William Shakespeare

b. 1564 d. 1616

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven; and as imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown, the poet's pen turns them to shape. – William Shakespeare

About William Shakespeare

Little is known about Shakespeare's life. Existing records give tantalising glimpses: he was born in 1564, the eldest son of an illiterate but locally prominent Stratford glover, married (at eighteen) the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway, had three children of whom one, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven, and was an actor, poet and playwright. There is a scurrilous and apparently jealous reference to him in a pamphlet published in 1592 and he was a leading – and increasingly prosperous – member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, London's leading acting company. He died in 1616, having returned to Stratford.

To augment this sparse biographical information about Shakespeare, readers have tried to find out what he was like by looking for clues in his work. But this effort seems doomed to failure, even in the case of the sonnets, published in 1609. The dedication was: 'To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets Mr W. H. all happiness and that eternity promised'. Despite centuries of speculation, no-one knows for sure what this means; equally uncertain are the identities of the persons referred to in the poems. And it is impossible to say whether some or all of these poems are autobiographical.

The sonnets are all written in the first person and nearly all of them are addressed to someone. Each sonnet is a journey: the thought moves towards the final couplet. An idea is set up in the first eight lines, and extended, modified or reversed in the last six. Sonnet 18 begins with a simple question : 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?'. No, is the answer, because summer is too changeable and it fades. Then in the ninth line the reversal begins: the beloved (unlike summer) will never fade because this verse will give her (or him) immortality.

The passing of time - and the destruction it brings - is a principal theme of the sonnets. It provides the movement of thought in Sonnet 65, and here again the direction of travel is towards the idea that writing gives permanence to the beloved. In Sonnet 73 it is the speaker who is suffering the effects of the passing of time.

The poised certainty of Sonnet 116 triumphs over time, even though 'rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle's compass come'. The confidence of the twelfth line, with its staccato simplicity: 'but bears it out even to the edge of doom' drags the reader to the definitive statement of the final couplet. By contrast, the tone of Sonnet 130 is dismissive, almost arrogant. Here the poet is self-aware, posing, playing with ideas; the sense that the reader enters the poem in the middle of an argument is a reminder that this unique poet also wrote thirty-seven plays.





Selected bibliography

On Shakespeare's Sonnets: A Poets' Celebration


Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden Shakespeare, 2010)

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems (...


William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Downloads read by James Fenton

1Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage


2Sonnet 130: My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun


3Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee


4Sonnet 73: That time of year thou mayst in me behold


5Sonnet 65: Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea


6Sonnet 19: Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws


7Sonnet 147: My love is like a fever, longing still


8Sonnet 20


Books by William Shakespeare