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Metaphor in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Metaphor Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 1–10

🔒 6

"If the true concord of well-tuned sounds, By unions married, do offend thine ear, They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear...."   (Sonnets 1–10)

The speaker uses diction associated with music throughout the sonnet to convey the idea that family life is like a musical performance. The fair youth does not like music, and the speaker claims it is because the call of family life is “chiding,” or scolding, him for remaining single. The speaker describes each “string” as being the “husband to another,” identifying a familial relationship between the different parts of a harmonious tune. Families create “one pleasing note” when they sing together, indicating domestic harmony. By contrast, the fair youth cannot enjoy music and will “prove none,” or produce no kin, if he remains single rather than allowing himself to enter into the harmony of fatherhood.

"unprovident..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

According to the speaker, in choosing not to have a child, the fair youth is “unprovident.” The word, which originates from the classical Latin improvidus, meaning “not foreseeing,” suggests that the fair youth has failed to account for the future by choosing not to procreate and share his beauty. To the speaker, the fair youth’s behavior is reckless. The fair youth “ruinate[s]” the “beauteous roof,” an image the speaker likens to the fair youth’s spoiled beauty.

"The world will be thy widow and still weep That thou no form of thee hast left behind,..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

Through an extended metaphor, the speaker equates the fair youth to a deceased husband who leaves his widow, and the rest of the world, abandoned and childless. He tries to appeal to the fair youth’s sense of pathos by asking in the opening line if he is so heartless as to “wet a widow’s eye.” According to the speaker, leaving behind a childless widow is akin to murder, encapsulated in the final couplet which caustically condemns the fair youth for his “murd’rous shame.” The widow, however, is a metaphor for the world, which the fair youth will harm by choosing not to marry and have children. Truly, the youth is in a double bind.

"Unthrifty..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

Sonnet 4 employs a monetary metaphor, using diction like “lend” and “sum.” The speaker accuses the fair youth of being a “profitless usurer,” a usurer being a money-lender who charges high interest. The implication is that the fair youth has a “bounteous” amount of wealth in terms of beauty and good qualities, but he refuses to lend it to anyone by procreating and is therefore unable to profit from the interest. The speaker further accuses the youth of wasting nature’s gifts by refusing to have children. Children inherited the wealth of their parents, so if the fair youth dies without an heir, then all of the gifts nature has given him are wasted. However, if he does have children, they become the “executors” of nature’s gift and can continue to distribute it.

"So thou, thyself outgoing in thy noon:      Unlook'd, on diest unless thou get a son...."   (Sonnets 1–10)

The closing couplets of this sonnet take on a more menacing tone than the previous sonnets. Here, the speaker employs an extended metaphor that likens the fair youth to the sun. Specifically, the speaker says that as the sun rises, “mortals adore” it; when the sun “reeleth from the day,” people look away in search of other beauty. This final couplet warns the fair youth that if he does not have children—metaphorically, if he does not rise like the sun and spread his beauty—he will fade in the same way the sun sets.

"with self-substantial fuel..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

In his encouragement for the fair youth to have a child, the speaker emphasizes the youth’s uniqueness by metaphorically comparing the youth’s inner beauty to a “light’s flame.” The phrase “self-substantial fuel” suggests the youth’s solitary stance—he refuses to marry or procreate and pass the metaphorical flame along. While the speaker hopes the fair youth might recapture his beauty and personality through a child, the fair youth ignores the speaker’s plea.

"Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

The speaker employs a metaphor that compares the fair youth’s family lineage to a house. Family lines are often referred to as “houses,” especially amongst the nobility. The speaker extends this idea and compares the fair youth’s body to a house that needs upkeep. If the fair youth dies without a male heir, then his house will fall to decay since there will be no one to continue the legacy of his beauty. The specific reference to a son invokes the patrilineal nature of succession in Elizabethan England, where sons inherited the titles and wealth of their fathers, just as the speaker hopes the fair youth’s son will inherit his beauty.

"Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die...."   (Sonnets 11–21)

The speaker continues to insist that the fair youth should have a child by crafting a metaphor that compares procreation to print publication and the youth to “nature’s seal.” In order to print a book on a Renaissance-era printing press, developed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440, metal blocks were carved with letters and symbols, a process that could take hours or days, before being set into the press. Nature “carved” the fair youth so that he would go on to procreate, or “print more” copies of himself, adding an element of obligation to the speaker’s encouragement. It is no longer just the speaker that the fair youth must appease, but nature herself, who took care to “carve” him so beautifully.

