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Simile in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Simile Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 11–21

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"like old men of less truth than tongue..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

The speaker speculates about how his poetry will be perceived by future generations if he writes about the beauty of the fair youth. He worries that no one will believe his descriptions and that he will be seen as an old man prone to exaggeration and falsehood.

"Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

A lark is a type of ground-dwelling songbird. To signify rejuvenation and renewal, the speaker offers a stark shift from the gloomy and morbid language used throughout the sonnet by introducing the simile of a lark singing at daybreak. Notice as well how the repetition of s sounds in words such as “sullen,” “sings,” “hymns,” “heaven’s” suggests the lark’s call. The use of the word “sweet” in the following line serves as an echo to the sound of the singing lark.

"Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,      Or gluttoning on all, or all away...."   (Sonnets 71–80)

The speaker outlines an internal conflict and sense of restlessness in Sonnet 75, comparing his love for the fair youth to “a miser and his wealth.” He is proud of their relationship but also worries that that the fair youth will be taken from him. The youth gives him joy but he is too afraid of losing the youth’s affection to truly be content. The speaker is also torn between wanting to enjoy the youth’s company in private and wanting to show off his happiness to the world. The final couplet describes the speaker’s inability to be satisfied, since he either overindulges in the fair youth’s company or does not see him at all.

"like a canker in the fragrant rose,..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

Drawing on the line “But what's so blessed-fair that fears no blot?” from Sonnet 92, the speaker draws on the same imagery of blotting and staining to demonstrate how lascivious or adulterous behavior on the fair youth’s part results in the decay of their love. The simile of a canker, or fungal disease, destroying the “fragrant rose” expresses how the fair youth’s behavior tarnishes their relationship. Despite his admonishments, the speaker maintains hope in the final couplet, simply warning himself to “take heed.”

"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.

"We sicken to shun sickness ..."   (Sonnets 111–120)

In Elizabethan England, people would take medicines prior to getting sick as a preventative measure. Many of these preventive medicines were designed to induce vomiting in order to “purge” the system of toxins, causing people to feel ill. The speaker uses this extended simile to imply that he sought out new lovers in order to prevent himself from growing sick of the “ne’er cloying” sweetness of the fair youth. Furthermore, despite describing the youth’s sweetness as “ne’er cloying,” his sweetness is what led the speaker to require the “bitter sauces” of new company. In the context of the medical conceit, “bitter sauces” conjures images of unpleasant, but necessary, medicines.

"Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch One of her feather'd creatures broke away, Sets down her babe, and makes all swift dispatch In pursuit of the thing she would have stay;..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Sonnet 143 employs an extended simile that compares the dark lady’s neglect of the speaker in favor of pursuing other men to a housewife’s neglect of her baby in favor of pursuing a runaway chicken. The implication is that, rather than spend time nurturing their relationship, she is chasing after other men. However, it also portrays the speaker in a rather pitiful light. He urges the lady to “play the mother’s part,” casting himself as a man who is needy and dependent on the dark lady for maternal affection. The closing couplet concedes that even if she must chase after other men, the speaker hopes that she will return to him when she is through.

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