Analysis Pages

Symbols in Shakespeare's Sonnets

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

Symbols Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 101–110

🔒 1

"my rose..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

Roses held a special meaning in Elizabethan thought, beyond merely beauty or romance. In the 12th century CE, religious veneration of the Virgin Mary began spreading rapidly, and roses became associated with purity. They were also connected with the monarchy through the use of family crests. The “Tudor Rose,” the symbol of the House of Tudor, represented the end of the “War of the Roses” (1455-1485) and the reunification of the divided nobility. Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, adopted the rose as her personal symbol, combining her family legacy and the image of purity to cement her legacy as the Virgin Queen. By comparing his beloved to a rose, the speaker is associating the fair youth with beauty, purity, and nobility.

"Thine eyes ..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

Eyes are commonly depicted as the medium through which love flows. In Act II, Scene II of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, as Bassanio attempts to solve Portia’s riddle, she sings about where love is born from, and the answer is that “it is engendered in the eyes.” Sonnet 132 echoes Sonnet 127 when it praises the lady’s eyes as “black and loving mourners.” Notice the repetition of the theme of “mourning.” In Sonnet 127, the eyes were mourning the death of beauty, but in Sonnet 132 they seem to be mourning the speaker himself.

"The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill. To win me soon to hell, my female evil, Tempteth my better angel from my side, And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

The conceit of angels and devils guiding humans in opposing moral directions originated during the 1st century CE. The playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, employs the same conceit in his 1593 tragedy Doctor Faustus. In Sonnet 144, the fair youth is the angel, a being of purity and comfort. The dark lady is the “worser spirit,” who is so seductive that she has not only tempted the speaker to sin, but is now tempting his “angel” as well. Note that the battle between the angel and the devil plays out as the speaker watches on the sidelines. He has already been condemned to hell in the afterlife for lusting after the “female evil.” Now he is condemned to hell on earth since he has been abandoned by both of his loves.

Analysis Pages