Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Whistle-Stop Tour

Our Valentine's Day theme continues with a look at some of Shakespeare's greatest sonnets.

In case yesterday’s blog has left you feeling a little too cynical about Shakespeare and love, we’re going to have a look at some of his greatest love sonnets. The sonnet is the epitome of a love poem, and Shakespeare wrote loads of them – 154 are published as stand-alone sonnets, then he includes many more in his plays.


But first of all, what is a Shakespearean sonnet?


A sonnet is (almost always) a 14-line poem about love. Their structure can vary wildly, but a Shakespearean sonnet is usually made up of three quatrains (four-line verses), and then a couplet at the end. The three quatrains rhyme abab – this means the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and fourth line rhyme. Then the two lines of the couplet at the end rhyme with each other. These final two lines are often used to sum up what the rest of the poem has said, though sometimes they can add a surprise twist…


Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet is Sonnet 18, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? But this can be seen as a little superficial and arrogant, praising his beloved’s beauty and his own writing prowess rather than anything deeper.


So, let’s explore some of his other many brilliant examples.


A personal favourite of mine is Sonnet 116, which begins:


Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove

This sonnet is a popular reading at weddings, which is unsurprising: it goes on to describe how true love won’t alter with circumstances or hardship or time, that it is a constant as permanent, reliable, and immeasurably valuable as the North Star to sailors navigating at sea, and that it will last when beauty fades and all else has gone.


Another favourite is Sonnet 29. This begins less sentimentally, and for a while it’s unclear what it has to do with love:


When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate

This misery and self-pity continues for another four lines. But then there’s a beautiful volta, or turn where the mood changes, as the poet qualifies his hopelessness with a ‘Yet’:


Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee

He goes on to say that remembering how and by whom he is loved brings him so much joy that it’s worth all his other dire circumstances – he wouldn’t swap places with a king!


A less well-known, but very lovely, sonnet is Sonnet 27: ‘Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed’. It’s a great one for long-distances relationships, as the poet explains how, exhausted from a long day’s work, he falls into bed, but then can get no sleep for thinking about his beloved, which brightens the night and warms his soul, but stops him from getting any sleep!


Finally, we mentioned at the beginning that Shakespeare sometimes worked sonnets into his plays. The most famous, and arguably most beautiful, example of this is in Romeo and Juliet, where at their first meeting the teenage lovers’ lines entwine to form a sonnet, culminating in a kiss. It’s too lovely to paraphrase, so here’s the whole thing:


ROMEO: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
ROMEO: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
ROMEO: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.
(Kisses her)

So. While Shakespeare complicates the idea of a happy ending in his plays, he can still write a pretty great love poem.


Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca


Subjects Taught: English, Maths, 7+, 11+


Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.

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