The interpretation of Shakespeare’s writings is full of difficulties. Some even argue for teaching Shakespeare as a foreign language. Analyzing his words can sometimes have the effect of confusing the text of the poem itself, which in this case is a poem addressed to a beautiful young man.
The first part of the sonnet shows a contrast between the way the youth is understood by those who see his graceful qualities and those who see flaws in his character. In the first line, the speaker discusses the view of those who see the youth’s qualities as flaws. His youth, rather than being positive, is a fault to them, and his sexual behavior is described as “wantonness,” which carries a negative connotation. In contrast, the second line describes youth with positive qualities of beauty and innocence. The speaker, despite his love of the youth, does not take the view that youthfulness brings qualities like innocence. The parallel structure of the first and second lines indicates that the image of “gentle sport” is a reference to “proper” sexual behavior, as a contrast to wantonness. The third line says that whether the youth’s age and promiscuity are ultimately faults or virtues, they are loved by the “more and less”—that is, by everyone, which creates the image of the youth being charming in a general sense. This shows that a minor indiscretion with a charming character becomes itself charming. This line reinforces that whatever one decides about the youth’s age and sexual behavior, his character is on the whole full of grace. The final line of this part reinforces that, saying that the youth’s character is so charming, his faults can be not only forgiven but loved.
The next part reinforces that the youth’s faults are charming, and talks about the reason for this change from fault to grace. Lines five and six use vivid imagery to compare the youth’s faults to a piece of costume jewelry, a valueless gem “on the finger of a queen.” This has several effects. The first is that it shows the youth’s faults are seen as graces. A worthless gem, worn by a queen, will seem to be valuable (because, after all, a queen would never wear jewels that were not of great value). In addition, the youth’s faults are seen as positive, because of his charm. A second effect is that it shows the youth as being beautiful and alluring in a feminine (or at least androgynous) way. This was also in the first part, since “wantonness” is traditionally a quality credited to women, not men. Comparing the youth to a woman does not portray him as a feminine object of desire, but it does show that he is non-threatening, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Finally, comparing the youth’s faults to the image of a ring on the finger of a queen creates the sense that the faults are not integral to the character of the youth. A ring, after all, is a very minor thing compared to the queen who wears it. Though the youth’s innocence and promiscuity are, to many, a noticeable flaw, that flaw is not of great importance when compared to the youth as a whole. Lines seven and eight further discuss these themes, completing the comparisons presented in lines five and six.
In the final part, the speaker compares the youth’s innocence and weakness with his “wantonness.” The ninth line begins the discussion with the image of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The “stern wolf,” the archetypical raider of the flock, would have the power to “betray,” to fatally mislead, the flock if only (as suggested in line ten) he could “translate” his appearance into that of a lamb. In addition, the youth can use his beauty and charm, along with the impression of innocence and virtue, to “lead astray” the “gazers” who are put in a trance by his beauty. The implication of the specific wording, “lead astray,” is that the youth would mislead his admirers into straying sexually, using his appearance of innocence (the femininity brought up earlier) for sexual conquest.
“But do not so,” the speaker urges in the final part. His pleading is grounded in his love for the youth. This is demonstrated by the beginning of the final line, “as thou being mine,” which is a justification for the speaker’s concern for the reputation of the youth. This portion of the line also shows a deeper relationship between the youth and the speaker than just a one-sided affection. The final part, in short, pulls together the rest of the sonnet: the speaker’s warnings about the youth’s faults take on a tone of loving concern rather than disapproval.