Sonnet 18 – William Shakespeare
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 dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest 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.
Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to draw your attention to one of the most under-recognised pieces of superficial and anti-feminist claptrap out there. One which society has forced down our throats for centuries as one of the most famous examples of love poetry in existence. And because the perpetrator is no less than Mr Shakespeare himself, we are expected to exhibit unquestioning worship. Well I don’t buy it.
We’ve all been witness to the widespread backlash against the aspects of our pop culture which promote the objectification of women and more generally, the view that a person’s worth lies in their physical beauty. The problem is that often these outrageous and highly superficial values are perpetuated by the most well-known and popular members of creative industries. And it isn’t always obvious. It’s quite common to be singing or dancing along to a really popular song, only to realise that underneath the initial appeal lies a load of unreconstructed NONSENSE. No one can deny that to the unsuspecting ear, Blurred Lines is incredibly catchy, Gold Digger has a classic appeal (vintage Glee covered it) and David Guetta’s Sexy Bitch was every 14 year old’s ringtone. It’s all too easy to get lured into inadvertently supporting offensive language and shameless misogyny, because they are wrapped up in dangerously appealing packages.
One such beautifully written but HIGHLY suspect piece is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day. For hundreds of years, thousands and thousands of people have been drawn in by the attractive imagery of sun, summer, heaven and immortal life. Words like ‘gold’, ‘lovely’ and ‘fair’ ensure that the innocent reader is tricked into seeing past the RAMPANT SUPERFICIALITY that is on display here.
My first problem with this sonnet of ‘praise’ is the word temperate. TEMPERATE? This sounds far too much like a line in praise of passivity. This is the exact sentiment which underlies the historical expectation that women should be ladylike and reserved, never outspoken. If Shakespeare praises the subject of the sonnet for being ‘more temperate’ than a Summer’s day, all I can think is that he doesn’t want any trouble or disobedience. The term ‘fierce’ would probably have sent him fleeing from a relationship.
Stop! I know what you’re thinking: “This sonnet was written about a man!” While this MAY be true, definitive proof has yet to surface of this and I still feel there is a strong case for my anti-misogynist rant. Most people picture a woman when they read Shakespeare’s words, and arguably it matters more what people take from the poem than what was originally intended in the mind of the poet. What is more, the core issue still stands, regardless of the gender of the original subject. We are still faced with a piece of art that is primarily concerned with physical appearance and as such it should be shunned in the same way as all those other examples of superficial misogyny that are perhaps more obvious to us.
So, we can see that this sonnet focuses on aesthetics. Physical beauty (and passivity) seems to be Shakespeare’s only concern, which is the most convincing link between him and the swathe of popular artists in our culture who blatantly and consistently identify women as doll-like people who exist for our aesthetic evaluation. In the entire sonnet there is barely a single thought given to anything other than how visually pleasing the subject appears. Personally I’d like to know a little bit more. Assume the bearer of Shakespeare’s affections is a girl, just go with me on this one.
While Shakespeare the Chauvinist was smugly penning this ode to the silent subject, there may have been someone standing behind her, helping the homeless whilst simultaneously doing long division in her head, probably in three languages. But no, we’re hearing about the gal who is ‘temperate’ and attractive, who is for all intents and purposes SEEN and not HEARD. Well I have no time for that. It’s just unfortunate that we can boycott Blurred Lines in a club but we can’t boycott certain pages from a GCSE anthology.
This sonnet has completely naive and unrealistic expectations of human beauty. The whole aim of the sonnet is to immortalise the person’s beauty in poetry, because, ‘every fair from fair sometime declines’ and once time has laid waste to this apparently attractive beauty, no one will want to hear about her. Shakespeare is desperate to preserve this snapshot of youthful beauty before it is naturally ravaged by a no doubt wild and unforgiving 17th century lifestyle. We know what probably happened. Once her ‘Summer’s lease’ was up, he ran a mile. Here we have a famous example of blatant bad behaviour that I’ve never heard anyone criticise. On the contrary, we are forced to study this sonnet in detail, to hear it repeated over and over again and I’m sure that if some foolish admirer sprung this sonnet on you, you would be expected to SWOON.
Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day? If by a Summer’s day you mean a strong independent woman, then yes, compare away.
Phoebe Talbot is a student at the University of Edinburgh. She studies German and Linguistics. Phoebe enjoys studying said subjects but, if we’re honest, she’d really rather run away to join the Amazons. Once she has left university and fulfilled this vocation of hers she will sing jazz, listen to foreign crooners and break into song at every opportunity.
If you’re interested in getting involved with PTL – drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Image sourced from www.theflaneursturtle.com)
Powered by Facebook Comments