Shakespeare’s ‘Shall I compare Thee to a Summer’s day’ as a poem of friendship

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

– William Shakespeare

Though Shakespeare is known as the best playwright, he is also a versatile sonneteer. His sonnets address not only a woman but also a young man, known as the Fair Youth. His ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ is one of the prominent sonnets that talks about this Fair Youth, a mysterious male character. Literary critics and readers throughout the years tried to decipher who exactly Shakespeare referred to but in vain. Some critics take it as an account of the sonneteer’s homosexuality. However, Fair Youth is also considered as Shakespeare’s friend.  

The themes of this sonnet are admiration, friendship, love, and the eternal nature of poetry. The whole sonnet is about the affection the poet has for his object of admiration, i.e. Fair Youth. Similarly, the poet affirms that his veneration for the man will continue to live as long as the sonnet survives and is read by people. The poet reminisces on his friendship with the Fair Youth against the passing time by drawing a comparison between him and the summer season. 

The poet begins the sonnet by asking a rhetorical question: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ Rhetorical questions do not seek to receive an answer but are used to emphasize a point. Here, the poet asks such a question to praise and flatter his companion, the Fair Youth. He compares his companion to summer. The summer season is considered to be a comeback from the cold and fragile cold. The sunshine flourishes the earth with positivity and enthusiasm. Hence, by comparing the Fair Youth to a summer’s day, the poet conveys that his companion is bright as the summer and passionate. He continues the flattery by expressing that his friend is more temperate. i.e., mild and benign than the season itself. 

The next ten lines take a sudden turn that is quite distant from the flattery of the Fair Youth. These ten lines of the sonnet describe the summer season in detail. The lines “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May/ And summer’s lease hath all too short a date” tell us about the abrupt dry and roughness of summer. The poet conveys that the season lives a short life. It is too hot that even “the eye of heaven shines”. 

Next, the poet goes on to explain the mutability of the season as well as everything in life. He talks about the conclusion of the summer season. He says that its gold complexion dims. The line “And every fair from fair sometime declines” signals the arrival of cloudy weather or winter. Thus, the poet conveys that summer is not forever, and so is everything in life. The season is stripped of its fairness, one day or the other. Since he is addressing his companion the Fair Youth, he tries to state that youth and summer will not last long. It is inevitable to stop them from attaining change. He points out that all things, bright and benign are struck by impermanence. 

The lines 9-11 conclude the entire comparison by the poet. The line “But thy eternal summer shall not fade” refers to the beauty and immortal nature of his companion. He expresses that the beauty of his friend will not fade and be lost ever. Now, this quatrain poses confusion to the readers. After all the description about the mortal nature and mutability of the summer season, how can only his companion’s beauty be alive forever? 

The answer is given by the poet in the concluding line of the quatrain: “When in eternal lines to time thou grow’ st”. Here, “eternal lines” refer to poetry. The poet is shifting from the description of mortality and impermanence to the eternal attitude of art and time. 

The couplet at the end of the sonnet further explains the poet’s notion. The poet proudly says that his companion’s beauty will be alive in the poetry he pens down. He believes that as long as men will live on this earth, his companion will continue to live. Poetry will continue to sustain his companion and give life to him. 

The structure of a sonnet is such that the octave describes a poet’s particular persona and poses a situation. The dilemma is resolved in the sestet and more so, the couplet, in the end, summarizes the sonnet in its entirety by giving an apt solution. Shakespeare in his sonnet has masterfully done that. He brings a marvelous comparison at the beginning, then shifts to a neutral one by talking about the mortality of the summer season. The couplet lines reveal the poet’s emotions and his friendship with the Fair Youth in an appealing manner. 

Though Fair youth’s real identity and relationship with the poet remains a big mystery to the literary world, Shakespeare’s sonnet is an epitome of friendship and admiration. 

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