Sonnet 18 | A Breakdown of Shakespeare's Sonnets
sonnet 18 shakespeare

Sonnet 18

Written by on | Shakespeare

Easily the most famous of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Sonnet 18 is about as clear a love letter to someone, as well as to love itself, that you can get. To understand the significance of this sonnet I think it needs to be known that Sonnets 1-17 are about a young person, and their beauty, as preserved by the poet through the first seventeen sonnets. Sonnet 18 marks the beginning of what we can kind of describe as the second act of the sonnets. Sonnets 18-126 mark the growing disdain for the poet by the young person, their involvement with the mistress, and the ultimate separation of the young person, and the poet.

Listen to the audio version of this Sonnet

Sonnet 18 (Original Text)

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 owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Verse Breakdown

Bold = Stressed
Unbold = Unstressed
ABCDEFG: Rhyming pattern

 

First Quatrain; Or, The Question

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

 

Second Quatrain; Or, The Exploration
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, C
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; D
And every fair from fair sometime declines, C
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d; D

 

Third Quatrain; Or, The Turn
But thy eternal summer shall not fade E
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; F
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, E
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st: F

 

Rhyming Couplet; Or, The Answer
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, G
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. G

 

Modern Translation

Shall I compare you to a Summer’s day?
You are much more lovely and mild
Strong winds shake the spring flowers
And Summer is over too soon
Sometimes the Sun is too hot
And clouds often cover it
And everything that’s beautiful stops being beautiful eventually
Be it by chance or by the natural course of nature
But your beauty will never fade
And you’ll never lose ownership of it
Your beauty will never die
It will live on for eternity
   So long as there are still people alive on earth
   Your beauty and these words will give life to themselves

Thought Breakdown and Analysis

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
We begin with a question. Pretty straight forward. Can I? Or shall I compare you to a day in Summer

Thou art more lovely and more temperate
This person is more lovely and calm and temperate than even the most beautiful Summers day

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
The first reference to the inconstancy of nature. Winds shake the flowers of Spring

And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date
Summer is over too soon. These last two lines of the quatrain are literally comparing the young person to nature as posed in the opening line of the sonnet.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
We move on to the exploration of the question posed in the first quatrain. Sometimes the sun can be too hot. Again we’re talking about the inconstancy and imperfect things in nature.

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d
And quite often the sun is hidden or dulled by the clouds. The poet is saying even the Sun, I repeat, THE SUN, is not as perfect as the young person

And every fair from fair sometime declines
And everything beautiful will fade eventually

By chance or natures changing course untrimm’d
Either by nature or mere chance do things fade from their beauty

But thy eternal summer shall not fade
BUT. Notice the ‘but’. This is the turn. A shift in tone and direction for the third quatrain. We’re heading home. But your beauty will never fade. Not like everything in nature.

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest
And you will never lose the beauty that you own. 

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade
Even death will not be able to brag that they can come for you.

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st
For eternity your beauty will only grow and grow. And here’s why.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
We move to the rhyming couplet now and the answer to the question posed in the very first line of the sonnet. So long as people are alive on this earth breathing and living and seeing with their eyes. 

So long lives this and this gives life to thee
And to finish us we have a double entendre, or ‘double meaning’. The ‘this’ in this line means two things. The beauty that the whole sonnet is referring to, AND the sonnet itself. What he’s essentially saying is. So long as people continue to read these words. Which spoiler alert, we do. Then your beauty will be able to be adored for all time.

Unfamiliar Language

Thee/Thou: You
Art: Are
Hath: Has
Thy: Your
Untimm’d: Unadorned, lacking ornament
Owest: Owns

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

About the Author

Jake Fryer-Hornsby

Jake Fryer-Hornsby is an actor, writer, and educator based in Sydney, and originally hailing from regional Western Australia. Jake graduated from WAAPA in 2017 and since then has gone on to work on and off stages around the country. You can find Jake taking shelter from the sun in any number of outdoor areas and/or on the hunt for his next caffeine fix.

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