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  • “Power to Hurt”: Language and Service in Sidney Household Letters and Shakespeare’s Sonnets
  • Lynne Magnusson*

“Power to hurt”: my starting point is a phrase shared by Edmund Molyneux and William Shakespeare. In an eloquent and rhetorically complicated letter to Sir Philip Sidney, answering a rebuke from him, his father’s secretary, Edmund Molyneux writes of having “neither Will nor Power to hurt in this Case if I wolde.” 1

Letter 1. Edmund Molyneux, Esq; to Sir Philip Sidney.


I have receaved your Lettres, and doe acknowledge the same as a speciall Note of your lovinge Favour, that it wold please you to write vnto me; and what may lye in me in any Sorte to doe, you shall not need to requier me: But you have (yf it may soe lyke you) full Power and good Warrant to commaund me. Sir, yt semethe by your said Lettres, that you have beene enformed, that I either have already, or in some Sorte pretend hereafter, to be an Adversarie to Mr. Grivell in his Sute heere; and that I make not that good Accounte of the Validitie and Goodnes of his Patent, as in Reasone and cowrtewse frindlie Dealinge, I should doe, somwhat, as you gather, to his Disadvantage, beinge a Matter, as you saye, of noe Bennefite to my selfe; which, yf I showld soe forgett my selfe (yf it were only in Respect that you esteeme Mr. Gryvell as your deere and entier Frend) I showld justlie condemne my selfe of vnadvised and twoe great inconsiderat Dealinge. And therfore I pray you, and soe effectuallye desyre him to hold a better Opinion of me, till you have further Proofe howe I doe deale, and have dealt, in the Cawse from the Beginynge. And as I have neither Will nor Power to hurt in this Case if I wolde, havinge onlie to walke in the Pathe I am directed: So yf I had either, beinge otherwise directed by you, I wold not. And therfore beseche you, what soever Cowrse be held in the Matter, lay noe further Fawlt in me, then I justlie deserve: For assure your selfe, you and yours have, and ever shall have, that vndowbted Interest in me, as I will obey your Commaundement, as farre as in Dewtie and Credit I may, which I crave yt maye lyke you to accept. And evenso I take my Leave. From Salloppe, the xxviijth of Aprill, 1581.

Yours ever in all to be comaunded

as your obedient Servant,

E. Molyneux.

(L, 293–94; my emphasis) [End Page 799]

In Sonnet 94, Shakespeare’s speaker comments on those “that have power to hurt and will do none.” 2 The shared phrase does not, however, point to any direct connection between Molyneux’s letter and Shakespeare’s sonnet. The connection which this essay aims to articulate between Molyneux’s language in correspondence with Sidney and Shakespeare’s language in some sonnets to the Young Man (for example, Sonnets 57, 85, 88, 89, and 94, but especially Sonnet 58) is of a different kind. What I consider is how the shared phrase arises within a particular social relation and situation—both instances involve the relation between a subordinate and a superior he is engaged to serve, and in both cases the subordinate is negotiating problematic speech actions involving the correction or the rebuke of the superior. Speech or written answer is problematic in this situation since, as the Puritan divine William Perkins put it, “in case of rebuke or controlment” by the master, it is the part of the servant to “answer not again.” 3 In this essay I will make use of a politeness theory developed within discourse pragmatics and social anthropology by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson in order to define more exactly the constraints that Molyneux’s particular social speech position imposes and, more significantly, the verbal repertoire that is available to a speaker so situated. 4 I aim to show the complexity and interest of Molyneux’s rhetoric, or rather less his rhetoric than the rhetoric of his particular social situation. 5 It is my thesis that the same social moment to some extent informs the...

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