William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” has one of the most famous and compelling opening lines in all of poetry. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The question remains, who was he talking to and what was he trying to say about her, or him. Shakespeare published this sonnet along with 153 other poems in 1609 and scholars have debated its meaning ever since. Was Shakespeare pursuing an unrequited love? Was it with a male or female? Or was he caught in a love triangle? Was the young woman indifferent, ignorant, or unattainable because of her rank or station in life? Did she even exist? The most plausible answer, given the circumstances of Shakespeare’s life at the height of his fame, is that the beautiful lady, whoever she was, and the fair youth to whom she was loyal were passing fancies or poetic conceits, not real people.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day/thou art more lovely and more temperate.” At first glance, this seems to be addressed to a specific young woman. However, scholars group this sonnet among a group of twenty which appear to involve a ‘fair youth’ of whom Shakespeare was fond, or of whom he was jealous for commanding the attentions of a lovely maid whom the Bard could not claim as his own. He could, and through this sonnet did, address conventional compliments to her, wanting to compare her to a summer’s day but finding that she was fairer and more temperate. The word temperate is sometimes paraphrased as constant, meaning that unlike the fickle weather of a summer day, the object of his desire is more loyal, either to the ‘fair youth’ or to someone else but not Shakespeare.
He next acknowledges the passage of time. The fair one will not be young for very long. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May/and summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” He acknowledges that his/her beauty is only temporary. “Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines/and often is his gold complexion dimmed.” Shakespeare was saying that the fair lady both men desire will soon fade in beauty, or be the victim of some unfortunate circumstance. “And every fair from fair sometime declines/by chance or nature’s course untrimmed.”
Hope springs eternal in the next several lines. “But thy eternal summer shall not fade/nor lose possession of that fair thou owest.” The beauty of this man or woman is such that the normal ravages of time cannot destroy their looks, at least in the poet’s eye. Shakespeare new that beauty fades over time, or can be destroyed by illness, accident or death. But he has a solution. “Nor shall death brag thou wanderest in his shade/when in eternal lines to time thou growest.” Death can never conqueror this beloved one, for he or she will be immortalized in this poem. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/so long lives this and this gives life to thee.” If the poet cannot have him or her in this life, he can preserve him or her for all eternity, along with his undying love.
Though he continues to admire his love interest and protest his undying love, Shakespeare’s acknowledgement of the passing of time and the danger of unforeseen circumstance indicates his despair at being able to develop a relationship with his love interest. This sonnet and the others dealing with the fair youth are also called procreation sonnets. Shakespeare will never immortalize his love by having children and descendants, either because two men cannot procreate, or the fair one chooses to procreate with another-perhaps the fair youth. Meantime, he can immortalize his predicament with a poem.
The poem also emphasizes borrowed time and borrowed beauty. Flowers bud only for a short time. Summer weather changes quickly. Beauty is fragile and borrowed from time, which cannot be wasted. By being constant to another, but not to him, the lady of the poem is wasting her looks and wasting time. There is not a moment to lose. Although he can immortalize his love through his poetry, he wants to make her his and take her away from all rivals, including the fair youth, if indeed his is a rival. It is possible that the grouping of this sonnet and the context of it were the choice of the publishers and not of Shakespeare. There is no other evidence that Shakespeare, married at least once, had homosexual feelings or pursued an unrequited relationship with anyone, male or female.
By the time he wrote these sonnets Shakespeare was in London, at the height of his fame as a playwright and a poet, but growing older. His wife and children were at home in Stratford, far from London given the modes of travel at the time. He had less need of a grand romance than of a noble patron with cash to offer for plays and gigs for his struggle theater company. A patron could be attracted only with consistent work output. Shakespeare wrote about several women in his poems and in his plays. They were based on history or on current stories of the time. They were also based on his imagination. His plays are filled with love-struck youths and maidens caught in impossible love triangles and pining for unattainable romantic interests. The lines of this sonnet, with its lovely heroine immortalized forever, have that same ring. She is beautiful, but she is not interested in him. He can offer nothing to tempt her interest, but he can immortalize her as she was then, which he did with this sonnet, which he did. Perhaps, if he were lucky, his words would strike a chord with a sympathetic nobleman who might bring Shakespeare one step closer to the goal of all the playing companies in London, a command performance before the Queen.
There is no evidence that Shakespeare was pursuing any romantic relationship, male or female, while in London. Instead, the words of this sonnet place it squarely in the context of the rest of his work, men and women pining for the unattainable. The lady of Sonnet 18 was a figment of his imagination, never a real woman.
- Fields, Bertram. Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare. New York, Harper, 2005.
- Matz, Robert. The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets: An Introduction. Jefferson, N.C., McFarland, 2007.
- Vendler, H. The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1997.