Shakespeare on the ruler who has “the power to hurt and will do none” (1609)

William Shakespeare

Found in The Poems and Glossary (Oxford ed.)

A political reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 (1609) is that he admires the ruler who has the “power to hurt and will do none”. A ruler who follows this practice will, he predicts, “inherit heaven’s graces”:

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 …

As my colleague Sarah Skwire very aptly interprets this poem: 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.