Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 Study Guide

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampto
Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who is generally identified as the Fair Youth of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Painted by John De Critz the Elder. (Wikimedia Commons)

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 is justifiably considered one of the most beautiful verses in the English language. The sonnet’s enduring power comes from Shakespeare’s ability to capture the essence of love so clearly and succinctly.

After much debate among scholars, it is now generally accepted that the subject of the poem is male. In 1640, a publisher named 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 the standard text until 1780 when Edmond Malone returned to the 1609 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 or erotic love.

Summary

Sonnet 18 is perhaps the most famous of the 154 sonnets Shakespeare completed in his lifetime (not including the six he included in several of his plays). The poem was originally published, along with Shakespeare's other sonnets, in a quarto in 1609. Scholars have identified three subjects in this collection of poems—the Rival Poet, the Dark Lady, and an anonymous young man known as the Fair Youth. Sonnet 18 is addressed to the latter.

The poem opens with the immortal line "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" following which Shakespeare does just that, finding the youth's beauty even "more lovely and more temperate" that that of summer.

Here Shakespeare is at his most romantic, writing that love and the youth’s beauty are more permanent than a summer’s day, which is tainted by occasional winds, blistering heat, and the eventual change of season. While summer must always come to an end, the speaker’s love for the man is eternal—and the youth's "eternal summer shall not fade."

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 the previous 17 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 appears again in the sonnets that follow.

Major Themes

Sonnet 18 touches on a few simple themes:

Love: 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 is even powerful than the summer’s day to which he has been compared up to this point. In this way, Shakespeare suggests that love is an even more powerful force than nature.

Writing and Memory: Like many other sonnets, Sonnet 18 contains a volta, or turn, where the subject matter changes and the speaker shifts from describing the subject's beauty to describing what will happen after the youth eventually grows old and dies.

"Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade," Shakespeare writes. Instead, he says that the fair youth will live on through the poem itself, which has captured the young man's beauty: "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."

Literary Style

Sonnet 18 is an English or Elizabethan sonnet, meaning it contains 14 lines, including three quatrains and a couplet, and is written in iambic pentameter. The poem follows the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Like many sonnets of the era, the poem takes the form of a direct address to an unnamed subject. The volta occurs at the beginning of the third quatrain, where the poet turns his attention to the future—"But thy eternal summer shall not fade."

The key literary device in the poem is metaphor, which Shakespeare references directly in the opening line.

However, instead of using it traditionally—comparing the subject to a summer's day—Shakespeare draws attention to all the ways in which the comparison is inadequate.

Historical Context

Little is known about the composition of Shakespeare's sonnets and how much of the material in them is autobiographical. Scholars have long speculated about the identity of the young man who is the subject of the first 126 sonnets, but they have yet to find any conclusive answers.

Key Quotes

Sonnet 18 contains several of Shakespeare's most famous lines.

  • "Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
    Thou art more lovely and more temperate"
  • "And summer’s lease hath all too short a date"
  • "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."