Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? (Sonnet 18) by William Shakespeare

Although William Shakespeare is best known as a playwright, he is also the poet behind 154 sonnets, which were collected for the first time in a collection in 1609. Based on the Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, Shakespeare’s sonnets differ from the norm by addressing not only a young woman – which was the norm in Italy – but also a young man, known throughout as the Fair Youth. Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? is one of the Fair Youth poems, addressed to a mysterious male figure that scholars have been unable to pin down. A total of 126 of the 154 sonnets are largely taken to be addressed to the Fair Youth, which some scholars have also taken as proof of William Shakespeare’s homosexuality.

 

Summary

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? attempts to justify the speaker’s beloved’s beauty by comparing it to a summer’s day, and comes to the conclusion that his beloved is better after listing some of the summer’s negative qualities. While summer is short and occasionally too hot, his beloved has a beauty that is everlasting, and that will never be uncomfortable to gaze upon. This also riffs – as Sonnet 130 does – on the romantic poetry of the age, the attempt to compare a beloved to something greater than them. Although in Sonnet 130, Shakespeare is mocking the over-flowery language, in Sonnet 18, Shakespeare’s simplicity of imagery shows that that is not the case. The beloved’s beauty can coexist with summer, and indeed be more pleasant, but it is not a replacement for it.

 

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day? Analysis

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.

The poem opens with the speaker putting forward a simple question: can he compare his lover to a summer’s day? Historically, the theme of summertime has always been used to evoke a certain amount of beauty, particularly in poetry. Summer has always been seen as the respite from the long, bitter winter, a growing period where the earth flourishes itself with flowers and with animals once more. Thus, to compare his lover to a summer’s day, the speaker considers their beloved to be tantamount to a rebirth, and even better than summer itself.

As summer is occasionally short, too hot, and rough, summer is, in fact, not the height of beauty for this particular speaker. Instead, he attributes that quality to his beloved, whose beauty will never fade, even when ‘death brag thou waander’stin his shade‘, as he will immortalize his lover’s beauty in his verse.

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

The immortality of love and beauty through poetry provides the speaker with his beloved’s eternal summer. Though they might die and be lost to time, the poem will survive, will be spoken of, will live on when they do not. Thus, through the words, his beloved’s beauty will also live on.

Read more poetry analysis:   Sonnet 141 by William Shakespeare

In terms of imagery, there is not much that one can say about it. William Shakespeare’s sonnets thrive on a simplicity of imagery, at a polar opposite to his plays, whose imagery can sometimes be packed with meaning. Here, in this particular sonnet, the feeling of summer is evoked through references to the ‘darling buds‘ of May, and through the description of the sun as golden-complexioned. It is almost ironic that we are not given a description of the lover in particular. In fact, scholars have argued that, as a love poem, the vagueness of the beloved’s description leads them to believe that it is not a love poem written to a person, but a love poem about itself; a love poem about love poetry, which shall live on with the excuse of being a love poem. The final two lines seem to corroborate this view, as it moves away from the description of the lover to point out the longevity of his own poem. As long as men can read and breathe, his poem shall live on, and his lover, too, will live on, because he is the subject of this poem.

However, opinions are divided on this topic.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are all written in iambic pentameter – an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable, with five of these in each line – with a rhyming couplet at the end.

 

Historical Background

William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon to an alderman and glover. He is widely regarded as the greatest English writer of all time, and wrote 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and 38 plays, though recently another play has been found and attributed to William Shakespeare. Although much is known about his life, scholars are still uncertain as to whether or not Shakespeare actually authored his works, and convincing arguments exist on both sides.

He died on his 52nd birthday, after signing a will which declared that he was in ‘perfect health’. Theories about his death include that he drank too much at a meeting with Ben Jonson, and Drayton, contemporaries of his, contracted a fever, and died.

His work remains a lasting source of wonder to many filmmakers, writers, and scholars, and has been recreated in other media – most noticeably Baz Luhrmann’ 2004 Romeo + Juliet. William Shakespeare’s work also has worldwide appeal, and has been recreated for Japanese audiences in films such as Throne of Blood, which is based on Macbeth, though Throne of Blood eschews all the poetry and focuses simply on the story.

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