Shakespeare's Sonnets Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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In "Sonnet 18," what is the symbolic meaning of "May" and "summer"?

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Kale Emmerich eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the sonnet, Shakespeare compares his lover to a summer's day, emphasizing the beauty of the summer. The month of May, being a part of summer, he mentions as a beautiful month filled with flowers but with rough winds.

The main point of this sonnet is to illuminate the fact that, as wonderful as the summer is, his lover is far superior. The beauty and warmth of summer is incomprehensibly lesser than his lover, and summer still carries many negative aspects. He mentions the rough winds devastating the flowers and blooms in May, and the fleeting nature of summer days, neither of which apply to his love. He is emphasizing the idea that his lover's beauty never fades, and there is no harshness to detract from his lover's beauty and greatness.

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Shakespeare's sonnet, May is a part of summer; any symbolism in the poem encompasses both of them.

Summer, then, becomes symbolic of nature, which pales in comparison to the one to whom the sonnet is addressed. May is characterized by "rough winds" that destroy new flowers; the summer sun is sometimes too hot and sometimes grows dim; summer itself is too brief and transitory. None of summer's beauty or goodness remains: "And every fair from fair sometime declines." Summer symbolizes the natural order, which includes death. The remainder of the poem explains why the sonnet's honoree possesses an "eternal summer" that "shall not fade" because of the sonnet itself:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

See the eNotes link below for a discussion of Renaissance writers’ view of the ideal universe and the corruption of nature after Adam’s fall from grace.

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