"Yet eyes this cunning want to grace their art,      They draw but what they see, know not the heart...."   (Sonnets 21–30)

The speaker compares his own body to a painter’s studio, with his eyes painting the fair youth and storing the image in his heart. Since the speaker’s heart is filled with love for the fair youth, the fair youth’s visage is a “window” to the interiority of the speaker, evoking the classic conceit of the eyes being windows to the soul. However, there is also the idea that while the speaker is open about his feelings, the fair youth is closed off and simply reflects the speaker’s own feelings back to him. The final lines further emphasize this reality. The speaker admits that, while he has fallen for the beauty of the fair youth, he may not know the fair youth’s heart.

"So I, for fear of trust, forget to say The perfect ceremony of love's rite,..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

The speaker uses the metaphors of a forgetful actor and a raging beast to convey the state of being unable to portray his feelings accurately. He worries that the depth of his feelings cannot be communicated through words alone and beseeches his beloved to “hear with his eyes” and see the love in the way the speaker looks at him. This is a play on the metaphor that the eyes are the window to the soul, a metaphor found in literature dating back to Roman times. The speaker personifies his loving looks as messengers of his affection that seek out and “plead” with the fair youth. The speaker hopes for “recompense,” or reciprocal affection, from his beloved.

"sad account..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

Through this metaphor, Shakespeare compares the pains we initially suffer to a bill that needs to be paid. Regardless of how many times the speaker pays it, the bill returns again and again for payment. The speaker laments the grief he cannot seem to relinquish and the emotional toll of continually recalling past sorrows.

"death's dateless night..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

The metaphor of death having a “dateless night” suggests that death cannot be divided into days, weeks, or months. Death, as the speaker intimates, is at once perpetual and eternal and yet also empty of time’s flow, standing as it does outside the chronologies of mortal life.

"Looking on darkness which the blind do see..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

In a metaphor characteristic of Shakespeare, the speaker draws on a universal human experience. Here, the speaker conjures a terrifying moment of waking up in the middle of the night in a strange, pitch-dark room. The speaker is overcome with a metaphorical blindness even though his eyes are “open wide.”

"engrafted..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The verb “to engraft” refers to joining plant tissues to promote growth. In a figurative sense, engrafting describes the process of implanting a notion or idea into another’s mind. In this context, the fair youth engrafts or shares his “store” of positive qualities with the speaker. The speaker, in turn, is made whole by his connection to the fair youth.

"Even so my sun one early morn did shine,..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

Throughout this sonnet, the speaker employs a conceit, or extended metaphor, by comparing the fair youth to the sun. Sonnets 33 through 36 are traditionally called the “estrangement” sonnets, for in them the speaker confronts a fault the fair youth has committed. In this sonnet’s conceit, the sun still shines despite the fair youth’s alleged actions, suggesting the possibility of absolution.

"stain..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

Through the poem’s conceit, the speaker states that, like the sun which may be “stain’d” or tainted by clouds, so too may the fair youth’s illustriousness become darkened by sorrow and affliction.

"Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The verb “gilding” describes the process of overlaying an object with a thin covering of gold. The word “alchemy” refers to the medieval speculative science that aimed to transmute base metals like lead into gold. The metaphor in this line, which employs both of these terms, suggests that the sun has tainted the “pale streams” with a golden hue, in turn indicating the natural beauty of the morning scene.

"Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war,..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

The first line establishes the conceit of the next two sonnets: the speaker’s eye and heart are engaged in a metaphorical “war” in which both opponents are bent on conquering the fair youth. On the one hand, the eye “bars” the heart from looking at the image of the fair youth. On the other, the heart contends with the eye for the right to look. The theme of adversarial battle is furthered by the use of legal language, which is peppered throughout the sonnet in words like “right,” “plead,” and “verdict.”

" And even thence thou wilt be stol'n I fear,      For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear...."   (Sonnets 41–50)

Sonnet 48 is built on metaphors of valuables and theft. The speaker expresses concern that someone will steal the fair youth while he is away. The fair youth is compared to a precious possession who makes jewels seem like “trifles.” The speaker laments that he cannot lock the youth away from “vulgar thieves,” instead relying on his affection to protect the youth within the “gentle closure” of his heart. However, the fair youth is such a tempting “prize” that the speaker fears the strength of his love will not be enough to ward off thieves.

