Characters

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Last Updated on September 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

The Fair Youth

Most Shakespearean scholars agree that the first 126 sonnets of the famous playwright’s 1609 quarto address the same person, who is often referred to as the “Fair Youth.” This youth is a mysterious figure whose identity has been guessed at but never confirmed. He is also sometimes referred to as Mr. W. H., as this person briefly mentioned in the dedication section of the first publication of these sonnets. However, while scholars have speculated about the true nature of the Fair Youth’s identity and relationship to the author, it is unlikely that readers will ever know with certainty who the Fair Youth was nor why he was so important to Shakespeare. 

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“Sonnet 18” does little to fill in these gaps, granting readers minimal insight into the youth beyond his physical form. However, even this description of his beauty is sparse, conducted through meandering metaphor and comparison. Indeed, little of his character emerges and is instead described only as “more lovely” than summer and with fewer downsides than the season. Never too hot or too dim, the youth is “temperate” and consistent, unmarred by volatile changes or fluctuating seasons. Nature pales in comparison to his beauty, yet, as all things, it must fade. Though the youth is an attractive man worthy of praise and glory, he remains mortal, susceptible to the draw of time and the “shade” of Death. However, the poem “give[s] life” to him, preserving his beauty through the speaker’s recorded memory. Though readers and scholars alike will likely never know who the Fair Youth was nor why Shakespeare wrote so lovingly of him, the fact remains that readers still know he existed, know that he was breathtakingly gorgeous, and know that the sonnet accomplished its task, hundreds of years on.

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The Speaker

The speaker is often read as an extension of Shakespeare himself, and his writing reveals an awareness of himself as a poet and artist. In a fourth-wall-breaking turn, he acknowledges his efforts as a poet and praises the ability of his work to preserve that which time inevitably steals. He writes glowingly of his beloved, showering him with high praise, and hailing his beauty as unparalleled by all, even nature. However, the poem is equally consumed with the speaker’s musings, considering the longevity of his work and arrogantly—though accurately—praising its ability to defy the immutable facts of life. As such, the speaker is engaged in the act of poetry, so the distance between poet and speaker is narrower here than in much lyric poetry. Despite their proximity in “Sonnet 18” and others in the 1609 quarto, readers should not conflate the identity of the author and the speaker.

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Latest answer posted July 6, 2011, 7:43 am (UTC)

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Death

Though only briefly mentioned by name, the presence of Death is indelibly stamped onto each individual line. Even as the speaker praises the Fair Youth’s beauty, he acknowledges its brevity, personifying Death as one who might “brag” about possessing such a desirable spirit and ruining his praiseworthy appearance. The sonnet defies Death this victory, wielding poetry as if it were a sword and promising that such possession shall never come to pass, as he has taken steps to deter the icy gaze of oblivion from landing upon or seizing his beloved. 

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