Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

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,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:   

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

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


Sonnet 18




Alexandra Howe on Shakespeare’s sonnets

The year is 1609. In London, the theatres are closed: plague is ravaging the city, as it has done many times in Shakespeare’s lifetime already. The authorities desperately attempt to contain the latest outbreak. King James has not long been monarch; the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 marked the end of the Tudor dynasty, and we have entered the Jacobean era. A popular joke at the time runs: rex fuit Elizabeth, nunc est regina Iacobus (Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen).


We don’t know exactly why Shakespeare’s collection of sonnets is printed now. One theory is that it was motivated by the theatre closures: during a previous outbreak of plague the renowned playwright had turned his hand to narrative poetry, publishing Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. Another theory is that it is in some way a creative response to the new cultural regime at court under James. The timing does seem curiously belated though, considering that the sonnet form in English literature, wildly fashionable in the Elizabethan court of the 1590s, has by 1609 rather passed its peak popularity.


Also perhaps surprising is the fact that publication of this first edition is not a great success. Shakespeare is at this point 45 years old. He is already famous as a playwright. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were sensationally successful. Clearly, the publisher of the Sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, expects his name to be a draw and gives it unusual prominence on the title page: ‘SHAKE-SPEARES / SONNETS / Never before Imprinted’. But the sequence was never again published in Shakespeare’s lifetime. When you consider that Venus and Adonis was reprinted in 1594, 1595, 1596, twice in 1599 and three times in 1602, you see how the Sonnets seem somehow to have missed their mark.


One explanation offered is a lingering discomfort amongst the readership over the fact that the first group of poems in the sequence appear to be addressed by the (male) poet to a (male) youth ‘right fair’, and not, as was conventional with the sonnet form, to the poet’s lady love. We cannot be sure who is responsible for the ordering of the collection, whether Shakespeare himself had a hand in it or not, but it is clear that the poems fall into three distinct sections: the first 126 are addressed to the fair youth, the next 26 are concerned with a woman (whom the popular imagination has come to refer to as the ‘dark lady’, though this phrase is never used in the sonnets themselves), and the last two are a pair of evocations of Cupid. As evidence of this squeamishness, subsequent manuscript circulations of sonnets from the first section, and a later republication of the entire sequence in 1640, made efforts to re-cast the relationship in unequivocally heterosexual terms, for example by changing pronouns from he to she and him to her


Another idea is that the Sonnets were simply never properly appreciated until public taste for ‘confessional poetry’ united in the twentieth century with respect for the formal poetic structure of the sonnet. Shakespeare, in other words, was genuinely ahead of his time.


In Italian, the word sonetto means ‘little song’. There are two principal types of sonnet; the English form is derived from the original Italian (Petrarchan) form, which consisted of an eight-line stanza (octave) followed by a six-line stanza (sestet). Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and Thomas Wyatt, who brought the Italian sonnet into English in the first half of the sixteenth century, condensed the fourteen lines into a single stanza and, to accommodate the paucity of rhyme words in English compared with Italian, divided this into three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. This is the form used by Shakespeare and is now so associated with him it is also referred to as ‘the Shakespearean sonnet’.


The poet Don Paterson has observed how this model of a fourteen-line poem, creating a neat little square on the page, fits naturally with the arc of a human thought. It is a form perfectly suited to resolving some sort of emotional turbulence.


The sonnet above, which is numbered 18 in the original sequence, falls within the group that address the fair youth and signals a change in tone from the sonnets that precede it. It is probably one of the best known love poems in the English language; and, at first, it does seem quite straightforwardly flattering towards the beloved. It begins, in adulatory terms, by dwelling on the beloved’s beauty and virtue. At line nine, we have a volta, or turn, where the poet promises the beloved immortality through verse. But on closer inspection, it is disconcerting, even slightly sinister. The sheer musicality of the poetry almost causes the reader to overlook the veiled threat: the beloved’s beauty will decay; death awaits us all; the only thing that stands between the beloved and nullity is the poet’s pen. The poet gives himself an extraordinary, even coercive, power over the beloved.


This subversion is characteristic of Shakespeare. There is barely a sonnet in the collection that is unequivocal about love. And virtuosic as the Sonnets are, they continue to generate different readings over four hundred years later. Much ink has been spilt over the question of who the fair youth, and who the dark lady, actually were. It is sometimes taken for granted that Shakespeare himself is invisible in his plays, but his sonnets are endlessly, and energetically, scoured for biographical clues. I don’t know whether that is the right sort of exercise to undertake, but it has proved a very popular one and since there is never only one way to read any poetry, to quote Duke Orsino from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, I would say: ‘play on’.



Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Alexandra Howe reads sonnet 18

Video Details