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Analysis of Shakespear's Sonnets

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1864 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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William Shakespeare is very well known around the world for being one of the best playwrights in the English literature and in the whole globe. Furthermore, he is also considered very important for writing sonnets and he is famous for being able to captivate the reading public. The present essay will analyse and compare two Shakespearian sonnets which are similar in some aspects but at the same time are very different. The comparison will be focused on Sonnet 18, which is addressed to the young man and Sonnet 130 which is addressed to a woman known as ´Dark Lady´.

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The first think to consider when reading Shakespearian sonnets is the addressee. His sonnets can be divided into two in terms of the addressee. According to Gibson (1997), on the one hand, the first 126 sonnets have the focus on a young man who is “beautiful, but also as unfaithful, neglectful, selfish and cold-hearted”. On the other hand, from Sonnet 126 onwards, the sonnets are addressed to a woman who is known as ´The Dark Lady´. She is younger than Shakespeare and she does not follow the standards of beauty of the time, the Petrarchan ideals. Gibson argues that she can be identified with Mary Fitton, Luce Morgan, Emilia Lanier as well as Queen Elizabeth I. However, for Schiffer (….) the ´Dark Lady is quite unlike Mary. Following this division, Sonnet 18 is addressed to the young man and Sonnet 130 to the ´Dark Lady´.

Regarding the theme of the poems, both of them are very different. Sonnet 18 main theme is the comparison of ´thee´ (which is the young man) to a summer´s day. The young man is very likely to be his beloved. In the first line, it can be seen this comparison ´Shall I compare thee to a summer´s day? ´(18: 1). Paterson (2010) viewed the poem as a declaration of Shakespeare´s love while at the same time people can feel his “future suffering”. He also says:

“WS firmly moves away from the conceit that only progeny will the YM to win the immortality his beauty deserves and turns instead to his own poetry as a means of accomplishing this. Maybe he has just getting bored with it; maybe the commission is complete” (Paterson, 2010: 54-55).

On the other hand, Sonnet 130 differs from the previous poem in great measure. It is also a comparison between two things, but the addressee is very different. The speaker is comparing his lover to a number of other beauties. The speaker is comparing the mistress (´Dark Lady´) with things found in nature. Her beauty is characterized for being reality. In this sonnet, the first quatrain is about the mistress ‘appearance and he starts comparing the mistress ‘eyes with the sun “My mistress ´eyes are nothing like the sun:” (130: 1) In the second line the speaker is comparing the lips with the coral, emphasizing that her lips are not read as the ideals of beauty of the time “Coral is far more red, than her lips red:” (130: 2). In the following two lines “If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / if hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” (130: 3-4), her breasts are supposed to be white following the conventions of the time, but they are not. Moreover, her hair is dark instead of blond, another feature that shows that she does not follow the Petrarchan ideals. Patterson (2010) ´s interpretation about beauty in the poem is similar to Shakespeare´s and he claims:

It´s all very well to suggest that traditional ways of celebrating the female are tired old tropes, and that we need a new approach that conveys something of the real earthly, earthly beauty of an attractive woman- but where it is? At least have a stab at it, man (P, 393).

Additionally, the critic De Grazia (1993) saw similarities with Sonnet 21 in terms of the idea of a “non-idealized” woman. However, she states that the poem may be about “Shakespeare´s passionate heterosexuality” (cited by Matz 2010, p. 500).

As opposite as these poems may seem, Shakespearean sonnets are characterized for following the same structure in every poem. Both of them have three quatrains and a couplet. They are written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme of the quatrains is abab cdcd efef gg. In the quatrains the main theme is portrayed and then in the couplet there is a summary of the sonnet or a change of ideas. In sonnet 18, the couplet is related to immortality and it is quite ambiguous “So long as men (…) thee” (18:13-14). The beauty of the mistress differs from the summer´s day and in comparison, to a summer day that fades way, the beauty of his beloved will last forever, is immortalised. According to De Grazia (1993), by emphasizing the theme of reproduction in Shakespeare´s sonnets rather than sex, he identifies “two members of the young man´s future family”: the son who will reproduce the young man and the wife who will be responsible for that reproduction” (p.49) (cited by Matz 2010, p. 480). In Sonnet 130, in the final couplet “ And yet by heaven (…) compare” (130: 13-14), the speaker changes the tone and he is telling us that he loves her because she is something real, she is reality and not something idealized, he is not making false comparison and women do not need to look like flowers to be beautiful. Patterson (2010) said that the couplet is a summary of the whole idea of the poem “a critique of false compare”.

