Envious weeds rejoice

"Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds". Miranda Devine opens yesterday’s column with a quote from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94. Apparently National Party leader Warren Truss has been quoting Shakespeare to make a point about the Prime Minister’s declining popularity.

A similar idea is captured by the Latin saying: "Corruptio optimi pessima" — "the corruption of the best is the worst of all". It’s a persistent theme in Western literature. For example, in the Republic, Plato argued that the strongest characters were capable of the worst crimes:

There is no good thing which may not be a cause of evil— health, wealth, strength, rank, and the virtues themselves, when placed under unfavourable circumstances. For as in the animal or vegetable world the strongest seeds most need the accompaniment of good air and soil, so the best of human characters turn out the worst when they fall upon an unsuitable soil; whereas weak natures hardly ever do any considerable good or harm; they are not the stuff out of which either great criminals or great heroes are made.

Being the best of men, philosophers required special care, according to Plato. Those who are attracted to philosophy, he wrote, often become politicians. And "they are the authors of great mischief in states, and sometimes also of great good."

The Yale Book of Quotations has another quote about festering lilies that it attributes to Pliny the Elder:

As in the nature of things, those which most admirably flourish, most swiftly fester or putrefy, as roses, lilies, violets, while others last: so in the lives of men, those that are most blooming, are soonest turned into the opposite.

According to the Yale book, this quote comes from Pliny’s Natural History book 16, chapter 15. Leslie Hotson also attributes the quote to Pliny in his book Mr W. H. But is this where it really comes from?

Hotson had a reputation as a literary sleuth. Shakespeare’s sonnets are dedicated to Mr W. H. and scholars have puzzled over who this might be. In his book, Hotson argued that the dedication referred to William Hatcliffe.

There’s another mystery connected to the festering lilies. Scholars have long noticed that a play the late 1500s called The Reign of Edward III also contains the line "Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds". This along with other similarities to Shakespeare’s work led some to argue that the play was written by Shakespeare.

Recently Brian Vickers, a literature expert at a literature professor at the University of London, used plagiarism detection software to analyse the play. And his verdict is that parts of the play were written by Shakespeare and parts were written by another playwright, Thomas Kyd.

Meanwhile, inspired by Devine’s literary quotations, a prolific blogger at the Loon Pond turns to William Blake: "O doctors’ wives, thou art sick!"

Update: Warren Truss is not the first to apply Sonnet 94 to the PM. See John of Vic’s comment to this post on Andrew Bolt’s blog.

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shafan ansari
6 years ago

thank u for help