Analysis

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 may be the playwright and poet's best-known sonnet, beginning with the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" It is popular not only for its themes of love and admiration, but for its simplicity. Unlike some of the other sonnets in Shakespeare's repertoire, Sonnet 18...

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Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 may be the playwright and poet's best-known sonnet, beginning with the line, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" It is popular not only for its themes of love and admiration, but for its simplicity. Unlike some of the other sonnets in Shakespeare's repertoire, Sonnet 18 is clear and straightforward in its message to the subject.

At the start of the sonnet, which adheres to the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, the speaker of the poem addresses his beloved—the Fair Youth—directly, comparing him to a summer's day. The speaker's beloved is temperate, like the gentle weather of this time of year, and the comparison is similarly gentle. The speaker's comparisons intensify as the sonnet progresses: the beloved is at first like summer, and then he is compared to "eternal summer," whose beauty is ageless.

Shakespeare employs literary devices like metaphor, apostrophe, imagery, and personification to bring his comparison to life and to ensure that his beloved lives on in history, as the couplet concluding the sonnet promises. Interestingly, the speaker does not describe his beloved specifically, and the reader has little sense of the beloved's physical appearance, nor his personality characteristics. The speaker only compares the beloved to a summer's day, complete with all of the descriptions of the sun and the absence of bad weather. Many scholars observe that the sonnet is more about the intensity of the speaker's love and less about the character of the beloved himself.

Form and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495

This poem is a sonnet, a poem consisting of fourteen lines in iambic pentameter, a form created by Petrarch, an Italian poet of the fourteenth century. A Petrarchan sonnet usually contains eight lines sketching a situation (the octave) and six lines applying it (the sestet). The form was modified by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, appearing in poetic anthologies during the mid-sixteenth century. They and other poets created the English sonnet, consisting of three quatrains followed by a couplet, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, gg. In this form, the eight-six division is occasionally maintained, as in Sonnet 18, but the concluding couplet summarizes the theme.

The sonnets of Shakespeare, taken as a whole, may be said to form a sonnet sequence: a series of sonnets, usually addressed to a woman for whom the poet has conceived a passion. From Petrarch’s time on, the conventions of the lover’s complaint pervade the imagery of these sequences, but their originality of imagery and conceit generally transcends the limitations of the troubadour traditions from which they derive. The women of these sequences have themselves become widely known: Petrarch’s Laura, Sir Philip Sidney’s Stella (Penelope Devereux), and Edmund Spenser’s Elizabeth Boyle have achieved the kind of immortality that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 contemplates.

It is thus ironic that the object of Shakespeare’s own sequence should be unknown. The poems themselves range over many topics, including the beauty and desirability of marriage for a young man, a love triangle, a “dark lady,” and several philosophical and moral problems. They form a unique source of speculation on Shakespeare’s life in addition to being poems of great power.

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare sets up his comparison by rhetorically introducing the basis for a simile that will underlie the structure of the whole poem: the comparison between the person who is the object of the poet’s attention and a summer’s day. The first image, of rough winds shaking May’s buds, is stated directly. In the next line, however, the poet uses the metaphor of summer’s lease being too short, aptly indicating the transitory nature of a season and, by extension, a year and a life.

The use of metonymy in “eye of heaven” (the sun) illustrates the power of that device: The eye is usually thought of as the agency for perception and character; here the central focus of the sky seems central to the concept of nature itself. Personification of this eye enhances the subject of the poem as a whole, for dimming his gold complexion implies hiding the beauty of the individual whom the poet addresses—something the poet intends to prevent.

The personification of death in line 11 curiously treats the word “shade,” often used to describe those who have died. Here it seems to signify, instead, the atmosphere of death—the shadow that hovers over those who come within its influence, which the poet’s lines are about to dispel.

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