Using Well the Power to Hurt: Sonnet 94 as a Reflection on Good Government

BY Paul Prezzia TIMEMarch 6, 2023 PRINT

What does a poem have to do with governing a country, any country, our country? Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, while often interpreted as referring to the power of art patrons over artists, has a lot to tell us about who is capable of governing well and what it means to govern well.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

In the first line, the poem explains that the first duty of government is to not abuse its power. It’s odd to think of government as having the “power to hurt.” It’s odder to think, as the second lines reveals, that good government would somehow involve not doing what it “most shows,” that is, to govern.

Yet there is a long and rich pedigree to the thought that government should operate by restraining itself—one that goes right up to our Constitution. Why does the Constitution go through all the trouble of separating governmental powers among the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court? Our “checks and balances” means that each branch of government exerts a restraining force on the other, almost to the point of competition.

Checks and balances are necessary because the alternative—combining all the powers of government into one person or group—can be dangerous. In fact, the tradition that produced our Constitution, the tradition that while government is necessary, the power of government is first of all dangerous, goes back before Shakespeare’s time to the legendary founding of the Roman Republic.

The Roman Solution

Tarquinius Superbus
“Tarquinius Superbus,” 1867, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, depicting the king sweeping the tallest heads from a patch of poppies which symbolizes his tyrannical rule. (Public Domain)

Roman King Tarquin abused his power, and the Romans expelled him from their small city-state. They then considered who should govern. Another king might do the same thing.

Therefore, the Romans came up with an unusual idea, or rather an idea that would not seem strange to those who feared the abuse of government power more than they appreciated its use: They would elect two consuls every year. Each consul had the absolute power of a king. And each consul could nullify the command of the other.

While this structure may not seem the best recipe for “government that works,” it was the best way, in the Romans’ eyes, to limit the government’s doing hurtful things—and that was what they cared about most.

Shakespeare’s Tumultuous Time

Death of Caesar
“The Death of Caesar,”1859–1867, by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Oil on canvas. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. (Public Domain)

Shakespeare and his fellow Englishmen learned about the Romans in school and were keenly interested in their thoughts about everything, including government. Discussions about rule and misrule were current in both England and Europe as a whole; after all, Shakespeare lived in the last half of the 16th century, which had already seen the Reformation, the Peasants’ Revolt, numerous peasant rebellions, and a hundred other situations where the authority of rulers had been brought into question. While England was still a monarchy, the crown sat uneasily, with the beheading of Charles I only a half a century away.

Thus, it’s likely the first thing Shakespeare looked for in good governance was that it did not hurt with the power it was given, and that those with such power should not succumb to awesome and awful temptation that power presents. “Do no harm” is the first principle of our individual moral lives, and for anything to be good, let it work not to be bad first.

The next two lines of the poem, describing “they” as stone-like, “cold,” and “unmoved,” may seem to be pejorative; don’t we want a government that cares? Yet, we face the same conundrum as the Romans are said to have faced 2,500 years ago: Do we want a passionate government that helps us more than we fear a passionate government that hurts us? We may not agree with Shakespeare, but we should admit it’s a good point.

Owning One’s Face by Inheriting Heaven’s Grace

George Washington Praying at Valley Forge
George Washington praying at Valley Forge. (Vladimir Korostyshevskiy/Shutterstock)

In the next quatrain (four lines), Shakespeare uses the curious “lord” and “owner” of their faces. Nothing in the body is more unique to human beings than their faces; this makes the face a kind of bodily manifestation of the inner self. They who are the true lords of their faces are masters of themselves. Only those who govern themselves can truly govern others, and conversely, one knows that a good governor of others must be one who has governed himself.

Furthermore, this same good governor is one who “rightly inherits” the graces of heaven, that is, he partakes in the ultimate ordering of the universe by ruling well. Besides using his power sparingly, he preserves the commonwealth that he directs. Like animal husbandry is the art of keeping animals healthy, “husbanding nature’s riches” means keeping a nation healthy, primarily in avoiding waste.

Everything falls apart eventually, as we know: cars, football teams, our own lives, and even countries. A good car maker is known by how long its cars stay on the road; a good coach keeps his team unified at least for a year; we live well when we keep ourselves healthy; and, leaders lead well by prolonging the life of the country they serve.

Bringing these last observations together, those who preserve the commonwealth they rule and who merit their role as governors are themselves leaders par excellence.

Leaving Behind a ‘Sweet’ Memory

Like the life of a flower, the lifetimes of all these things are a blink of an eye in terms of millennia; yet good lives reverberate through the ages. They are sweet even after they pass away, just as “summer’s flower is to the summer sweet.”

Finally, if we continue to view the art of government in the light of Sonnet 94, the last four lines present the strongest warning. A good government is one of the greatest goods because it contains and cultivates all the little goods: Individuals can live without fear of violence, family life is not attacked, and communities have the power to help themselves. And so good government is truly one of the sweetest things.

Yet, a bad government is as disgusting as the thing it perverts is sweet. And so perverted government, like “lilies that fester,” smells “far worse than weeds.”

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Paul Prezzia received his M.A. in History from the University of Notre Dame in 2012. He now serves as business manager, athletics coach, and Latin teacher at Gregory the Great Academy, and lives in Elmhurst Township, Penn., with his wife and children.
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