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