"The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem For that sweet odour, which doth in it live...."   (Sonnets 51–60)

Returning to a motif established in Sonnet 1, the speaker compares the fair youth to a rose. The speaker contemplates the fair youth’s inward and outward beauty, likening him to a rose, which not only “looks fair,” it also has a “sweet odour.” Roses without sweet odors are like those with superficial, outward beauty; roses with sweet odours are like those who possess a sincere, inward beauty.

"treasure,..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

In the continued absence of the fair youth, the speaker furthers his plea for reunification. In Sonnet 52, the speaker compares himself to a miser or penny-pincher who hoards his rich treasures like his “stones of worth,” “captain jewels,” and “robe,” which stand in metaphorically for the fair youth. As the final line of the sonnet indicates, despite his efforts to hoard his treasure, the speaker fails to unite with the fair youth and is left only with hope.

"Therefore desire, of perfect'st love being made, Shall neigh—no dull flesh—in his fiery race;..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

Sonnet 51 continues the conceit of journeying on horse begun in Sonnet 50. The speaker describes how his “desire” is faster than any horse. He desires so fervently to reach the fair youth, that it surpasses the speed of any “dull flesh.” This rapid quality is expressed through the repeated use of words relating to speed, including “swift,” “spir,” “mounted,” “motion,” and “pace.” Since his love is so fleeting, the speaker dismisses the horse in the final line, stating that he’ll run toward his love and “give [the horse] leave to go.”

"Sweet love, renew thy force;..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

In a sharp departure from the confidence the speaker has in Sonnet 55, Sonnet 56 describes a “sad interim” of estrangement from the fair youth. The speaker compares himself and the fair youth to people stranded on different shores, separated by the ocean, awaiting each other’s return each day. He also compares their period of estrangement to cold winter awaiting the return of warm summer. Both metaphors serve as hopeful pleas to the fair youth to reject his lustful “appetite” and renew his affections for the speaker so that “the spirit of love” may prove stronger than lust.

"To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds:..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The speaker contrasts how onlookers perceive the fair youth’s beauty. Outwardly, the “world’s eye” views the fair youth as beautiful and commendable. However, inwardly, they condemn him for having dubious morals. Through the metaphor of the “rank smell of weeds” permeating a “fair flower,” the speaker describes how perceived inward superficiality can corrupt one’s external appearance. Listening to these “tongues” of public opinion causes the fair youth to grow “common,” or like everyone else.

"The ornament of beauty is suspect, A crow that flies in heaven's sweetest air...."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The speaker again broaches the subject of slander, introduced in the previous sonnet. As Sonnet 69 discusses, the public accuses the fair youth of superficiality. The speaker counters this claim, stating that the public only makes this accusation because they are jealous of his beauty. Through metaphor, the speaker claims that the fair youth’s beauty is suspicious like “a crow that flies in heaven’s sweetest air.” Shakespeare frequently employs the imagery of the crow to describe an omen, as in Macbeth act III, scene II, when Macbeth foreshadows killing Banquo: “...the crow / Makes wing to th’ rooky wood; / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse, / Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.” The image of the crow often signals something ominous; in the sonnet, it heralds the speaker’s warning to beware false accusations.

"exchequer..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The word “exchequer” refers to a treasury office which deals with money collected by the department of revenue. In this sonnet, the speaker uses this word to emphasize the theme of degeneration in nature. Referring to nature as “she,” he laments that nature has become “bankrupt”; her only remaining source of beauty is the fair youth, which she stores to demonstrate her previous “wealth.” This elaborate metaphor pins the beauty of the youth against the slow deterioration of time and nature.

"   This thought is as a death which cannot choose      But weep to have, that which it fears to lose...."   (Sonnets 61–70)

The cruelty of time continues to haunt the speaker as he ruminates on images of decay. “Rich-proud cost of outworn buried age” refers to elaborate burial structures and emphasizes that even the monuments people build to preserve their memories are subject to the ravages of time. The ocean is presented as “hungry” as it advances on the “kingdom of the shore,” conjuring images of an advancing army or siege. Unlike the previous sonnet, in which the speaker fights against Time with his poetry, this sonnet ends on a more pessimistic note. The speaker knows that Time will take his love away and that his poetry, like the burial monuments, is just as susceptible to decay as anything else.

