Liberty Matters

Do the Sonnets Hold the Key?

As is often the case these days, I find myself wondering whether Shakespeare’s sonnets might be the key to unlocking some of these question about the plays.
We have Michael Zuckert’s excellent question about The Winter’s Tale, “What’s the problem with Leontes, anyway?” We have John Alvis’s detailing of Lear’s mad plan to divide his power in three parts and yet, somehow, still retain it. We have the clash between Caesar and the Senate over the extent of the personal power or “will” of the ruler. And we seem to have no way of discerning what Shakespeare himself may have thought, in the end, about any of those conflicts.
I have nothing to offer here but more Shakespeare, and particularly the finely distilled Shakespeare of the sonnets. In this discussion, the sonnet that comes to mind most often is 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 out-braves his dignity; For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
The sonnet, impersonally discussing an indifferent beloved, seems to me to provide an accurate depiction of what may be the best that one can reasonably hope for from a ruler. A ruler who has “power to hurt and will do none” is like an Angelo who can resist the urge to enforce neglected and oppressive laws, or like a Prospero turning away from his magically enhanced omnipotent rule. A ruler who “moving others [is himself] as stone” is like a Lear freed from the childish narcissism that destroys his family and nearly destroys his kingdom. A ruler who is “unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow” may not sound particularly appealing in this century of charismatic leaders and emotional appeal. But such a ruler would avoid the passions that lead Macbeth to his excesses.
A ruler with those qualities may not be personally appealing—may be much more like the King Henry V who turns away Falstaff and much less like the raucous and funny Prince Hal—but such a ruler will, we are told, “husband nature’s riches from expense” and be “the lord and owner” of his face. That responsibility combined with confident self-ownership may be the best inoculation against the “base infection” to which power leaves us so vulnerable.