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Shakespeare's Sonnet 18: Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Jan 5, 2021 9:00:00 AM

General Education

 

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If you’ve taken an English class, then you’ve probably had to read and analyze poetry--including William Shakespeare’s sonnets. 

But we know that Shakespearean sonnets can be tough to understand and analyze! That’s why we’ve put together an expert analysis of the meaning, themes, and poetic devices in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” also known as “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” 

By the end of this article, you’ll be ready to analyze Shakespeare’s poetry and have the tools you need to bust out a top notch analysis of “Sonnet 18.” 

So, let’s get started!

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Meet the Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1619)

William Shakespeare was a renowned poet and playwright of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre (you might also hear these periods called the English Renaissance, but it’s pretty much all the same thing!). 

Shakespeare was born to John and Mary Arden Shakespeare in 1564. John Shakespeare, William’s dad, worked as a glove-maker but also fulfilled important positions in local civic life. John’s role in local government is what allowed William to attend grammar school—a privilege for someone from the working class. 

Once Shakespeare finished school, he married Anne Hathaway (not to be confused with the Princess Diaries actress!) and had three children. Around this time, between 1585 and 1592, Shakespeare’s life gets a little mysterious. Scholars call this period of Shakespeare’s life “The Lost Years,” since his activities aren’t accounted for in historical records. 

But we do know that by the end of The Lost Years, Shakespeare had established himself as a writer in London. He published his first works in 1593 and 1594: two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece.” Shakespeare’s work in theatre also began around this time, and he became a founding member of and playwright for a company of actors called “The Chamberlain’s Men.”

During this time, Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays, including King Lear and Macbeth. Shakespeare remained with the company for the rest of his career, writing about two plays a year over the course of twenty years!

Shakespeare was a prolific writer during his lifetime. His works include 38 plays (think Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, though there are many more!), two narrative poems, and 154 sonnets, not to mention a variety of other poems. 

It’s easy to be shocked by how many poems Shakespeare wrote, especially since he’s best known as a playwright. But his collection of sonnets had a major influence on the literary culture and style of his era. Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets innovate on the older sonnet tradition by focusing on non-traditional themes. 

When Shakespeare began writing sonnets, it was traditional for sonneteers to express an obsessive, worshipping love for an almost perfect female love interest. Shakespeare bucked tradition by focusing on two unusual subjects: a beautiful, aristocratic young man and a Dark Lady who doesn’t exhibit the goddess-like unattainability characteristic of women in older sonnets. As a result, Shakespeare’s sonnets also deal with atypical sonnet themes at the time, like lust, misogyny, and resentment. 

 

Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”: “Shall I Compare Thee To a Summer’s Day?” (1609)

“Sonnet 18,” or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” is one of the best-known Shakespearean sonnets. It was originally published as part of the Shakespeare’s Sonnets collection by Thomas Thorpe in 1609. 

 

Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”: “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?”

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.

 

Background Behind the Poem

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is the eighteenth sonnet in Shakespeare’s Sonnets…which explains why it’s also known as “Sonnet 18”! Unfortunately, not a lot is known about the circumstances in which Shakespeare wrote his individual sonnets—including “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” That means we don’t 100 percent know if he was inspired by real-life events, a moment in history, or something else entirely. 

Scholars are pretty certain that Sonnets—including “Sonnet 18”—was composed during a period of about ten years starting in about 1592-1593 and published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609. Thorpe kept the published collection true to Shakespeare’s original organization and structuring of the 154 sonnets. 

We may not know exactly why Shakespeare wrote these sonnets, but when we look at all 154 sonnets together, we can understand how Shakespeare used individual sonnets to develop overarching themes for the entire Sonnets collection. As it turns out, “Sonnet 18” plays a pretty pivotal role in developing the larger themes and meanings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is part of what’s known as “the Fair Youth” sequence. The Fair Youth sequence covers 126 poems of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In fact, “Sonnet 18” is widely considered to be the first sonnet in the Fair Youth sequence. To understand why that’s important, though, we have to nail down what exactly a sonnet sequence is and how it’s supposed to function.

