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Shakespeare's Sonnets

sonnetXCVI

Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are lov'd of more and less:
Thou mak'st faults graces that to thee resort.
As on the finger of a throned queen
The basest jewel will be well esteem'd,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deem'd.
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.

The youth is gently accused of libertinism and sensuality, and given a warning not to use the power of his beauty over others to its full effect. For they would all be led as lambs to the slaughter, and the young man's reputation might suffer as a result. Yet since the two lovers are one, a slanderous report is damaging to both, and the poet therefore wishes to keep both his own and the youth's reputation unsullied.

This is the last of a group of six sonnets, 91-6, which analyse the youth's character in the light of alleged misdemeanours. The tone is one of gentle remonstrance, rather than foetid and festering recrimination, which is what it was verging on in previous sonnets. Here there is more calm and a philosophic detachment, with an echo, perhaps deliberate, from an earlier sonnet. It could be that the poet is beginning to distance himself from his former passions, and now begins to look upon the history of his love with a distant eye, as if it were something experienced by another, which he may now safely analyse and comment on.

The 1609 Quarto Version

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.

Commentary

1. Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;
The fault discussed here is no doubt the same as that of the previous sonnet, where shame and vices are mentioned. The question seems to be whether or not sexual profligacy (wantonness) is merely a graceful quality and forgivable pastime of the young man, or, on the contrary, a serious blemish on his character. The sonnet works through a series of contrasts and opposites, fault and grace, youth and libertinism, lamb and wolf , errors and truth. Strictly speaking it is not clear how 'youth' itself can be a fault, other than in the sense that, through lack of experience, young people are prone to error. One should therefore perhaps read it as meaning 'Some say your faults are due to your youth, others say that they are due to your natural wanton and lascivious disposition'.

wantonness = sensuality, libertinism, sexual profligacy, lascivious behaviour. This is the only use of the word in the Sonnets, although somehow one builds up the impression that it is used more frequently. This is probably due to the concern with hidden faults hinted at in 91-6 and elsewhere, which has convinced us that there is a festering evil lurking hidden inside the soul of the young man. wanton and wantonly are used in 97 and 54

The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns and play as wantonly
54

The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
97

In the plays wantonness is used seven times, of which the example below is typical.

Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt;
I rather will suspect the sun with cold
Than thee with wantonness
MW.IV.4.6-8.

2. Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Lines 1 and 2 run partly in parallel, since some say thy fault is youth is echoed directly by some say thy grace is youth. Although both lines, on first reading, seem to convey a simple meaning, on examination it is less easy to be specific as to what that meaning is. Thus broadly one might paraphrase the lines as 'Some people say that your youthful amours are faults, others say that all that you do is graceful and a sign of youthful exuberance'.
gentle sport
= youthful dalliance and sexual licence, such as becomes a gentleman. Possibly a reference to aristocratic sports, such as hawking.
3. Both grace and faults are lov'd of more and less:
Both grace and faults - i.e. whether your youthfulness may be described as gracefulness or wantonness, it is loved etc. grace refers both to gracefulness (of person, behaviour etc.) and virtue.

more and less = the noble and not so noble; all and sundry. As in

Now when the lords and barons of the realm
Perceived Northumberland did lean to him,
The more and less came in with cap and knee;
1H4.IV.3.66-8.

For where there is advantage to be given,
Both more and less have given him the revolt,
Mac.V.4.21-2.

4. Thou mak'st faults graces that to thee resort.
Any faults that you have you seem to convert to graces. The ostensible meaning is 'You turn all faults into graces (virtues) that throng around you'. But there is also a subsidiary meaning of 'You convert all graces that happen to resort to you into faults', a rather disturbing criticism of the youth, suggesting complete depravity.
5. As on the finger of a throned queen

throned - pronounced thronéd. throned queen - probably a general reference to royalty, but Elizabeth I is known to have been passionately fond of jewellery. She may have been alive when this was written (she died in 1603). She was also renowned for her long, delicate fingers.

6. The basest jewel will be well esteem'd,
basest = most humble, most indifferent.
well esteemed
= highly valued.
7. So are those errors that in thee are seen
errors = faults, sins, wanderings away from virtue. (From the Latin word errare, to wander).
8. To truths translated, and for true things deem'd.
translated = changed, metamorphosed.
and for true things deemed
= and taken to be truths and virtues.
9. How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,
The reference is general, both to the wolf as the destroyer of the flock, as found in many stories, allegories and fables, and to the biblical wolf in sheep's clothing, the false prophet who leads the faithful astray.
stern
= fierce, cruel.
betray
= trick, deceive.
10. If like a lamb he could his looks translate!
If he could transform his looks into the likeness of a lamb.
11. How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
gazers = those who gaze in wonder on your beauty.
lead away
- i.e. as lambs to the slaughter. Or perhaps the similarity to lead astray causes the suggestion to be made of being led into temptation and sin.
12. If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
If thou wouldst use = if you decided to use. Hinting perhaps at the restraint or coldness described in 94. Whereas the wolf cannot transform himself, the youth may if he wishes make use of his powers to entrap and deceive (and seduce) the unwary.
of all thy state
= of your full attractiveness and worth. The word state however suggests aristocratic power and honour, as in 'royal state'.
13. But do not so, I love thee in such sort,

The closing couplet is identical to that used in 36. It is not possible to ascertain if the choice was deliberate, or a printer's error. The situations which evolve in the two poems are different. In 36 a separation is acknowledged as inevitable, and the two must refrain from honouring each other in open friendship. Here the couplet is used to urge the youth not to blemish his reputation by indulging in immoral behaviour. The fact that the next sonnet, 97, deals also with separation, but in a past sense, and seems to be looking back on it after a reunion, may make the couplet apposite as an echo of 36, where the separation was still in the future. See the notes to Sonnet 36.

in such sort = in such a way, with such intensity.

14. As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.

As thou being mine = since you and I are one. This was traditional for lovers, especially in sonnets, and has already been established earlier on in the sequence.
mine is thy good report
= your good reputation is also mine, and vice versa.