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Vocabulary in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Vocabulary Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 1–10

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"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.

"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.

"tender churl..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

By employing an oxymoron, the speaker links two seemingly opposed terms. The former adjective “tender” suggests the expression of soft emotions while the latter noun “churl” refers to a medieval, rustic peasant or countryman. The word “niggard” describes someone who is overly stingy. In his comparison of a “tender churl [who] mak’st waste in niggarding,” the speaker claims that the fair youth wastes his beauty by refusing to procreate.

"And fortify your self in your decay With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?..."   (Sonnets 11–21)

The speaker shifts back to his procreation arguments here, describing his own ability to preserve the beauty of the fair youth through poetry as inadequate in comparison to the physical evidence that a child would provide. “Barren” typically refers to land that cannot be used to grow crops, but it is also a derogatory term used to describe infertility. In the context of his encouraging the fair youth to have a child, the speaker labels his verse barren, indicating that he is unable to successfully reproduce the beauty of the fair youth in his works.

" Or else of thee this I prognosticate:      Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date...."   (Sonnets 11–21)

The verb “prognosticate” means to foretell or prophesize. However, the speaker does not base his predictions on astronomy or religion, but rather on the feeling he has when looking into his beloved’s eyes. The speaker’s love for the fair youth has led him to believe that upon the death of his beloved, all that is beautiful and true will cease to exist. He uses this idea to bolster his argument that the fair youth needs to have a child. He raises the stakes by insinuating that it is not just the fair youth’s beauty that is at stake, but the very ideals of truth and beauty.

"vassalage..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

The word “vassalage” refers to the feudal system in which a peasant is protected by the lord on whose land he farms. Here, the speaker compares himself to the vassal who has sworn his loyalty to the “Lord of my love,” or the fair youth. Such a power dynamic—between the feudal lord and his servant—suggests that the speaker feels inferior or weak compared to his aristocratic love. The source of power is twofold: the youth controls the speaker’s affections and, as his patron, may control his livelihood as well.

"My glass ..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

The word "glass" refers to the speaker’s mirror. Throughout the sonnet, mirrors are a motif that signify aging and decay. Notice the disconnect between the speaker's perception of himself and the image he sees in the mirror of his aging self. This signifies his blindness in the face of Time, which in turn undermines his argument that he can halt decay with poetry and love.

"fore-bemoaned..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

Pronounced with four syllables to satisfy the iambic pentameter rhythm, the word “fore-bemoaned” describes an expression of deep grief. The prefix “fore” means “previously” and suggests the many “moans” the speaker has already experienced throughout his life and which return to haunt him again.

"Lascivious grace..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The word “lascivious” means lustful, while the word “grace” refers to refinement and elegance. The combination of words “lascivious grace” creates an oxymoron: it can mean both lustful grace as well as refined sensuality. This oxymoron captures the speaker’s conundrum as he decides whether or not to return to his beloved despite the fair youth’s faults.

"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.

"churl Death..."   (Sonnets 31–40)

The word “churl” refers to a rustic, ill-mannered man. By personifying “Death” as a “churl,” the speaker demonstrates his disdain towards death for inevitably destroying the love between himself and the fair youth. He envisions himself dying before the fair youth, but hopes that through his poetry, their love will survive.

"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.

"cross:..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

The word “cross” can refer to either the connecting link between the fair youth and the mistress, or the trouble and anguish the speaker feels as a result of the fair youth’s alleged transgression. The term has Christian connotations, as seen in the biblical verse Matthew 16:24, which states, "Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.'" In the context of Christian doctrine, the word “cross” suggests an affliction undertaken for Christ’s sake. Here, the speaker appeals to Christ to provide a sense of faith as he confronts the fair youth’s affair.

" My grief lies onward, and my joy behind...."   (Sonnets 41–50)

The words “onward” and “behind” carry dual meanings in this line. “Onward” refers to the literal act of moving towards a destination, but it also refers to the passage of time. Similarly, “behind” refers to both the physical place the speaker is leaving and the past. The speaker’s past contains joyful memories of the fair youth, while the future, as explored in previous sonnets, contains his eventual abandonment.

"And this my hand, against my self uprear, To guard the lawful reasons on thy part:..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

The speaker predicts that the fair youth will eventually “desert” him. However, he preemptively offers forgiveness, employing legal language to showcase that he views the youth’s predicted actions as permissible. The speaker offers to “uprear,” or raise, his hand against himself, taking an oath as if he were a witness at a trial. The final lines evoke the idea of giving testimony in court, as the speaker vows to defend the youth against any allegations of wrongdoing. To “allege no cause” means to have no legal case. The speaker cannot justify why the youth would love him in the wake of time’s ravages and is therefore unable to resent the desertion.

