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Metaphor in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Metaphor Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 1–10


"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.

"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.

"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.

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