The Tension between Beauty and Virtue in Shakespeare's Sonnet 95 Essay

The Tension between Beauty and Virtue in Shakespeare's Sonnet 95 Essay

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The Tension between Beauty and Virtue in Shakespeare's Sonnet 95

 
   "Sonnet 95" of Shakespeare's "blond young man" sonnets depicts a tension-filled variation on the classic blazon. The poet seems torn between the "shame" (1) that taints his subject and the "sweets" (4) of the subject 's beauty. The initial imagery of a "canker" (2) within a "rose" (2) serves to set up the sexual overtones that dominate the poem, as well as to create the sense of strain between disapproval and attraction that heightens throughout each quatrain. Shakespeare develops this imagery to ensnare the subject in an increasingly agitated opposition between his physical beauty and his behavioral repulsiveness. Though the poet claims that he "cannot dispraise but in a kind of praise" (7), the closing couplet goes counter this, bringing the sense of antagonism between the poet 's admiration and his disapproval full circle. The couplet serves as a warning that the physical beauty and virility that have dominated the young man 's life will end, destroying the "mansion" (9) where he hid his moral failing through the quatrains.

 

The opening quatrain of Sonnet 95 serves to expose the contrast between the young man 's physical and moral states. This quatrain, despite permitting the young man 's "beauty" (3) to dominate the sense of his "sins" (4), also begins to assert the idea that he will suffer for his vice. The opening image of "How sweet and lovely" (1) dominates the completion of the thought "dost thou make the shame" (1) through both rhythm and diction. While Shakespeare sets the opening in perfect iambic rhythm, the insertion of a pyrrhic foot to begin the statement of the young man 's "shame" (1) weakens the idea, allo...


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...s to force the idea that there is a danger in the previously stated opposition. However, the phallic imagery of the "large privilege" (11) of which the young man should be aware helps to complete the poem 's consideration of physical beauty in place of virtue by drawing the poem back to the sexual overtones set up in the beginning. The warning that "the hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge" (12) forces the idea that age leads to physical impotence, thereby leaving physical beauty the transient domain of the young, and virtue the permanent domain of all.

 

Work Cited

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 2000. 1:1041-42.

Works Consulted

"canker, n." Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

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