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Sonnet 18 - Study Guide

Study Guide to Sonnet 18: 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?'

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

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

Photo © Lee Jamieson

Introduction

Sonnet 18 deserves its fame because it is one of the most beautifully written verses in the English language. The sonnet’s endurance comes from Shakespeare’s ability to capture the essence of love so cleanly and succinctly.

After much debate amongst scholars, it is now generally accepted that the subject of the poem is male. In 1640, a publisher called John Benson released a highly inaccurate edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets in which he edited out the young man, replacing “he” with “she”.

Benson’s revision was considered to be the standard text until 1780 when Edmond Malone returned to the 1690 quarto and re-edited the poems. Scholars soon realized that the first 126 sonnets were originally addressed to a young man sparking debates about Shakespeare’s sexuality. The nature of the relationship between the two men is highly ambiguous and it is often impossible to tell if Shakespeare is describing platonic love or erotic love.

Commentary

The opening line poses a simple question which the rest of the sonnet answers. The poet compares his loved one to a summer’s day and finds him to be “more lovely and more temperate.”

The poet discovers that love and the man’s beauty are more permanent than a summer’s day because summer is tainted by occasional winds and the eventual change of season. While summer must always come to an end, the speaker’s love for the man is eternal.

For the speaker, love transcends nature in two ways:

  1. The speaker begins by comparing the man’s beauty to summer, but soon the man becomes a force of nature himself. In the line, “thy eternal summer shall not fade,” the man suddenly embodies summer. As a perfect being, he becomes more powerful than the summer’s day to which he was being compared.

  2. The poet’s love is so powerful that even death is unable to curtail it. The speaker’s love lives on for future generations to admire through the power of the written word – through the sonnet itself. The final couplet explains that the beloved’s “eternal summer” will continue as long as there are people alive to read this sonnet:
  3. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The young man to whom the poem is addressed is the muse for Shakespeare’s first 126 sonnets. Although there is some debate about the correct ordering of the texts, the first 126 sonnets are thematically interlinked and demonstrate a progressive narrative. They tell of a romantic affair that becomes more passionate and intense with each sonnet.

In previous sonnets, the poet has been trying to convince the young man to settle down and have children, but in Sonnet 18 the speaker abandons this domesticity for the first time and accepts love’s all-consuming passion – a theme that is set to continue in the sonnets that follow.

Study Questions

  1. How does Shakespeare’s treatment of love in Sonnet 18 differ to his later sonnets?
  2. How does Shakespeare use language and metaphor to present the young man’s beauty in Sonnet 18?
  3. Do you think that the speaker has been successful in immortalizing his love in the words of this poem? To what extent is this only a poetic idea?
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