A sonnet sequence is a series of sonnets in a single collection that are focused on the same themes. Sonnet sequences became popular during the Petrarchan Era of poetry and were used to develop a theme that is threaded through all of the sonnets in a single sequence. Each individual sonnet in a sequence stands on its own thematically and structurally, but each sonnet also works to build thematic connections between poems as the sonnet sequence progresses. 

You can think of it like this: a sonnet sequence is like a chain. Each poem is its own link...but the poems also work together, too. 

During the Renaissance, when Shakespeare was doing his writing, sonnet sequences were a very popular form. In “The Fair Youth” sequence, Shakespeare uses the sequence to help readers get to know the person being addressed in the sonnets: a young man, (i.e. “the Fair Youth” for whom the sequence is named). 

It might not seem super clear from this sonnet alone that the Fair Youth is male, but other sonnets in the sequence make this more clear. For example, in Sonnet 3, the speaker encourages the Fair Youth to father children. And in Sonnet 8, the speaker tells the Fair Youth that he should get married and become a husband! 

The Fair Youth is a young man that’s beautiful, desirable, and a friend to the sonnets’ speaker.

 

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So what's up with comparing someone to a summer's day? Keep reading to find out! 

 

Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18” Analysis, Meaning, and Themes

Now that you know a little bit about how this poem came to be, go ahead and reread the sonnet. That way you’ll have it fresh in your mind as we dive into our analysis!

 

“Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” Meaning

We know, you might be thinking: “How do I wade through all these thees and thous to get down to what this sonnet actually means?!”. Take a deep breath: if you break the poem down line-by-line, you can get to the bottom of what the sonnet’s speaker is saying to the Fair Youth (who is the “thou” and “thee” of the poem). 

So here’s what’s actually going on in the poem in a nutshell: the speaker is addressing the Fair Youth by comparing the Youth’s beauty to the beauties of nature. But the speaker is actually saying that the Fair Youth is more beautiful than nature! 

According to the speaker, the beauty of nature changes and fades, but the beauty of the Fair Youth is immortalized because his beauty is more than just outward appearance. These internal qualities will outlive the Fair Youth’s outward beauty. That’s why his beauty won’t fade like the beauty of nature! 

While “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” does have an overarching meaning, we can also learn more about the poem by looking at its specific themes. We’ll take a closer look at three themes that characterize “Sonnet 18”: beauty, decay, and the passage of time.

 

Theme 1: The Nature of Beauty 

“Sonnet 18” has a couple of central questions, and one of the most important is, “What is beauty?” Understanding the nature of beauty is one of the major points of the poem, which we can see from the first two lines: 

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

The first line tells us that the speaker is comparing the Fair Youth to a summer’s day, which is a beautiful thing! But the speaker tells us that the Fair Youth is actually “More lovely and more temperate” than a summer’s day. 

But what does “temperate” mean here? At first glance, we could assume that the speaker is saying that the Fair Youth (the “thee” referenced in the lines above) isn’t as hot as a summer’s day. But, actually, “temperate” might be a compliment about the Youth’s personality: a temperate person is someone who is mild-mannered, calm, and reasonable. 

That’s right—the Youth isn’t just “lovely” on the outside. He’s also got a beautiful soul!

And that’s the ultimate definition of beauty that the speaker is trying to convey throughout “Sonnet 18.” Whereas nature can sometimes be severe and unpredictable, the Youth’s beauty is enduring and steady because he’s beautiful on the outside and on the inside. Whereas outward beauty diminishes over time, inner beauty endures. 

 

Theme 2: The Inevitability of Decay

The inevitability of decay is a second theme that characterizes “Sonnet 18.” Decay is presented as a powerful threat to beauty, setting up a contrast that the speaker contemplates throughout the sonnet.

You could think of the theme of decay as being similar to growing old and/or dying in this sonnet. We know, it seems kind of gross to paint aging and death in terms of “decay.” But because things in the natural world decay—like a dead tree or an abandoned house, for example—it serves as a good counterpoint for the enduring beauty of the Fair Youth. 

