue" (5) that talks about him behind his
back. This implies that there is a specific way in which he is discussed
amongst others, and Shakespeare witnesses this time after time; the "that" in
front of "tongue" intimates a mode of speech that is familiar. He lets the
young man know that the "tongue" speaks of him in a "story" (5) which
suggests that there is much more to this young gentleman than a pretty face.
It also might hint at the idea of gossip which tends to center on a person's
less desirable qualities and, as in this case, specific instances in support
of those qualities. Shakespeare informs his young blond friend that people
make "lascivious comments" (6) on his sexual adventures. This might be
telling him that others know details of his escapades, which are surely lewd.
These escapades are the man's recreational past times, or his "sport" (6).
But despite everything that is said of his sexual immorality, he is somehow
forgiven because of his boyish good looks. After knowing his flaws, his
beauty offers a "kind of praise" (7) which seems to excuse him from any
concrete labeling. His young charm casts an angelic-like image to his "name"
(8) which "blesses an ill report" (8). By this, Shakespeare means to infer
that any slander of him is taken with a grain of salt. Shakespeare continues
to push these opposing images on the mind of the reader. For example, the
concepts of lewdness and recreation, "blessing" slander, and "praise" (7) and
"dispraise" (7) are brought together to add to the opposing forces of this
man's persona. This middle quatrain follows a pattern in meter that reflects
the pattern in the cyclical rhythm of people's gossip. The first and third
lines of the quatrain are in even iambic pentameter, while the second and
fourth begin with an initial trochee; this emphasizes the action of the
In the third quatrain, Shakespeare returns to his emphasis of the idea
that the young man's elegance covers his sins. He speaks of the young man's
body as a "mansion" (9) in which his sins can dwell comfortably and hidden
from the world. He talks as though the sins "chose out" (10) this man, which
says that only someone as seemly as he could get away with harboring such
"vices" (9). Sins would only want to live where they could go unpunished,
such as a place where "beauty's veil" (11) will obscure their obvious
ugliness; with flaws obscured, eyes can focus on all that which looks fine.
The imagery of this last quatrain is a bit different from that of the
previous two. One may paint a portrait of the grounds of a grand estate with
sins and vices running around free and wild; they are living in the lap of
luxury and they do not deserve to be. Also, the idea of the "veil" stirs up
images of a homely woman on her wedding dayöa day where she looks unusually
beautiful. Both these images connote some degree of injustice, and this
refers to the idea of this essentially ugly man living inside a gorgeous
body. With the exception of an initial trochee strengthening the exclamation
of "O" (9) in the first line, the rest of the last quatrain is in regular
iambic pentameter. This goes along with speaking to the young man in a
straightforward, general manner.
The closing couplet marks the turn of Shakespeare's sonnet. Up to this
point, the poet has been telling this blond young man the truth of himself
which is doubtlessly something he does not appreciate hearing. By now the
young man is probably irritated with his older, wiser friend and is
presumably in a foul mood. Shakespeare lightens the tension with a jest that
intimates the ultimate reality of sexual indulgence in males. He urges his
young companion to care for this "privilege" (13) that he has been given.
Shakespeare means to say that the young man has some sort of advantage
over othersösomething that is easier for him. This is, of course, the ease
with which he finds sexual partners as a result of his physical
attractiveness. Shakespeare wants him to hold this advantage with careful
regard, because when misused even the "hardest knife [. . .] doth lose his
edge" (14). Shakespeare slyly and jovially slips in the idea that if the
young man is careless, he will spend his allowance of energy before his time
comes; that is to say, he will become sexually impotent. This image is
brilliantly conjured up with the picture of a dull knife that will cut no
more after years of its owner using it as a hatchet. The simple lightness of
his joke is expressed through the simple evenness of the iambic pentameter
throughout the couplet, and its straightforwardness adds to the wryness of
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 95." The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. Seventh ed. 2 vols.
New York: Norton, 2000. 1:1041-42.
Oxford English Dictionary. Eds. James A. H. Murray, et. al. Oxford, 1961.