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Allusion in Shakespeare's Sonnets

To learn more about allusions in the sonnets, visit our Guide to Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Allusion Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 21–30

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"The painful warrior famoused for fight, After a thousand victories once foil'd, Is from the book of honour razed quite, And all the rest forgot for which he toil'd:..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

In a likely allusion to the stories of Greek authors and biographers Homer and Plutarch, the speaker contemplates the warrior who, although victorious in thousands of battles, loses his honor after one defeat. The speaker argues that unlike these warriors, his “honour” will never be “razed quite” from history books, because the fair youth loves him unconditionally.

"tenth Muse,..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The nine muses of Greek mythology were goddesses believed to provide inspiration for artists, writers, and poets. Here, the speaker takes this allusion and inverts it by denouncing the nine muses and praising a hypothetical tenth, whom he likens to his beloved. Notice how the speaker places this allusion on lines nine and ten: line nine mentions the tenth Muse, while line ten dismisses the previous nine. By including this allusion, the speaker makes clear that his love for the fair youth transcends traditional, classical notions; instead, it is “eternal” and original.

"Describe Adonis,..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

In his efforts to describe the beauty of the fair youth, the speaker draws on Greek mythology. Specifically, he alludes to Adonis, the god of beauty and desire who was the lover of Aphrodite. Helen of Troy, another allusion mentioned later in the sonnet, refers to the wife to King Menelaus who was kidnapped by Paris, and who was allegedly the most beautiful woman in the world. Scholars believe the comparison to both male and female figures highlights the androgynous beauty of the fair youth. Alternately, the comparison may demonstrate how the fair youth’s beauty surpasses all earthly and celestial realms.

"     How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow,      If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

Dwelling further on the dual pleasure and pain of love, the speaker alludes to the biblical story in Genesis of Adam and Eve. In the story, a serpent convinces Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, despite God’s forbiddance to do so. She eats the fruit, generally considered an apple, and God drives her and Adam out of the Garden of Eden. In the sonnet, the apple demonstrates outward beauty—”thy beauty grow”—and inward rottenness—“if thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!” The allusion touches on the hypocrisy of the fair youth whose outward beauty perhaps covers an underlying malignancy.

"Saturn ..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

In astrology, the planet Saturn, which takes about thirty years to orbit the sun, represents melancholic humor and old age. Although the speaker imbues the majority of Sonnet 98 with youthful imagery of summer, the allusion to Saturn reminds readers of the speaker’s preoccupation with winter and aging in the fair youth’s absence. The allusion to Saturn reestablishes the dichotomy between youth and old age, winter and summer.

"Philomel..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

Philomel is a tragic figure from Greek mythology. After taking revenge on a man who assaulted her, Philomel was turned into a nightingale, a species of bird known for its beautiful song. In this instance, the speaker seems to be using “Philomel” as a stand-in for literal nightingales. Nightingales sing as they search for their mates during “summer’s front,” or spring, and stop singing once summer comes. This simile indicates that the speaker’s apparent silence is not due to a lack of love but rather the deepening of it. Just as nightingales stop singing once they find their mates, so too has the speaker stopped trying to woo his beloved with lavish verse.

"Siren tears,..."   (Sonnets 111–120)

Through myriad allusions, the speaker demonstrates the magnitude of his “madding fever” as he tries to defend his infidelity. The allusion to “Siren tears” refers to the mythical Greek creatures, famously mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, who lured sailors to shipwreck with their voices. The Sirens likely shed tears when they were unsuccessful in their endeavor to lure sailors to the rocky shore. In the following line, the word “limbecks” refers to flasks alchemists used to purify liquids. The image of drinking Siren tears distilled in these flasks suggests that the speaker has drunk some sort of pure, potent concoction that has led him to commit his acts of infidelity.

"The little Love-god lying once asleep, Laid by his side his heart-inflaming brand,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 154 is the final poem in Shakespeare’s sequence and is nearly identical to Sonnet 153 in theme and narrative. The “little Love-god” who loses his “brand” to a virginal nymph is the Roman love god Cupid, who loses his brand to one of Diana’s maidens in the prior poem. Once again, the nymph plunges the brand into “a cool well,” producing a healing bath warmed by “Love’s fire.” The conclusion is also familiar. The speaker comes to the bath to be cured of his immense, sickening desire for his mistress. He finds no cure there, learning that while “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.” The moral of Sonnet 154 serves as a fitting final note to Shakespeare’s entire sequence of tumultuous love poems: there is no cure for the painful passions of eros.

"Cupid laid by his brand and fell asleep:..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnets 153 and 154 bear no narrative relation to the rest of the sequence. Their inclusion and placement in the sequence was the choice of Thomas Thorpe, who compiled and published the collection. These final two sonnets are written in a mode popular in Shakespeare’s time: lively meditations built on tales from classical mythology. In Sonnet 153, the octave tells a story about Cupid, the Roman god of love and lust. Cupid falls asleep and has his “brand”—the arrow that sparks human desire—stolen by one of Diana’s nymphs, who plunges it into a “cold valley-fountain.” The valley spring, charged with “lively heat,” becomes a healing place for men afflicted with “strange maladies.” In the sestet, the speaker claims that the spring cannot cure his love-sickness, only a gaze from the very source of his woes—“my mistress’ eyes.”

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