10 Best Shakespeare Sonnets You Must Read

William Shakespeare, a literary titan whose works have been studied, performed, and admired for over four centuries, was not just the playwright of immortal works like “Romeo and Juliet” or “Hamlet”. He was also a prolific poet. Among his most renowned poetic contributions are his sonnets, a collection of 154 poems that explore love, beauty, morality, and the transient nature of life. Written in the Elizabethan era but astonishingly pertinent even today, these sonnets have been translated into every major language and are recited and analysed globally.

The Shakespearean sonnet, distinguished by its iambic pentameter and specific rhyme scheme (ABABCDCDEFEFGG), has captivated readers with its lyrical beauty and depth of emotion. Shakespeare’s sonnets delve into the complexities of love, both romantic and platonic, scrutinise the concept of beauty, and muse on mortality, thereby offering profound insights into human psychology and the world at large.

Given the brilliance and broad subject matter of these sonnets, selecting the best Shakespearean sonnets is a challenge. However, certain pieces stand out for their enduring universal themes and unrivalled articulation. What follows is an examination of these select sonnets, each of which exemplifies Shakespeare’s unparalleled skill in capturing the very essence of human emotion and existence.

1. Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

A list of Shakespeare’s best sonnets would be incomplete without Sonnet 18, often lauded as one of his most famous. It starts with the speaker contemplating the comparison of his beloved to a summer’s day, only to assert that the loved one is more lovely and more temperate.

This sonnet remains enduringly popular for its straightforward yet profound theme: the immortality conferred upon the beloved through the very lines of the poem. Shakespeare declares that as long as humanity exists, the beauty of his love will never fade away, preserved forever in the verse itself.

2. Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds”

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:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Known as the ‘marriage sonnet’, Sonnet 116 delves into the theme of unyielding love. It defies impediments and is not swayed by time. The speaker argues that if love changes, dies, or allows itself to be altered by circumstances, then it is not true love at all.

Shakespeare’s definition of love here has become a template for the ideal romantic relationship. It’s frequently recited at weddings and remains a favourite among those looking for a timeless, universal definition of love.

3. Sonnet 29: “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”

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,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

This sonnet is a vivid portrayal of a man in the depths of despair. He feels himself out of luck, out of public favour, and generally depressed. Yet, the thought of his beloved instantly lifts his spirits, and he wouldn’t trade his state for that of kings.

Here, Shakespeare delves into the power of love to lift us from our lowest moments, offering a richer, deeper joy than even material wealth or public acclaim could ever provide.

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

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Sonnet 73 is one of Shakespeare’s most famous works, but this fame is not only due to the sonnet’s eloquent use of metaphor. It’s also famous because it taps into universal truths about ageing, life, death, and our fears of growing old and irrelevant.

By using metaphors of the winter day, the twilight, and the dying fire, Shakespeare manages to convey the bleakness and emptiness associated with old age. Yet, the conclusion suggests that understanding the transience of life makes love all the more precious.

5. Sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.

This sonnet stands out for its ironic take on the traditional love sonnet. Here, Shakespeare deliberately avoids the clichés and exaggerations common in love poems of his time, declaring that his mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun, and coral is far more red than her lips.

The ultimate twist in this sonnet is its conclusion, where the speaker states that his love is as rare as any, dispelling the notion that love needs to be idealised to be real. It’s a refreshing perspective, one that modern readers can certainly relate to.

6. Sonnet 104: “To me, fair friend, you never can be old”

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

In this sonnet, Shakespeare laments the passage of time but takes comfort in the unchanging beauty of his friend. The speaker compares their first meeting to the present day, finding that his friend’s beauty remains just as captivating.

This sonnet touches upon themes of friendship, love, and the everlasting power of beauty against the ravages of time. It reminds us that while everything around us may change, some things—like true friendship—remain steadfast.

7. Sonnet 2: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies—
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days—
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use
If thou couldst answer “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse”,
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Sonnet 2 deals with the theme of procreation as a means of achieving immortality. The speaker urges the young man to have children to preserve his beauty for future generations.

This sonnet is often interpreted as an urging from an older man to a younger, possibly more beautiful, one to appreciate the fleeting nature of youth and beauty. It is a poignant reminder of how quickly time passes and what might be done to preserve our best qualities for future generations.

8. Sonnet 27: “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed”

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! Thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself no quiet find.

In this sonnet, Shakespeare explores the theme of separation and longing. Despite physical exhaustion, the speaker finds himself unable to sleep, as his thoughts are consumed by the one he loves.

This sonnet speaks to anyone who has ever been separated from a loved one, either through distance or circumstance. It explores the way love occupies our thoughts, filling our waking hours and invading our dreams.

9. Sonnet 71: “No longer mourn for me when I am dead”

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell;
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.

This sonnet focuses on themes of mortality and the transient nature of life. The speaker instructs his loved ones not to mourn his death and to forget him once he is gone.

Shakespeare captures the existential concerns that haunt us all, presenting a sombre picture of death. However, the sonnet also serves as a loving admonishment to move on and live fully, even when faced with the loss of a loved one.

10. Sonnet 55: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare returns to the theme of poetry as a means of immortalising the beloved. The speaker argues that neither marble monuments nor war will outlast the enduring nature of his verse.

This sonnet encapsulates the enduring power of written word over physical monuments. It’s a grand statement on the power of art to capture beauty and defy the decay of time.

Conclusion

William Shakespeare’s sonnets are timeless masterpieces that explore the complexities of love, beauty, mortality, and the human condition. While it is difficult to definitively rank these poems, the sonnets listed above stand out for their universal themes, emotional depth, and exquisite craftsmanship.

Each of these sonnets serves as a small window into the vast emotional landscape of human existence. They compel us to look inward and consider our own thoughts, feelings, and relationships, providing a source of endless inspiration, introspection, and even consolation. Truly, the power and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets are a testament to their creator’s genius, offering wisdom and beauty that will endure for generations to come.

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