"beguil'd,..."   (Sonnets 51–60)

The verb “to beguile” refers to the act of hoodwinking or duping someone. The first stanza introduces the notion of how people “beguile” themselves into thinking they have created something new. In this vein, the speaker questions the authenticity of his adoration for the fair youth. In the second stanza, the speaker holds the fair youth’s beauty up against the beauty of the “old world.” In the final couplet, the speaker puts his worries to rest, concluding that the fair youth outshines the beauty of “former days.”

"Before the golden tresses of the dead, The right of sepulchres, were shorn away, To live a second life on second head;..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

In the second stanza, the speaker criticizes the artificiality of cosmetics and wigs. He refers to the act of removing hair from corpses and turning it into wigs, with “sepulchres” being burial chambers. Instead of being sealed away with the corpse, the “golden tresses” were instead shaved and made into wigs to reside on a “second head.” Wigs made from the hair of the dead are also referenced in Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare’s 1596 play The Merchant of Venice: “So are those crisped snaky golden locks… / To be the dowry of a second head, / The skull, that bred them, in the sepulchre.” It is interesting to note that Queen Elizabeth I, especially in her later years, often wore wigs in order to replicate the red hair she had sported in her youth. Cosmetics were also widely used by the upper classes, regardless of gender. The speaker’s criticism of the artificiality of these products runs counter to the culture of the day and is possibly a criticism of the growing vanity of the peerage.

"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.

"gracious numbers ..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

During the Elizabethan era, the word “numbers” was often used to refer to the metrical pattern of poetic feet. The speaker grapples with the loss of his “Muse,” the fair youth, who has apparently left him for the rival poet. He laments the loss of the fair youth’s “gentle grace,” which has rendered his poetry obsolete and the previously “gracious” meter of his poetry “decay’d.”

"what thy memory cannot contain, Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find Those children nursed, deliver'd from thy brain,..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

Reflective journaling was a common practice among the nobility in Elizabethan England. In Sonnet 77, the speaker gives the youth a book and encourages him to “commit” his thoughts to “waste blanks”—to write his thoughts down on blank sheets of paper. There is an echo of the procreation sonnets, particularly when the speaker compares the youth’s thoughts to “children.” Rather than encourage the youth to have a child, the speaker tells the youth to write down his thoughts so that the youth might “profit,” or benefit, from them later. The speaker values the ability of words to immortalize a person, so perhaps he is inducing the youth to preserve himself with the journal.

"vile world with vilest worms to dwell..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

The word “vile” has two definitions, referring to both the physical and the intangible. In the former definition, “vile” can characterize something that is physically repulsive; in the latter, it can describe an idea that is morally despicable. The speaker highlights his disgust by coupling the consonance of the scathing v sound with the abhorrence he feels for both the abstract world as well as the physical worms which dwell upon the earth.

"surly sullen..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

The phrase “surly sullen” creates a somber tone: the former adjective describes a bad temperament and the latter gloominess. Through assonance, the repetition of the muted u sounds as well as l sounds, these two adjectives appropriately mimic the sounds of a death knell, or the tolling of a bell to signal someone’s death.

"misprision..."   (Sonnets 81–90)

The word “misprision” refers to a wrongful act or misdemeanor. Although the fair youth has committed misprision, the speaker attributes his loss of the fair youth to his own failures. Using financial language, the speaker explains that his inability to hold bonds and maintain patents, for example, are among the reasons he has lost his love. This jargon touches on themes of possession, reflecting that the speaker is not worthy or deserving enough to possess this love.

"devise...."   (Sonnets 81–90)

The verb “to devise” refers to the act of inventing or imagining. In his continuing appeal to the fair youth, the speaker claims that any language poets devise will never do justice to his natural perfection. He is more beautiful and lifelike than anything poets can conceive—any attempt to characterize him through language is ultimately futile.

"proud-pied April..."   (Sonnets 91–100)

First attributed to Shakespeare, the word “proud-pied” means splendidly colored. The former adjective, “proud,” is generally associated with lavish clothing and the latter, “pied,” means variegated. Personifying April as someone lavishly and colorfully clothed, the speaker incorporates olfactory imagery of the “sweet smell of flowers” and the visual imagery of the redness of the rose and the whiteness of the lily flower. Summertime, according to the speaker, is bright and radiant.

