‘Sonnet 96,’ also known as ‘Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness,’ is number ninety-six of one hundred fifty-four sonnets Shakespeare wrote in his lifetime. Sonnets 1-126 of this series belong to his Fair Youth sequence. These poems are all devoted to a young, beautiful man. There has never been a single identity decided upon for who this young man was.
This sonnet is thematically related to the subject of the previous sonnet, ‘Sonnet 95,’ in which the speaker discussed how the youth covers up his faults with his beauty.
Sonnet 96 William ShakespeareSome say thy fault is youth, some wantonness;Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;Both grace and faults are lov'd of more and less:Thou mak'st faults graces that to thee resort.As on the finger of a throned queenThe basest jewel will be well esteem'd,So are those errors that in thee are seenTo truths translated, and for true things deem'd.How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,If like a lamb he could his looks translate!How many gazers mightst thou lead away,If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state! But do not so, I love thee in such sort, As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
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The speaker knows that the Fair Youth is not as good and charming as his countenance convinces many he is. The youth has a great many faults but the majority of people do not see them as such. They are charmed by his wantonness and do not dismiss him as they would another. The speaker wants the youth, as he did in the previous sonnet, not to take advantage of his beauty so much that people are injured because of it.
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‘Sonnet 96 ’ by William Shakespeare is a single stanza poem that is made up of fourteen lines. It is a good example of the English or Shakespearean sonnet (sometimes also known as the Elizabethan). This form requires that the sonnet be made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines.
The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and it is written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. There are almost always small instances in Shakespeare’s sonnet in which one or more lines break with this pattern. Usually, this is due to an added syllable at the end of a line or the reversal of stresses at the beginning of a line.
The last two lines are a rhyming pair. They often, but not always, bring with them a turn or “volta” in the poem. They’re sometimes used to answer a question posed in the previous twelve lines, shift the perspective, or even change speakers.
Shakespeare makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sonnet 96 ’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, caesura, and simile. The latter, a simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, the comparison of the Fair Youth to a throned queen who by wearing worthless jewels makes them valuable.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might precede an important turn or transition in the text. There is a good example in the first line of the poem. It reads: “Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness”. Another may be spotted in line twelve. It reads: “But do not so. I love thee in such sort”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Some” and “sport” in line two as well as “loved” and “less” in line three.
Some say thy fault is youth, some wantonness,
Some say thy grace is youth and gentle sport;
Both grace and faults are loved of more and less;
Thou mak’st faults graces that to thee resort.
In the first fourteen lines of ‘Sonnet 96,’ the speaker begins by listing out some of the things that people cite as the youth’s problem. It could be his “youth” or it could be his “wantonness,” or lustfulness. The youth, as other sonnets have described, is not always entirely in control of himself. There are many occasions, as the speaker has often chastised him for, where he has not acted in the best interests of any, not even himself. He often uses his beauty to his own advantage and is more unfaithful than even the most patient lover could withstand.
But, the speaker also adds, some say that the man’s “youth” and “gentle sport,” or playfulness are charming. They aren’t faults at all. People of many different social standings and backgrounds love the youth for his faults. They charm those that might be disgusted by them if seen in another person. A reader should also take note of the use of anaphora in the first two lines of the poem.
As on the finger of a thronèd queen
The basest jewel will be well esteemed,
So are those errors that in thee are seen
To truths translated, and for true things deemed.
In the second quatrain of ‘Sonnet 96,’ the speaker says that the youth turns his faults into charming features in the same way that something worthless becomes valuable if someone important wears it. He uses a simile to discuss a “thronèd queen” in this context.
Then, he reiterates the same line that is the focus of the sonnet, that everything bad is turned into something good. The youth has this kind of power over everyone it seems.
How many lambs might the stern wolf betray,
If like a lamb he could his looks translate;
How many gazers mightst thou lead away,
If thou wouldst use the strength of all thy state!
But do not so. I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
In the third and final quatrain of ‘Sonnet 96,’ the speaker asks a rhetorical question. He is, obliquely, comparing the youth to a wolf that tricks lambs. The speaker considers how much more dangerous this wolf would be if he could make himself look like a lamb. He could lure in unsuspecting sheep, as the youth does, by convincing them that he is one of them.
The poem concludes with the speaker asking the youth not to use his beauty for evil. Because the speaker loves him, the two are tied together. Therefore, anything the youth does reflects on the speaker and he’d rather not deal with that blow to his reputation.