Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shakespeare viewed nature in terms of its benefits to human society. On its own, nature produces wild, unweeded, overgrown fields and woods that neither please the aesthetic sense nor feed a community as effectively as the gardens and crops produced by horticulture, by “art.” Nature, therefore, must be nurtured by human industry in order to be beneficial to society. In his poetry, too, Shakespeare’s images of nature do not focus on the natural environment in its own right, but have ulterior poetic motives that refer the reader to human experience.

In one of his last plays, The Tempest (1611), Shakespeare uses gardening and careful husbandry as metaphors for political and romantic relationships: Friendship and marriage are means of nurturing natural sexual desires into a morally productive relationship; charity, forgiveness, and restraint are means of nurturing desires for political power and possession into an ethical and productive political state. In this play, too, the reader sees noble characters who, because they are unwilling to restrain their greed for power, seem less noble than their social inferiors who “seek for grace.” These are the themes of Sonnet 94.

Nobility, as a political status, was passed through inheritance; its attendant personal virtues of honor, strength, and moral rectitude were, it was thought, genetic, passed through the blood. What Shakespeare suggests here is that true nobility is neither inherited nor inherent, but achieved. Political power that is beneficial to others is achieved by first having power over oneself, having the power to hurt, but having the restraint not to exercise such power.

Humans must first and foremost be “lords and owners of our faces.” Conversely, if society is to be mutually beneficial, that responsibility for having control over one’s own identity is not solely a responsibility to oneself, but also a responsibility to those with whom one lives. The flower produced by summer gives summer its character and has the potential, if corrupted, to make summer seem rank with decay rather than, as it should be, redolent of birth, growth, and life.