So where do we see decay cropping up in this sonnet? Look no further than lines three through eight:

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;

See? In the lines above, things that were once beautiful are degraded by nature and the passing of time. In this case, that’s shown through the changing of the seasons. Beautiful flower buds that appeared in spring are stripped away by rough winds as the seasons change to summer. The hot days of summer dim and fade into fall, and then the earth grows darker as winter nears. 

While each season is “fair” or beautiful at some point, it also inevitably declines as time goes by. By using nature to make this point, the speaker is pointing out that decay is an inevitable part of life--it’s the “natural” course of things! 

Based on the first half of the sonnet, it seems like the speaker’s saying that decay is unavoidable. But when we get to the turn, or volta, in line nine of the sonnet, it’s revealed that the speaker believes one thing doesn’t decay: the beauty of the Fair Youth. 

Let’s take a look:

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.

Instead of fading into fall like real summer, the speaker says that the beauty the Fair Youth possesses will outlast the tests of time. Keep in mind that the speaker isn’t saying that the Fair Youth won’t physically grow old one day. But rather than decaying under the shadow of old age and death, the Fair Youth will live out his days with the same intrinsic beauty and vigor that comes from a strong inner spirit.  

 

Theme 3: The Passage of Time

The final theme we’ll look at in “Sonnet 18” is the passage of time. This theme appears as the speaker makes references to the changing of seasons from spring, to summer, to fall. The passage of time is also explicitly referenced in lines twelve through fourteen:

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.

That wording in line twelve is a little confusing, so let’s break it down. It seems that the speaker is saying that the Fair Youth defies the loss of beauty by growing with time. Growing and evolving as time passes is one of the ways that humans stay relevant, engaged, and lively...even as our bodies grow older. 

That’s what the speaker sees in the Fair Youth. Being open to growth is a way to maintain one’s inner youthfulness. As long as life keeps going on and on, and as long as the Fair Youth keeps growing and evolving, these traits will give life to the Fair Youth.

Another way to read the lines above is that the Fair Youth’s beauty will live on through time in people’s memory. And how are people going to remember the Fair Youth? By reading “Sonnet 18,” of course! The speaker is emphasizing how the beautiful things we witness in real-time will eventually decay, but beauty immortalized through a poem will live on. This is a commentary on the value of literature: through writings, we can capture memories of beautiful things that won’t change with the passing of time. So even when the Fair Youth is gone, we can still appreciate his beauty because we’re reading a poem about him! 

 

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Believe it or not, but the way the poem is written—i.e. it's form—is one of the most important poetic devices Shakespeare uses to help us understand "Sonnet 18"!  (Thefairyyouth154/Wikimedia)

 

The Top 2 Poetic Devices in Shakespeare, “Sonnet 18”

Poetic devices are forms and structures that poets use to convey a poem’s message and themes. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” uses several poetic devices, but we’re going to focus on the two poetic devices that are most important to helping Shakespeare convey his message: the sonnet form and question and answer structure.

 

The Sonnet Form

Since we’re covering the two most important poetic devices here, we want to start with the most obvious one: the sonnet itself! The sonnet is a type of poem that follows a specific structure, meter, and rhyme scheme. 

So, how can you tell that a poem is a sonnet? First, you can look at the poem’s structure. Sonnets most often consist of fourteen lines. So take a look at “Sonnet 18.” Did you count up the lines? Then you should see that there are fourteen!

Second, you can look at the poem’s rhyme scheme. You can tell a poem’s rhyme scheme by looking at the words that end each of the poem’s individual lines. While different types of sonnets may use different rhyme schemes, Shakespearean sonnets always follow an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. 

What do all those letters mean, though? Each letter signifies a specific rhyme. So, for instance, the “A” in the rhyme scheme signals that the last word in the line rhymes with the last word in every other line labeled with an “A.” So in the example below, “day” and “May” rhyme, so they’re both As. “Temperate” and “date” don’t rhyme with the A lines, but they do rhyme with each other. That means they get labeled as Bs. 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  (A)
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:  (B)
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,  (A)
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;  (B)

This is just a short example: if you figure out the rhymes for the other lines, you’ll find that the sonnet’s rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG...which is a typical Shakespearean sonnet form! 

