Superficiality and Profundity in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 91

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments, though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure;
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks or horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
   Wretched in this alone, that thou may’st take
   All this away, and me most wretched make.


This is another poem explication I did for a Shakespeare class. Once again, Shakespeare is sounding very gay in this poem. I am honestly still learning how to read poetry well, so I appreciated how much more straightforward this one was than some of his other poems.


In this poem, the speaker addresses the same beloved young man that is referred to for the first one hundred twenty-six sonnets. The poem is structured using anaphora and parallelism, meaning that each line begins in the same way for the first four lines. This technique creates a crescendo with increasing momentum as the reader continues down through the lines. The sonnet is written in iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef gg. The format of the poem consists of three quatrains and one couplet. The poem sets up a dramatic contrast between the superficiality of wealth and the depth of the speaker’s love for his beloved.

 “Some glory in their birth, some in their skill” the speaker explains, beginning a long list of what are often considered the most valuable attributes and gifts one could have in the world, including noble birth, skills, wealth, physical wellbeing, and possessions (1). He continues to say “And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,” referring to the medical theory of the four humours that was widespread during Shakespeare’s time (5). The humours refer to four fluids thought to control the wellness of the body. These fluids are blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, which directly influence a person’s health as well as their temperament. For example, someone with an excess of yellow bile would be choleric, or chronically angry. The speaker of the poem is claiming that every person of every kind of temperament has something that is pleasing to them above all other things.

For the speaker, his greatest joy does not come from noble birth, wealth, or any of the aforementioned gifts of this world. Instead, he claims that “these particulars are not my measure,” since he does not use them to gauge his own happiness (7). “All these I better in one general best,” the speaker boasts, revealing that his possession outranks those of the worldly others he has mentioned (8). What he possesses is the love of his beloved, which he could not do without—this to him is better than riches. Unlike most men, who have much and thus are afraid of much, the speaker of the poem only fears one possibility. This possibility is that the young man may make the speaker “wretched” by withdrawing his love for the speaker. The speaker ends on this thought.

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