How does Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 relate to his play The Merchant of Venice thematically and stylistically?
mwestwood | Certified Educator
Shakespeare's Sonnet XCIV presents the theme of control of one's spirit and beauty as deserving of heaven's blessing,
They that have pow'r to hurt, and will do none,That do not do the thing they most do show,Who moving others are themselves as stone,Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow,They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
while Portia's speech in Act IV, Scene 1 extols the blessings to those who are merciful, controlling their temptations to excess:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
This Christian theme of moderation that bestows heaven's blessing upon people finds its counterpoint in Shylock, the Jew, who demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. Thus, stylistically, Shakespeare creates conflicts from characters that are antithetical in The Merchant of Venice. Similarly, Sonnet XCIV arranges such contrasts,
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
In the sonnet, the flower that sours becomes repulsive just as the man in Shakespeare's play who demands from another that which is unnatural is equally repulsive. Stylistically, then, Shakespeare relies upon contrasts to develop his themes of moderation and Christian blessings in both Sonnet XCIV. Earthly power, whether of beauty or of finances, becomes most "heavenly" when it is restrained, or merciful; that is, when decisions are made moderately and "seasoned."