„Sonnet 96š A Shakespearean Discourse on Dissolution Versus Debauchery
The sonnets of William Shakespeare chronicle the conflicts of love and lust between the blond young man and the dark-haired lady. In „Sonnet 96,š Shakespeare acts as an apologist on behalf of the blond young man as he concludes his discourse on the young man‚s character. Here the poet presents a picture of the young man as a misguided youth caught up in youthful indiscretion, rather than a rapacious beast prowling for prey. Shakespeare illustrates the inherent differences between dissolution and debauchery as he declares that upon first glance all is not as it appears; therefore, the young man‚s character must be examined in greater detail. Endeavoring to engender empathy for the blond young man, the poet elucidates the young man‚s strengths while emending his weaknesses. However, it is the rising meter of iambic pentameter throughout the entire sonnet that sets a steady rhythm suggesting all is well there is no cause for alarm.
The initial quatrain of „Sonnet 96š opens the debate on dissolution and debauchery, implying youthful indiscretion is the young man‚s only serious flaw. The first two lines of the sonnet begin in the same way, with parallel sentence structure and alliteration "Some say,š which is deceptive, as the remainder of both lines one and two are contradictory. In line 1, the poet chides the young man, telling him some people see his bad behavior as a result of youth and immaturity, though there are others who believe his bad behavior is indicative of his inherent moral corruption. However, in line 2, the poet dismisses the concerns found in line 1 by characterizing the young man‚s youthful dalliances as a special privilege of one born to high social station. Lines 3 and 4 blend „faults and graces,š further blurring the distinction between a moral weakness and a charming trait. By using the phrase „loved of more and less,š (3) the poet suggests, with out exception, that people of all social ranks love the young man regardless of his failings. Furthermore, the young man‚s charm is such that it makes his failings seem even more charming. The poet emphasizes the importance of the first quatrain with the repetition of diction and punctuation, using three semi-colons and a period to announce tight end stops and by using the second person narrative. The (b) rhyme of "sport" (2) and "resort" (4) is used again in the couplet with the words "sort" and "report," bringing even more attention to the first quatrain.
The second quatrain juxtaposes inferiority with quality, suggesting that what you see is not always what you get. The poet demonstrates this idea through the metaphorical image of a „queenš (5) and a „jewelš (6) by his assertion that even an inferior jewel will appear to be of quality when it is viewed upon the noble personage of a queen. Just so an „error[s]š (7) in a charming person will seem not to be a weakness but an asset as is seen in the young man. Line 8 presents the truth of the matter. The young man‚s quality overshadows his weaknesses as his social position, one of noblesse oblige, requires his loyalty pledged in a promise of agreement to bear faithful allegiance to the obligations of his high social order. Lines 5 and 7 are enjambed, setting a pace which moves along, leaving no chance for reflection. In the second quatrain, the poet again uses second person narrative, though it is the repetition of truth related words in line 8, which generates the greatest impact. The poet seeks to reassure, indicating the young man will be „deem‚dš (8) worthy of trust through the pursuit of truth.
The third quatrain is where the poet seeks to persuade. Through rhetorical questions and parallel sentence structure, lines 9 and 11 ask "How many," while lines 10 and 12 ask "If." "How many" (9,11) innocents will the young man induce to surrender themselves by means of false promises? "How many" (9,11) innocents will be lead astray by the young man who cloaks his hostile intent with a friendly manner? Imagine "if" (10,12) the young man appeared as an innocent, coupled with his noble rank and power, "how many," (9,11) driven by their curiosity about him, he could lead astray. Though the poet uses second person narrative here, he also introduces third person narrative in line 10. However, it is his use of exclamation points to punctuate the ends of lines 10 and 12 emphasizing the young man‚s good character as "his looks translate!" (10) the young man is not as he appears!; when in "all thy state!" (12) the young man is after all a person of greatness!
The couplet, which should allow the poet to resolve any doubts regarding the young man‚s character, instead brings up more questions. The (b) rhyme of the first quatrain is found in the couplet with the words „sortš (13) and „reportš (14). Why would the poet return to the quatrain of contradiction when he is so close to restoring the young man‚s good name? This exact couplet is found in „Sonnet 37,š leaving one to wonder if this couplet belongs here at all. Does the poet truly believe his own supposition that the young man is only a dissolute youth, or does he question the true moral character of the friend he loves?
Shakespeare, William. "Sonnet 96." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2000. 1: 1031-32.