«They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show».
On the surface at least, Sonnet 94 continues the theme from the previous sonnet, which contrasts virtue with appearance. Although the sonnet offers a warm testimonial to a cool and impassive youth, there is no specific mention of the poet or the young man in the entire poem.
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
The “they” in the first line sums up the youth’s characteristics: He is detached, impersonal, and authoritative. In the second quatrain, the “they” ironically pictures a youth who has a stingy, hoarding nature. The third quatrain, which seems at first to be disconnected from the first two, presents an image of a summer flower that is “to the summer sweet” but that succumbs easily to “base infection,” meaning that in competition with more unsightly and noxious weeds, the summer flower will lose out. How this third quatrain is related to the first two is explained in the concluding couplet: “For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Outward appearance does not necessarily correspond to an object’s worth or character. The youth who in the first quatrain is detached and impersonal is really a tease; in the second quatrain, those persons who are “the lords and owners of their faces” are deceptive because they create false appearances; and finally, the summer flower may appear beautiful and vivacious, but it falters easily when faced with an obstacle such as “the basest weed.” The entire sonnet, then, is an extended metaphor highlighting the dichotomy between outward appearance — mere show — and inner worth — an object’s or person’s true nature.
Much criticism has been written about Sonnet 94. According to one group of critics, Shakespeare advances the argument of those who, with an outward beauty that is the source of temptation, are themselves cold and not easily tempted. In contrast are those whose beauty not only tempts but also leads them into temptation. As a symbol of the first, the flower that is sweet to the world around it, although it blossoms and dies by itself, is self-contained. As a symbol of the second, the same flower is infected with a canker, in which case it is more offensive than a weed.
Other critics argue that Sonnet 94 is extremely ironic. Superior individuals remain aloof and never submit to temptation, but are not selfish in so doing, for they unconsciously do good deeds, like the flowers. The youth, the poet continues, must be, indeed already is, quite like these superior individuals — although just what this good is that the youth does certainly remains questionable. Yet even such superior individuals must remain alert not to fall from perfection if they are to avoid becoming the worst, just as “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
English audio from YouTube Channel Socratica
Summary from Cliffsnotes.com