If you have trouble figuring out whether something rhymes, keep in mind that Shakespeare was British and wrote his poems four centuries ago. It’s likely that some common English words were pronounced differently then! 

Third, the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet can also help you pick out stanzas, or groups of lines. Shakespearean sonnets consist of three four-line stanzas and one ending couplet, which is two lines that rhyme with each other. You can sometimes look at individual stanzas in a sonnet to pick out particular themes or ideas that the speaker is exploring. Sometimes, there are transitions between stanzas that help move the messages of the sonnet along to its ultimate conclusion at the end. 

And, finally, Shakespearean sonnets are written in something called iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter refers to the number of syllables in each line of a sonnet. Each line in iambic pentameter consists of ten syllables that are in five pairs. Pentameter” should clue you into this, actually: penta means “five.” 

Each line of iambic pentameter also follows a strict pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables are the syllables in the line where you place emphasis, and they’re always followed by an unstressed syllable. Take line three of “Sonnet 18” as an example. You might read it like this: 

Rough WINDS do SHAKE the DARling BUDS of MAY,

It may seem like we’re yelling at you, but what the all-caps in the lines above demonstrates is that our natural patterns of speech will put a little more oomph behind alternating syllables. So in the line above, “winds” and “shake” are stressed syllables, while “rough” and “do” are unstressed syllables. This metric pattern gives sonnets that sort of sing-songy quality that you might notice if you read them out loud!

Each of the structural elements we described above come together to make a Shakespearean sonnet. But why does Shakespeare use this form for his poem?

For one thing, sonnets were hugely popular during the Renaissance when Shakespeare was writing. Poets from all eras experiment with the popular poetic forms of their age. Sometimes, like Shakespeare, they even add their own twist to a popular form. 

In this case, Shakespeare took the sonnet form and played with the themes to make his poetry unique. Sonnets traditionally deal with themes of love and beauty, but Shakespeare uses the sonnet to deal with new themes, like aging and death. This is Shakespeare’s way of experimenting with a tried-and-true poetic form to keep it fresh.

If you want to learn more about different types of sonnets (there are several!) and how you can identify them, check out our full guide to eight different types of sonnets!

 

Question and Answer

Sonnets often pose a question that addresses one of the poem’s major themes, then spend the remainder of the sonnet answering that question. In “Sonnet 18,” the poem actually begins with a question: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Of course, this poem isn’t about summer...but it is about the comparison between the Fair Youth’s enduring beauty and the fleeting beauty of nature. 

Throughout the remaining lines of the poem, the speaker contemplates this question. The speaker explores different ways that the Fair Youth is similar to and different from beautiful things in nature, like the sun, blossoming flowers, and, of course, a summer’s day. These comparisons help the speaker ponder possible answers to the initial question posed in line one of the sonnet. 

In the middle of the sonnet, a turn or volta occurs. A volta is used to shift the tone and structure of a poem in a way that is often surprising. In the case of a Shakespearean sonnet, it can often signal that the speaker is pivoting from talking about the question of the poem to explaining the answer. 

At the volta in “Sonnet 18,” the speaker begins to answer the question posed at the beginning of the poem. The speaker starts drawing some conclusions about how the Fair Youth might be compared to a summer’s day, and eventually reveals that, while the Youth might be similar to a summer’s day because of his beauty, his beauty ultimately endures because it’s more than physical. 

In “Sonnet 18,” the use of the volta allows Shakespeare to make a major transition in the tone of the poem that is crucial to drawing the ultimate conclusions about beauty that we see at the end. 

 

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What’s Next? 

There’s a lot more to know about analyzing poetry! First, you’ll need to understand the top 20 poetic devices that can help you interpret a poem. Then you should check out our deep dives on some of the most important devices, like this one on allusion and this one on imagery.

Did you know that Shakespearean sonnets are just one type of sonnet? You can learn more about the eight major types of sonnets here.

If you’re new to analyzing poetry, it can be helpful to read through a few analyses to see how the experts do it. Along with this breakdown of “Sonnet 18,” be sure to check out other poetry explanations on our blog...like this one over Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” 

Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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