Comment on the gendering of the sun in "Shall I compare Thee to a Summers Day".

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James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two lines in Wiliam Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 are clearly about the sun:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd;

In the second of these two lines, of course, the sun is prsented as male; the poem speaks of "his gold complexiion," not "her gold complexion."

In French or Spanish, this statement would sound perfectly normal, as the sun in those languages is male, at least grammatically. In Engilsh, however, nouns do not have grammatical gender and thus the use of "his" (instead of "its") points toward a gendering of the sun as male in this poem. This gendering makes sense in at least one way. When we think of the word "complexiion," we probably think first of a person's skin, and when we think of people, we tend to think quickly of gendered differences between men and women. In personifying the sun, the poem pretty much has to choose a gender: male or female.

The choice of the male gender for the sun may be surprising in at least one way, however. The poem is a love poem (or at least a poem in praise of another person's beauty), and the inevitable fading of that person's physical beauty is likened to the sun's fading radiance. If the sun is male in this poem, the person being compared to the sun in this poem is quite possibly male, too. The poem may very well be a poem about the eternal beauty of one particular man (he's often called the "Fair Youth") in the mind's eyes of one or more other men (see one of the closing lines: "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see") as they read the poem.