"My saucy bark, inferior far to his, On your broad main doth wilfully appear. Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat, Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

Sonnet 80 incorporates a nautical metaphor to further the rival poet theme. The speaker compares himself to a “saucy bark”—a small, frivolous boat—that is subordinate to the stately and grandiose ship of the rival poet. Both ships sail on the “broad main,” or sea, which represents the fair youth—the source of inspiration for both poets’ works. The speaker believes that his love for the fair youth will inspire him to write, just as the sea will keep his small boat afloat. However, the final couplet takes on a darker tone as the speaker describes his personal shipwreck. Metaphorically speaking, the sea which has kept him afloat also destroys him. The fair youth causes the speaker to “decay” by choosing to support the rival poet.

"     For as the sun is daily new and old,      So is my love still telling what is told...."   (Sonnets 71–80)

Perhaps in preparation for the “Rival Poet” sequence in sonnets 78-86, the speaker reaffirms his undying and perpetual love for the fair youth. The volta in line nine culminates in a declaration of the speaker’s love for the fair youth, who provides unyielding inspiration for his poetry. Through the final two lines in the sonnet, the speaker metaphorically compares his love for the fair youth to the sun, which seems new each time it emerges and yet is constant in its cycles. The speaker asserts his love, claiming that he will continue to retell his constant love for the fair youth in each new sonnet.

"That time of year thou mayst in me behold..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

Each of the three quatrains in this sonnet contains a metaphor for old age. In the first quatrain, the poet compares the point he is at in life to late fall, when the trees are almost totally bare. In the second quatrain, he compares his age to twilight, a time when the sun has set but a little light remains in the sky, with the coming of night representing death. In the third quatrain he compares his age to the glowing remains of a fire being consumed by its own ashes. The closing couplet asserts that the fair youth is better able to love the speaker because the fleeting nature of existence inspires deeper emotional engagement.

"Death's second self..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

In many of Shakespeare’s works, night is metaphorically compared to death, perhaps most notably in Hamlet, in which Prince Hamlet asks “for in that sleep of death what dreams may come?”, and in Macbeth, in which Macbeth praises sleep—“the death of each day’s life”—after murdering King Duncan.

"Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,..."   (Sonnets 81–90)

In Sonnet 86, the speaker maintains the same subtle mockery of the previous sonnet. He hyperbolically claims that the rival poet’s verses trample over his own like a fleet of ships and render his poetry “inhearse[d]” in his brain. The speaker negatively associates the rival poet’s success with the supernatural, writing that “spirits” and a “ghost” inspired his verse. The final line suggests that the rival poet’s writing has “enfeebled” the speaker’s literary capabilities—a notion undercut by the poetic acuity of the sonnet itself.

"How many lambs might the stern wolf betray, If like a lamb he could his looks translate!..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

Through the lamb and wolf metaphor, the speaker likens the fair youth’s beauty to the wolf which leads lambs “away,” or to slaughter. The speaker fears that the fair youth’s promiscuity might tarnish his reputation and, in turn, his own reputation as well, since he and the fair youth are one in love.

"Those lines that I before have writ do lie, Even those that said I could not love you dearer: Yet then my judgment knew no reason why My most full flame should afterwards burn clearer...."   (Sonnets 111–120)

In the opening lines of Sonnet 115, the speaker admits that all of the previous sonnets have been insufficient portrayals of his true love to the fair youth. His flame, a representation of desirous love, “burn[s] clearer” now than ever before. The sonnet goes on to decry the tyrannical nature of Time, which “creep[s]” in to decay and efface beauty. However, at the volta, the tone of the sonnet shifts as the speaker reins in his fear, asking why he has ever doubted love. Time is irrelevant since love continues to grow indefinitely like a “babe.”

"  Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Whereas the speaker’s relationship with the fair youth was emotional and often spiritual, his relationship with the dark lady is sensual. As he watches her play music, he personifies the instrument and grows jealous of it. The jacks “leap to kiss the tender inward of [her] hand” and the speaker envies the fact that the instrument receives her touch rather than him. There was minimal tactile and sensuous imagery in the fair youth sequence, reflecting the chaste and loving nature of that relationship in contrast to the far more physical one between the speaker and the dark lady. The playful, yearning tone of Sonnet 128 contrasts with the grief and shame that consume the speaker in Sonnet 129.

"Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait,..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

The dominant image throughout the sonnet equates love to “swallow’d bait.” This comparison suggests that like rats and other lowly creature, lovers motivated by uncontrolled lust are driven mad by primal urges.

"O! call not me to justify the wrong..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

Sonnet 139 opens with the speaker’s refusal to defend the dark lady’s actions. However, he relents in the third quatrain and excuses her indiscretions by saying that she looks at other men in order to spare the speaker from the “injuries” caused by her “pretty looks.” The speaker’s defences are “o’erpressed’d,” or overburdened, and cannot withstand the “might” of the lady, adding a violent valence to their relationship as the lady lays siege to the speaker’s emotions. The lady’s infidelity continually “wounds” the speaker, so rather than continuing to make a show of looking at other men in his presence, he urges her to “kill [him] outright” by admitting to her affairs.

"Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:      He pays the whole, and yet am I not free...."   (Sonnets 131–140)

Sonnet 134 is a continuation of Sonnet 133. The speaker employs a combination of legal and financial diction to give the love between himself, the lady, and the youth a transactional cast. The dark lady is described as a “usurer,” or moneylender, whose currency is sexual in nature. When paired with the idea of a mortgage, the speaker’s offer to “forfeit” himself refers to the act of signing himself over to the lady to pay the youth’s debts. However, the speaker knows the lady will not give up the youth and laments his involvement. The closing couplet takes on a despairing tone: the fair youth is paying both his own debts and the speaker’s, leaving the speaker free from obligation but not from his attraction to the lady.

"Desire is death, which physic did except. Past cure I am, now Reason is past care..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

In Sonnet 147 the speaker explains the extent to which the dark lady has ruined his life. Using medical metaphors—likening his “love” and “reason” to “a fever” and “the physician,” respectively—he acknowledges that his desire has brought him to a place from which there is no return. His reason and logic, which have thus far kept his desires from consuming him, fail at their duty. The metaphor that “desire is death” is complicated. It can be read as a condemnation of desire, playing on the theme that desire and lust lead to one’s downfall. However, considering the medical conceit of this sonnet, “desire is death” could also be a final diagnosis. Where reason is the physician and love is the illness, unrestrained desire is the illness gone to its fullest and most lethal stage.

"For I have sworn deep oaths of thy deep kindness,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

chThe sonnet’s sestet, the six lines following the volta, trace the speaker’s process of disillusionment with the dark lady. The speaker has placed great faith in the dark lady’s many oaths and promises—“of thy love, thy truth, thy constancy.” The speaker uses the metaphors of vision and perjury to figure the decay of these oaths. The speaker claims to have “enlighten[ed]” the dark lady, making his eyes “swear against the thing they see” and seeing her as better than she really is. In the final couplet, the speaker claims to have committed perjury—testifying against the truth—by having “sworn thee fair.” Thus the dark lady sonnets end: not in resolution and appreciation, but bitterness and disenchantment.

"So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,      And Death once dead, there's no more dying then...."   (Sonnets 141–154)

After the volta, the speaker develops a solution to the soul’s problem. Acknowledging the inevitable decay of the body—the “servant’s loss”—the speaker encourages his soul to transform physical loss into spiritual growth, to “within be fed.” In the final couplet, the speaker seeks to transform Death itself in this ravening, expansive process of soul. The logic is strange but coherent: if the soul feeds on decay, then it may “feed on Death”; if the soul continues to do so, Death itself will eventually die, at which point “there’s no more dying.” As a result, the soul’s problem is seemingly solved, allowing it to make a claim on eternity.

"Poor soul..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 146 opens with the poet addressing his soul, asking it a series of questions about why it pursues earthly pleasures rather than caring for its own purity. The sonnet develops an extended metaphor of the body as a mansion, which the soul has “so short a lease” on. Rather than focusing on the state of the soul that lives within the mansion, the speaker has spent “so large [a] cost” on painting the outside and excessively indulging in physical pleasures. The body is on “lease” from Nature, but the soul is eternal, so the speaker beseeches his soul to take the wealth that has been spent on the body and instead store it “within,” so that the soul can “be fed.”

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