Shakespeare's Sonnets

Shakespeare's Sonnets

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There has been some dispute whether or not the sonnets are actually written by William Shakespeare,
the strongest argument for this is the phrase "BY.OVR.EVERLIVING.POET.", in which some, the most notable being the entertainment lawyer and author Bertram Fields, argue that this would mean the author would be dead by 1609, while William Shakespeare lived until 1616.[1]
The 154 poems were most likely written over a period of several years and published in the 1609 collection.
These were all in sonnet form and previously unpublished, with the exception of poem number 138 and 144 which had been part of The Passionate Pilgrim, released in 1599.
Sonnets 18-126 tell the story of young man and the poet's admiration and love for him, while 127-152 are addressed to the poet's mistress. In this essay we will look at sonnets 18, 116 and 130 and what they say about love, and see if they share similarities with each other.[2]

Sonnet XVIII (18)

Sonnet 18 speaks of love in its purest form; it is obvious that the author has great admiration for the person the sonnet is addressed to, giving the subject an almost god-like and eternal status.
If we look at the two first lines:

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:".

It is clear that he cannot use a summer's day as a comparison,
because the person is better than a summer's day.
He goes on to explain how a summer's day is not perfect, saying that:

"Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May" and
"And summer's lease hath all to short a date".

This is believed to mean that even a summer's day has its faults, in the start of summer there can be rough storms that distort the beauty of darling buds and summer does not last for ever.
At the end of the sonnet there are some very important lines, which speak of eternal life and beauty:

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade”

This can be seen as a promise that he will never die and be forgotten, nor will he lose the beauty which he owns. The last line could be a biblical reference “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me”[3], even though death has taken him, his beauty will glow like a beacon and light up any shade death may have cast upon him, thus giving eternal life.

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“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

As long as people live and breathe and eyes can read this sonnet,
and as long as this sonnet lives, so will he. Thus making him practically immortal.

Sonnet CXVI (116)

Sonnet 116 is very interesting because it speaks of the love of love. Love is eternal, unchangeable and not subject to the words or actions mere mortals. Love can not be blamed for any faults, for love in itself is perfect. If we read the following lines:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds 
Admit impediments. Love is not love 
Which alters when it alteration finds, 
Or bends with the remover to remove:“

If love alters or takes on another form in any way it is not love, for love as he sees it can not be harmed or change. This is a very philosophical and obviously a poet's view of love. We will have to assume that what Shakespeare means is that love between people can change, but love as an idea will never wither or die.

“O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown,
although his height be taken.“

Love is not a variable, it is a constant and can not be shaken or blown out like a candle or rot away like our mortal bodies. If a person has loved, that love will continue to exist even until the end of days. Shakespeare writes:

“Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks 
Within his bending sickle's compass come: 
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, 
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.“

He then finishes the sonnet by saying:

“If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.“

If his claim that love is eternal is proven to be an error, which could mean wrong, or to wander from the truth as error stems from the Latin word errare, which means to wander, then he has never written anything and man has never truly loved. By saying that he has never written anything, he could be saying that what he has written about love is of no value.

Sonnet CXXX (130)

This sonnet is remarkably different from the other two sonnets. It would seem as Shakespeare has nothing but utter disgust towards this earthly woman, yet there is something about her humanity that appeals to him, despite all her flaws. One is tempted to think that Shakespeare feels great sexual lust towards this woman, and is having a hard time coping with the impure love which he has held to such high regard in his other sonnets.

“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.”

The first line is a classical comparison, the eyes being the window to the soul and when he says that her eyes are nothing like the sun it could imply that her soul is dark. Red is the symbol of passion and vitality, something that he could be claiming this woman's lack with that statement. In Shakespeare's time the skin should be white as snow and breasts are a symbol of femininity, by saying her breasts are dun, which is a shade of brown, he deprives her of what was the idea of feminine beauty in his time. Wires in this context should not be confused by the idea of industrial wires we have today, hair was often compared with golden wires, but the mistress has not golden wires but black ones growing on her head. These four lines describe her physical appearance as the author sees it, giving the impression of a vile and cruel creature, not deserved of love. It also gives her a very human nature, poems of love speaks of their subject as something divine, without flaws and perfect in every sense.

“I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound; “

These two lines are extremely important in the sonnet, as they mark a significant change in how she is depicted, from an absolutely wretched creature to someone who has captivated him with speech, albeit, he admits, music would be far more pleasing. This could indeed mean that while she does not say what he wants to hear, her words carry weight and he appreciates her bluntness and honesty, even though it would be easier to be with someone more compliant and unchallengeable.

“I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:“

He admits he has never seen a goddess walk, but by saying that his mistress treads on the ground he is humanizing her, describing that you do not have to be a goddess to be beautiful.

“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

The same goes for the last two lines, his personal love for her is as rare and valid even if she is no goddess, but a mere human with all the accompanying flaws. The last line summarizes the entire sonnet by saying that there is no point in falsely comparing her with something that she is not, for she is a mere human and that in itself is beautiful.


Each sonnet is distinctively different in its own way, while sonnet 18 and 116 both share the ideal of eternal love, 18 deals more with the physical beauty and how inner beauty shines through and creates outer beauty, and as long as there are inner beauty outer beauty can never die, even if the subject dies.
In sonnet 116 it is the very notion of love that is the main character, once again it deals with eternal love, but this time instead of personifying love it is the idea of love that plays the main role. As long as there are people that are capable of loving, love will never die and cease to exist. Sonnet 130 is very different from the previous two, it deals with imperfect love, yet this love is just as valid as any.
Interpretation of beauty, as with poems, is in the eye of the beholder.

1. Fields, Bertram. Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare. New York: Harper Collins, 2005, 114
2. Unknown, WikiPedia
retrieved 20.10.07 from
HYPERLINK "" 3. The Holy Bible, Psalm 23:4
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