Why do you think Shakespeare begins Sonnet 18 with a question?

Shakespeare begins "Sonnet 18" with a question as a rhetorical strategy to give the reader the sense of eavesdropping as Shakespeare muses to himself. It also uses a conventional comparison to set up an unexpected answer. The poet does not lament the transience of life, which is barely longer than a summer's day, but presents his own poetic genius as the solution.

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Shakespeare begins “Sonnet 18” with the famous question, “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” In doing so, he invites readers to picture a scene and to consider the nature of the inquiry for themselves.

First, with this question, Shakespeare invites us into his conversation with his beloved. We can picture the two of them sitting side by side. The poet is trying to think of a way to best praise his beloved. What will work? He might consider flowers or candy or perhaps even gentle birds, but none of these will do. Perhaps he is even discussing each of these possibilities with her and rejecting them one by one. As he looks into his beloved's eyes, he tries one more and asks her about it: “Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?”

This comparison seems to have possibilities, so the poet follows through with it. As he continues the thought, however, again discussing it with his beloved, he discovers that a summer's day is not quite so apt as he first assumed. Indeed, his beloved is “more lovely and more temperate” (line 2). Summer days are sometimes accompanied by “rough winds” (line 3) or weather that is too hot, and summer fades quickly. No, he decides that a summer's day will simply not do to praise his love. She is much more beautiful than a typical summer's day.

Second, the question invites readers to consider the nature of the inquiry for themselves. Questions open up opportunities for reflection and draw readers into a text. We might picture the best summer's day we've ever experienced—or, on the other hand, perhaps we remember the worst. We might meditate on a person whose personality suggests the brightness of a summer's day or on someone else whose character is more like a summer thunderstorm. Our thoughts might turn to ourselves and ponder how we, too, may in some way reflect a summer's day. Finally, we might, as the poet does, contemplate the fleeting nature of a summer's day and compare that to the fleeting nature of life itself.

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Shakespeare begins "Sonnet 18" with a question because his speaker is struggling to determine how to begin a poem praising his beloved. The easy and conventional way to address her would be to compare her to a summer's day. He has seemingly read many sonnets that begin this way.

Shakespeare, who liked to turn conventions on their heads, decides not to do this. Instead of having his speaker liken his beloved to the perfections of summer, he dwells on the ways summer is imperfect or inconstant: it is too short, sometimes it is too hot, and sometimes it is cloudy or windy. In contrast, what makes his beloved beautiful never changes. He states that her

eternal summer shall not fade

This implies that what he loves in her is her unchanging soul, not her external qualities, a point he will make in other sonnets.

By beginning with a question, the speaker is giving a species of soliloquy. In drama, a soliloquy is a way for an actor to express his inner thoughts to an audience. Here, the speaker is thinking aloud, musing about his beloved as he begins his poem. He is able to think past the limiting conventions and artificialities of the poetic form to convey what his beloved is really like to him.

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In Mrs. Shakespeare's Diary, Robert Nye includes the following pithy exchange:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

"No thanks."

In fact, Shakespeare did not ask this question to Anne Hathaway, or even to the Fair Youth of the sonnets, but to himself. The rhetorical strategy gives the sense of eavesdropping on Shakespeare's creative process, as he works out the grounds for comparison and resolves each of them in favor of the addressee.

The most famous sonnet in the English language is a victim of its own success. Everyone knows the end, so no one is surprised by it. However, if you were approaching the sonnet for the first time, you might guess at a rather different final couplet, particularly if you were familiar with Renaissance verse. The summer's day is beautiful, yet transient. These are the grounds for comparison.

The beloved is even more beautiful than a summer's day but, as a poem in the Horatian "carpe diem" tradition might insist, almost as transient. Your youth and beauty will not last long, so let us love each other now. This is the message of Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" and many other love poems. Instead, Shakespeare steps in with his own poetic genius as the unexpected answer to a conventional question. The beloved addressed is not as transient as a summer's day. Thanks to Shakespeare, s/he is immortal.

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By opening the poem with a rhetorical question, the speaker is almost teasing his lover. He seems to be saying "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Maybe I should, but then again, maybe I shouldn't. Who knows?" Beneath the mild joshing, however, is a revealing statement of the speaker's uncertainty. He genuinely doesn't know whether or not it would be appropriate to compare his lover to a summer's day.

That's not because he thinks that the object of his affection isn't lovely; quite the opposite. For as the poem progresses, it's clear that the speaker finds his lover so much lovelier—not to mention more temperate—than a summer's day. It's simply that the speaker realizes that, however beautiful a summer's day may be, it will never adequately be able to capture the eternal beauty encapsulated by his lover's soul.

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