Places: Sonnets of Shakespeare

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Sonnets, 1609

Type of work: Poetry

Places DiscussedCosmos

Cosmos. Sonnets of ShakespeareNatural phenomena of heaven and Earth are compared to human activities. The universe is like a huge stage, on which each natural element performs at its peak of perfection then declines and dies; likewise, a youth experiences a moment of perfection that does not last. An astrologer predicts the future by reading the stars, but the speaker looks into his lover’s eyes for truth and beauty. Fate bestows fame on military heroes and the prince’s favorites, who will soon wilt like marigolds.

Time and season

Time and season. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets compare stages of life to time passing from dawn to midday to sunset, and from spring to summer to fall and winter. Youth is like a blazing sunrise, maturing at high noon, declining in old age, and dying at sunset. The rising sun kisses earth’s mountaintops, meadows, and streams, but clouds of disgrace sometimes emerge to hide its brilliance. Time turns youthful black curls silver, and green meadows fall to the scythe. Time is a tyrant that drives summer onward to winter and death, leaving behind the fragrance of summer flowers. A lover’s absence seems bleak like winter, even though it may be spring, and Nature is reproducing so extravagantly that the gloomy planet Saturn laughs.


Gardens. Several sonnets compare a lover’s faults to flaws in nature: thorns on roses, mud in silver fountains, clouds and eclipses that hide the Sun and the Moon, and the worm inside a rosebud. Except for their thorns, wild roses are as colorful and smell as sweet as cultivated roses. Cold, unemotional people are like stones, while lovers are like lilies. If lilies become infected, they smell worse than weeds that choke them out. The speaker accuses flowers (other lovers) of stealing color and scent from the youth’s cheeks and breath, white from his hand, gold from his hair, roses from his blush, and white from his low spirits. In retaliation, worms soon steal life from the flowers.

Familiar settings

Familiar settings. Familiar Elizabethan settings appear in many sonnets. For example, one speaker compares his stage of life to ruins of a deserted chapel, where trees are bare and no birds sing, to twilight after sunset, and to the dying embers of a once-glowing fire. In another, a family’s heritage is like a house needing constant repair–through its heirs–so it can withstand storms of misfortune and death. Lawyers in a courtroom argue over whether a lover belongs to the defendant or to the plaintiff; the jury decides in the defendant’s favor.

In another sonnet, two men are imprisoned in the steel cell of a woman’s heart; the speaker begs the woman to release his friend and in return promises to remain her prisoner. Elsewhere, a mirror reflects a speaker’s aging face; a clock reminds him of time wasted, and blank pages in his journal reflect his lack of creativity. While a woman plays a spinet, admirers wish they were the wooden keys being caressed by her fingers; they kiss her hand, but the speaker wishes to kiss her lips. Although marble monuments may be overturned during wars, and memorial stones in church floors may be effaced, the poet claims his verse will last until Judgment Day.

BibliographyAtkins, Carl D., ed. Shakespeare’s Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2007. This well-researched edition offers commentary on Shakespeare’s poems using editions of the poetry that date back to 1710. It also includes a discussion of the metrical features of each poem along with a bibliography, an index, and three appendixes.Cheney, Patrick. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2007. A collection of essays offering literary, historical, and cultural information on Shakespeare’s poetry. Bibliographies and suggestions for further reading make this an invaluable source for those interest in Shakespeare.Crossman, Robert. “Making Love out of Nothing at All: The Issue of Story in Shakespeare’s Procreation Sonnets.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, no. 4 (Winter, 1990): 470-488. Argues that a consistent story line unifies many of the sonnets, focusing especially on Sonnets 1 through 17. In this group, Crossman traces the progress of the sonnet speaker’s friendship and warm affection for a fair young man.Green, Martin. Wriothesley’s Roses: In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Poems, and Plays. Baltimore: Clevendon Books, 1993. Links historical records with poetic context in various sonnets in an interesting attempt to establish the identities of Shakespeare’s fair young man and of the rival poet who seems to compete with Shakespeare’s speaker for the affections of the Dark Lady. Provides a good historical background.Landry, Hilton. Interpretation in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. Despite numerous more recent studies, this book remains an excellent introduction to the thematic analysis and interpretation of Shakespeare’s sonnets.Ramsey, Paul. The Fickle Glass: A Study of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: AMS Press, 1979. A clearly written scholarly examination of critical problems, poetic techniques, and meaning in the sonnets. Explores questions of authorship, order, and date of composition. Excellent discussion of metrical rules and Elizabethan rhetoric in the sonnets.Smith, Hallet. The Tension of the Lyre: Poetry in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1981. General discussion of the sonnets, beginning with an exploration of poetic voice and audience, and including an overview of Shakespeare’s world as it is reflected in the sonnets.Weiser, David K. Mind in Character: Shakespeare’s Speaker in the Sonnets. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987. Thorough explication of the sonnets. Useful appendix classifies the sonnets by modes of address.
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