Both poems transmit different feelings. On the one hand, Sonnet 18 is meditative, more interior monologue, thinking about the person. It feels intimate because he is not talking to someone directly. Because of the speaker´s comparison to a summer day, the poem expresses a feeling of distance and calm, you can imagine yourself being in such situation. On the other hand, Sonnet 130 may be interpreted as a satire with humour. Booth (1977) said that “the poem appears to have no target and no aim but to be funny” (252). However, for Woolway (1998) is about seriousness and might also be viewed as a serious love poem “the poem could be said to flatter through the most unexpected means and to show… its author´s love for his mistress” (255). Therefore, Sonnet 130 expresses the feeling of seriousness and humor at the same time. Moreover, it is a personal poem and it is negative. Dubrow (1996) said that sonnets which refer to the ´Dark Lady´were negative and sonnets which refer to the ´Fair Youth´ were positive.

Shakespearian sonnets stand out for the use of different devices, vocabulary and imagery. In Sonnet 18, the use of rhetorical personal pronouns such as ´thee´ ´thou´ can be seen to refer to the Fair Youth. The sonnet opens with a rhetorical question “Shall I compare thee to a summer´s day”? It can be a summary of what the poem is about, a comparison between the beloved and a summer´s day. Time is important in this poem, for example “the darling buds of May (18: 2), according to Haslett the interpretation that can be made today is slightly different to the meaning of the poem “darling not only means dearly loved but has an older meaning of emerging to maturity and greater beauty. Both sonnets used nature to compare but they do it in a different way. Nature in this poem is very important and images such as ´May´ and ´summer´ can be found. Summer time is a period which is immortal because it returns every year. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May” (18:2) is a personification because they are words applied to humans. For Haslett, “Nor shall death brag thou wander´st in his shade, / when in eternal lines to time thou grow´st,/ (18: 11-12) are a biblical reference because it echoes Psalm 23.4. In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare is comparing his mistress with things found in nature “my mystress´eyes are nothing like the sun” (130:1). He also compares the woman to a goddess “I grant I never saw a goddess go (…) ground” (130: 11-12). In the last two lines of the first quatrain there is parallelism and caesura “if snow be white, (…)” (130:3) and “if hairs be wires (…)” (130:4), with this device, the reader has to pause, breaking the rhythm.

In conclusion, having analysed the two sonnets, it can be said that although they differ in some aspects, the theme of love is present in both of them. It is important to consider that they were written to different people in a different time period and even in our days the interpretation can be slightly different than Shakespeare´s times. Due to his ability to create sonnets as well as other plays, he has been considered one of the most important writers of history and he has influenced many other writers.



-          Analysis of Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare (2018) (online). Available from: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Sonnet-130-by-William-Shakespeare (Accessed 23 October 2018)

-          Booth, Stephen, (1977). Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New Haven: Yale University Press

          Don Paterson (2010) Reading the sonnets: A new commentary by Don Paterson. London: faber

          Dubrow, Heather, (1996) Incertainties now Crown Themselves Assur´d: The politics of Plotting Shakespeare´s sonnets In Shakespeare Quaterly,

-          Haslett, Tim (2018) Critique and commentary of Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (online) Available from: https://timothyrhaslett.wordpress.com/tag/critique-and-commentary-of-shakespeares-sonnet-18/ (Acessed 23 October 2018)

-          Mabillard, Amanda. (2000) Shakespearean Sonnet Basics: Iambic Pentameter and the English Sonnet Style (Online). Available from:

< http://www.shakespeare-online.com/sonnets/sonnetstyle.html > (Acessed 22 October 2018)

          Matz, Robert , (2010) The scandals of Shakespeare´s sonnets by Robert Matz ELH, Volm 77, No , 2010, pp 477-508.

-          Rex Gibson (ed) 1997. Shakespeare: The sonnets. Cambridge: CUP

-          Schiffer, James, (20000) Shakespeare´s sonnets: critical essays. New York : Garland Publishing

-          Woolway, Joanne, 1998. “Sonnet 130.” Poetry for Students.Detroit: Gale Research


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