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Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet #18 "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Analysis of William Shakespeare's Sonnet #18 "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"


Aristocratic patronage was among the greatest asset that a professional writer could have during the Elizabethan reign of England. It offered the writer a pension, protection, and prestige. Shakespeare's Sonnets stand out from others of his time due to their controversial subject-usually sonnets were written about a beautiful young woman, but Shakespeare decided to write about a beautiful young man. Shakespeare wanted to set himself apart from his contemporaries, which he successfully accomplished, so he took the accepted norms of poetry and tweaked them a little. He expanded the range of moods that could be portrayed in sonnets; he built off of the traditional despairing Petrarchan lover, and allowed him to experience delight, pride, melancholy, shame, disgust, and fear. Shakespeare's Sonnets 18 rejoices the beauty of the young man, and establishes the motif of Time being both destructive and transience and the only way to counter is through the force of love and the permanence of poetry.

In this first quatrain, the speaker is trying to find something that compares to the beauty of the young man. The speaker tries to compare him to a summer's day, but realizes that the young man is both more lovely and more temperate (mild/ more even in temper and personality) than summer. The flower buds that appear in the May (spring time is usually thought of as the time for love) are destroyed by the strong winds; thus, summer can be cruel and rough, which the young man is not. Summer also doesn't last all that long, which is inadequate for the description of this young man. The speaker's main goal is to help the young man live on forever; since we know from the previous seventeen sonnets that he does not wish to procreate the only other alternative is to find immortalize him in verse, and the speaker is trying to capture the splendor of his beauty by comparing it to others things.

The second quatrain is concerned with the natural progression of nature. The "eye of heaven" is referring to the sun, which shines so brightly at times and makes everything so hot; this is one extreme. Line six offers a different extreme weather variation; summer lacks the expected brightness, meaning that it is muggy or rainy. Line six is the complete reversal of line five. When the weather is too extreme in one direction (i.e. too hot or too dimmed) there is a negative effect on nature, which causes what is considered to be fair (beautiful) to decline in fairness. Furthermore, the things that we expect to be beautiful during the summer months-flowers, plants, and the landscape as a whole-can often times become unappealing due to overly hot temperatures or because they got too much moisture and not enough sun. During extreme weather conditions flowers are not able to bloom properly, and are often destroyed by too much heat or too much rain. Extreme weather happens either by chance or simply because nature has been divested of its beauty.




In the third quatrain, the narrator asserts that the young man is superior to nature, because his beauty will not fade like that of summer. "Ow'st," in line ten, is a pun because it means both ownest and owest; the young man owns his beauty, but he owes it to nature. The speaker treats beauty as if it is a possession (something that lasts forever), instead of something that has been given to the young man as a gift of nature that will eventually fade. I believe he does this to show that the young man will maintain his beauty as long as the poet's verse lives on. The young man is able to escape the hands of Death by being grafted into these lines; time and death cannot harm the beautiful young man as long as his beauty is written about in verse.

Grafting is something that is commonly used throughout these sonnets, because in horticultural it is a way of making a plant stronger and last longer. What you do is take a branch (scion) of a weak plant and graft it to the roots or main stem of a stronger plant to create a much stronger plant. This notion can be applied to the lines of a poem; the scion is the beautiful young man and the stock is the poet's verse, so by combining them together they become stronger and will be able to withstand the ravages of time. This is also reminiscent of the Fates, who control the strings of life (each string represents a person); they spin the thread (beginning of life), measure it (how long someone is going to live/ lifespan), and eventually cut it (death). By making your string stronger you are able to cheat Time and prolong your life.

The speaker tells the young man that he will live on forever, as long as men are alive and can read. His verse gives life to the young man; every time someone reads this verse the young man comes alive again, and will thus live on forever.

Sources

Shakespeare, William. "18." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 1063.

Published on July 16, 2014 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

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