In our sparring class last night, it seemed relevant to quote Sonnet 94 of Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the class. Shakespeare is better known for being one of the most famous playwrights and poets of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and significantly lesser known as having a fine understanding of the strategy of Martial Arts sparring. Bear with me, and we will discuss how this poem helps us become better at sparring.
The poem, Sonnet 94 has been described in various sources, as being one of the hardest to interpret, however the readers simply failed to recognise that Shakespeare was not speaking of love, or hiding emotions, but how to get better at sparring in the Martial Arts. Here is the sonnet in its entirety. (Apologies for any misquoting last night!!)
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 gracesAnd husband nature’s riches from expense;They are the lords and owners of their faces,Others but stewards of their excellence.The summer’s flower is to the summer sweetThough to itself it only live and die,But if that flower with base infection meet,The basest weed outbraves his dignity:For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Let’s break it down and get to the sparring lessons, line by line.
‘They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show”
It is far more impressive to have the power to strike hard and strong, and choose not to use that power all of the time than it is to always show your strength. Likewise it is more admirable to use a variety of skills, as opposed to always take the obvious shot.
The immortal Bard encourages us in this couplet of the sonnet to have great strength, power and skill, and choose to use restraint and make choices about when to use these assets.
“Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold and to temptation slow”
Such a powerful statement! In Sparring, it is important that we are able to take control of the space we are sparring in, and dictate the terms of the engagement. Let the distance between you be of your choosing, and not leave it up to chance, or your partner. By your movements and strategy, cause your partner to be forced into the position you always intended them to move into. This can be accomplished by smart footwork and smart planning of techniques.
This couplet also speaks of control and not choosing to take only the easy targets, but selecting a wide range of challenging targets despite the temptation to go for an easy hit in all the fast and fury of a sparring class.
“They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense”
Here we are told that the sparrer who is able to show this control and resist the temptation to become a ‘brawler’ is the sparrer who is earns the rewards of sparring, and learns to enjoy the process of putting yourself through the challenges of sparring another person.
We are also cautioned by Shakespeare here to make sure that while we enjoy the benefits of sparring, we do not abuse these lessons, and use the skills we have gained in an inappropriate time or place.
“They are the lords and masters of their faces
Others but stewards of their excellence”
In this we are told that the sparrer who is able to follow these guidelines is in control of themselves, and this is everything. To be able to be in charge of yourself is the greatest skill you can achieve. To be in charge of yourself means that you make choices about your actions, instead of reacting. It means that you are not subject to the limitations of your body, you use your mind to push through your limitations.
This is the greatest thing which others, not simply Martial Artists, can aspire to is having that control over themselves.
“The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though it itself it only live and die”
This is a great sentiment. When we are sparring, we know we are sparring, but when we practice control and discipline, we get to a place in our sparring where we are not doing Martial Arts, but rather Martial Arts is flowing through us and we are part of the flow. This is the great part of the Martial Arts, it takes us to a place where we are completely involved in the activity with our body, and our mind is free, at rest and quite calm, despite the chaos around us.
“But if that flower with base infection meets
The basest weed outbraves his dignity”
This couplet cautions us that if we have these skills and choose to use them unwisely, or without thinking, we become a far worse person than one who is not trained and uses force and violence against others. A person who has been trained in the Martial Arts has the responsibility to learn to control their body and mind as well as train their body. In this way they have the chance to make our families, our communities a safer and better place because we were there.
“For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds,
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
This is a great closing sentiment. When we are trained in the Martial Arts, to be strong and powerful, to strike with force and strength, and then use those skills without thought, or to harm others, it would have been far better that we never started training.
So while it seems unlikely that William Shakespeare, who wrote in 1585 – 1613, was well practiced the art of Martial Arts sparring, the immortal Bard clearly had a great understanding of all aspects of human nature, and though you have to search for the meaning, we can find lessons anywhere when we are determined to learn.