"sad augurs..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

The noun “augurs” refers to fortune tellers, specifically those who interpret natural signs and omens such as bird migrations. In Act V, Scene II of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet responds to his friend Horatio’s concerns over his upcoming duel by saying, “Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special / Providence in the fall of a sparrow.” The “sad augurs” of Sonnet 107 echo and reflect this dismissal of omens and fortune. Even if the omens prove true, the speaker believes there is still merit in the pursuit of love.

"suborned informer!..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

In the final couplet of Sonnet 125, the speaker addresses a “suborned informer”—“suborned” meaning bribed and “informer” meaning accuser. By one reading, the “suborned informer” is someone who has accused the speaker of being one of the “pitiful thievers” who has attached himself to the youth for personal gain. By another interpretation, the couplet is a final address to Time, with the speaker insisting that Time will never be able to destroy his love since he has a “true soul” that defies Time’s control. Yet another explanation is that the “suborned informer” is the fair youth. By this reading, the fair youth has accused the speaker of infidelity or declining affections. In response, the speaker implores the youth to banish those doubts and instead recognize the fidelity of the speaker’s soul.

"Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,      And her quietus is to render thee...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

In Elizabethan England, the phrase “Quietus Est” would be written on receipts of debts that had been paid. In Sonnet 126, the speaker compliments the youth on having aged well while also reminding him that Nature cannot preserve him forever. Though Nature considers the fair youth her “treasure,” she will eventually be forced to settle her debt with Time and Death and hand him over to their ravages. The tone of this sonnet is tender and wistful, with the speaker having made peace with the fact that the youth will someday die. Rather than continuing to fight against Time, the speaker instead reminds the youth of the reality of aging, urging him to live well while he is still youthful.

"Sonnet 126..."   (Sonnets 121–130)

Sonnet 126 marks the end of the fair youth sequence and is often regarded as an envoi—a section at the end of a poem or sequence for closing statements. Many of the themes from the sonnet sequence are brought up in Sonnet 126, including mortality, beauty, the casting of the fair youth as Nature’s beloved, and the fickleness of Time, Death, and Nature. It is also structurally divergent from the rest of the sequence, featuring 12 lines made up of couplets. The absence of the final couplet can be read in various ways. The missing ending may represent a kind of intermission, a ghostly pause between the fair youth and dark lady sequences. It may be that, rather than using the final two lines to end on an optimistic note about how Time can be defeated, the conclusion of Sonnet 126 represents a concession to the reality of Time’s onslaught and a final farewell to the beloved fair youth.

"'Will,' ..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

The word “will” is used thirteen times in Sonnet 135, opening the poem up to a layered interpretation due to the multiple potential meanings of “will.” “Will” can mean desire, determination, or lust. It can also refer to the genitals of any gender. “Will” is also a shortening of the name William, Shakespeare’s own name. Sonnet 135 is most often read as a lover’s plea, with an alternate interpretation as an unflattering mockery of the lady’s promiscuity. The speaker beseeches the dark lady to allow him back into her graces, referring to the multiple “wills” in her possession, which likely refer to either her other lovers or her sexual insatiability, or both. The speaker asks why a woman with such a large “will” and with so many other “wills” at her disposal cannot accept one more—the speaker’s own.

"ruth..."   (Sonnets 131–140)

The noun “ruth” refers to feelings of pity or distress. Pity from a mistress, usually expressed in the form of physical intimacy, was a common request in the sonnet tradition. Male speakers with aloof mistresses would bemoan the lack of reciprocity for their passions, urging their mistresses to take pity on them and engage in amorous activities. However, as opposed to the aloof beauties of the sonnet tradition, the speaker’s dark mistress lacks conventional beauty. She is made attractive by her “mourning eyes” and “pity” for the speaker, perhaps implying that her willingness to engage in physical intimacy is what draws the speaker to her.

"warrantise..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

The noun “warrantise," a word that’s largely been eliminated from contemporary vocabulary, is the state of being guaranteed. Here, it refers to the skill with which the speaker’s lover acts.

"In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

In Sonnet 152, the final sonnet of the dark lady sequence, the speaker accuses the dark lady of being unfaithful and turning against their shared love. While the speaker admits he has “forsworn,” or renounced, loving the dark lady, he claims that she has committed two such forswearances. Not only has she ceased to love the speaker, she has also “thy bed-vow broke”—she has broken their vow of fidelity. In the second stanza, the speaker pivots in his perspective. He admits to having broken twenty oaths, and so he recognizes the hypocrisy in accusing the dark lady “of two oaths’ breach.” It is a recognition of mutual wrongdoing, for the speaker acknowledges both the wretchedness of his own oaths—which are “but to misuse thee”—and of those of the dark lady—“all my honest faith in thee is lost.”

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