Descriptions of a selection of Shakespeare's sonnets from our Artistic Director Gregory Doran drawing on Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells' new book All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (published September 2020).
'When forty winters shall besiege thy brow'
When you become old, you should be able to show that you have a successor to your beauty – but only if you beget a child.
More usual as an argument made by a man to a woman, as part of his seduction.
'When do I count the clock that tells the time'
The number of hours in the day. Everything dies, so the only way to survive is to have children.
Evidence that everything eventually perishes prompts the poet to consider that his friend is subject to the same process.
'Who will believe my verse in time to come'
The last of the poems encouraging procreation - perhaps for the 17th birthday of William Herbert.
My poetry alone cannot convey your many wonders, and might be mistrusted, so have a child as well.
'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day'
You don’t need children to testify to your beauty, because that will live for ever in this poem. My poetry turns you into an eternal summer in which you will be forever beautiful. This is one of the best chat up line poems I know.
‘A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted’
Famously puzzling sonnet - the language is slippery and self subverting.
You are more beautiful than a woman, and have more allure, but nature fell in love with you and gave you the equipment to give pleasure to women. Nevertheless, you must stay constant to me!
You look like both a man and a woman, and everyone is attracted to you. I can love you, but your love-making is really for women.
'As an unperfect actor on the stage'
Sometimes I lose the ability to express my love, but realise it is there – in the silence of what I have already written.
'Weary with toil, I haste me to me bed'
I cannot sleep, even though I go to bed exhausted, because my mind sees you in the darkness.
'When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes'
When I am feeling out of favour with the world, I happen to think of you, and am so transported to heaven that my happiness is greater than kings’. Your love compensates for everything.
'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought'
In solitude, the poet takes stock of his failures. Until he thinks consolingly of you. When I call to mind the past, I grieve; but when I think of you, my sense of loss and my grief end.
'Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day'
Why did you betray me? Give me the come on then reject me. You have let me suffer and your trying to rescue the situation, and being repentant, does not help. But your tears do.
'Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all'
Why don’t you just take away all the love I have? I forgive you, but love’s deception is worse than straightforward hatred.
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Continuing the theme of absence, the poet wishes his body could move with the same agility as his thoughts.
If only I were made of thought so that I could fly quickly to wherever you are! But I am only made of heavy elements and must wait for time to reunite us.
‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments'
My poetry will outlast buildings and cities. Nothing will outlive my rhyme and the way it immortalises you, until you yourself are resurrected from the dead
'Being your slave what should I do but tend'
Listen - I am entirely subservient to you in both my thoughts and my deeds, but I am aware that you may be fooling around. I am your slave, and have nothing better to do than to wait around for you. My love for you will excuse anything you do.
'Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore'
The inevitable process of maturity and decay can only be counteracted by my verse. Our minutes pass, and time destroys everything that it once made beautiful. But my poetry will survive, praising you.
A meditation on the power of poetry to transcend time.
'Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’
I am so sick and tired of things as they are, that I am looking forward to death – except that in dying I would leave my loved one alone.
A meditation about all that’s wrong with the world, which refers to a male or a female loved one.
'No longer mourn for me when I am dead'
Let your mourning for me be short. I would rather you forget me, even when you read my poem, than be unhappy, for which you might be mocked.
A plea for oblivion.
'That time of year thou mayst in me behold'
I am in the winter and sunset of my life, an old, fading fire. But seeing me like this might make your love for me even stronger.
This sonnet explores the young man’s perception of the older poets decrepitude. Concluding that this would only strengthen their love.
'O, how I faint when I of you do write'
Although I am discouraged because another, better poet is also writing about you, I will continue to do what I can and, if I fail, at least I can say I have failed for love’s sake.
He acknowledges the superiority of the rival poet. He and his rival are compared to two different kinds of ships.
'Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing'
Farewell, you are too precious for me to keep, and I was mistaken in your love. The poet relinquishes his claim on the young man.
'Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now'
If you are going to leave me, do it quickly. Do it while things are going badly for me that way my other misfortunes will dwindle by comparison.
'Some glory in their birth, some in their skill'
Everyone has something they deeply enjoy: for me it’s your love.
He spurns what others enjoy, because he invests everything in his beloved, who can thus deprive him of everything.
'They that have power to hurt and will do none'
Some apparently admirable people have a natural power over others and over themselves, but this might eventually turn nasty.
A meditation in the third person, an essay in miniature. The gift of beauty carries with it an obligation to behave virtuously. The best final couplet of all the sonnets.
'How like a winter hath my absence been’
Being away from you feels like winter, and even though it is summer and autumn, the best of the year is always where you are.
The first of three related sonnets about absence.
'When in the chronicle of wasted time'
When I read the poetry of the past, praising the most beautiful people, I realise that they were really describing you, but could never do so adequately – nor can we.
‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’
True minds in love know that love never changes but lasts forever, and, if I am wrong, I have never written anything, nor been in love.
'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame'
To be possessed by lust wastes vital energy which, being acted upon, promises heaven, but only leads to a hell of guilt.
An almost breathless meditation on the feelings and consequences of lust.
'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'
My mistress is nothing like any of the false comparisons usually drawn in love poems, and is therefore more special than any woman about whom such false claims are made.
A meditation about a mistress. The traditional forms of beauty celebrated in love poetry are unnecessary to provoke desire. Like Touchstone and Audrey (As You Like It).
'When my love swears that she is made of truth'
My loved one and I both know we are lying to each other, she about her faithfulness, I about my age, but our lies help our relationship to function.
Mutually dependent self deception he pretends she’s chaste, she pretends he is young.
'Two loves I have of comfort and despair'
The man and woman whom I love are like good and bad angels, and I suspect her of infecting him.
A meditation about a male and a female for whom the poet feels contrasting love. The good and bad Angel sonnet
'My love is as a fever, longing still'
I am sick from loving you, but want to remain so, even though I know it is fatal, and is turning me mad.
He is in the grip of a mania, Love is a disease. He has been abandoned by reason. And I know you are not what you pretend to be. A shivering final couplet.
For explanatory notes and paraphrases of all Shakespeare's sonnets, see All the Sonnets of Shakespeare ed. by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, published Cambridge University Press (2020).