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Sonnet 96 by William Shakespeare

Last week, I posted Sonnet 95 ("How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame"), which I analyzed as being a rather long dick joke. Today comes the companion poem, Sonnet 96 ("Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness"), which enlarges on the misbehaviors of the Fair Youth in the previous poem, and carries an actual word of warning, despite being wrapped in flattery and a bit of jest. First the poem, then the discussion.

Sonnet 96
by William Shakespeare

Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport.
Both grace and faults are loved of more and less:
Thou mak'st faults graces that to thee resort.
As on the finger of a thronèd queen
The basest jewel will be well esteemed,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deemed.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,
If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
    But do not so; I love thee in such sort
    As, thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

Form: A Shakespearean sonnet, meaning that it's written in iambic pentameter (5 iambs per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), with the following rhyme scheme: ABABCDCDEFEFGG.


In the first quatrain
(four lines - rhymed ABAB), Shakespeare recounts some more of what people are saying about the Fair Youth - blurring the line between vice and virtue. The worst thing laid at the Fair Youth's feet is "wantonness", decidedly meaning that he sleeps around too much, which appears to be readily excused due to his youth (which is hardly a vice, though it's listed as both a fault and a "grace"). Some are willing to say that the Fair Youth is not a complete sleaze-bag, but is naturally engaging in "gentle sport" (again, of a sexual nature, but more out of youthful inquiry than unprincipled roguery). In either case, everybody loves him ("are loved of more and less" means "are loved by everybody - the high and low members of society", as it turns out). So nobody is really upset with the Fair Youth for this behavior (or they don't count it as a serious knock on his character). Notches in bedposts were an accomplishment for guys even then, am I right?

Second quatrain: Here, Shakespeare lays the flattery on pretty thick. This would have been written during the time of Queen Elizabeth, and she is referenced a bit here: any jewel (a two-syllable word for Shakespeare, note) she wears is deemed valuable because of her rank and status, even if the stone itself isn't worth much. Just so, says the Bard, do people bend over backwards to convert the Fair Youth's flaws into virtues, or to credit him with better motives than just getting his rocks off.

Third quatrain: In which the poem starts to turn. Just think, says Shakespeare, how many MORE people you could seduce (and he means it literally) if you really turned on the charm?

Final couplet: Interestingly, it's a direct quote of the closing couplet of Sonnet 36. Maybe it's what Shakespeare wrote/intended, and it's a call-back, or maybe it was a printer's error. In any case, it means, roughly, "because we are lovers, we are one unit, so if you get a bad reputation, it reflects badly on me."

The takeaway: Basically, it's "sure, you can get away with your current indiscretions, but please watch it so that you don't get an actual bad reputation, which would also negatively impact me." Which makes one wonder exactly how public Shakespeare's love affair with the Fair Youth was. Then again, many people believe that the Fair Youth was Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, which helps make sense of their reputations being entwined, even if the extent of their love for one another was not publicly known.

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