Shakespeare's Poems


William Shakespeare (biography)

1564–1616, English dramatist and poet, b. Stratford-on-Avon. He is considered the greatest playwright who ever lived. While little is known of Shakespeare's boyhood, he probably attended the grammar school in Stratford, where he would have been educated in the classics, particularly Latin grammar and literature. In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at the time of the marriage. They had three children. In 1594 Shakespeare became an actor and playwright for the Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company that later became the King's Men under James I. Until the end of his London career Shakespeare remained with the company; it is thought that as an actor he played old men's roles. In 1599 he became a partner in the ownership of the Globe theatre, and in 1608 he was part owner of the Blackfriars theatre. Shakespeare retired and returned to Stratford c.1613.
After his early plays, and before his great tragedies, Shakespeare wrote Richard II, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King John, The Merchant of Venice, Parts I and II of Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The comedies of this period partake less of farce and more of idyllic romance, while the history plays successfully integrate political elements with individual characterization. The period of Shakespeare's great tragedies and the “problem plays” begins in 1600 with Hamlet. Following this are The Merry Wives of Windsor (written to meet Queen Elizabeth's request for another play including Falstaff, it is not thematically typical of the period), Troilus and Cressida, All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens.
The strength of Shakespeare's plays lies in the absorbing stories they tell, in their wealth of complex characters, and in the eloquent speech—vivid, forceful, and at the same time lyric—that the playwright puts on his characters' lips. Shakespeare had a tremendous vocabulary and a corresponding sensitivity to nuance, as well as a singular aptitude for coining neologisms and punning.
Shakespeare's first published works were two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Shakespeare's sonnets are by far his most important nondramatic poetry. They were first published in 1609, although many of them had certainly been circulated privately before this, and it is generally agreed that the poems were written sometime in the 1590s. Scholars have long debated the order of the poems and the degree of autobiographical content. The first 126 of the 154 sonnets are addressed to a young man whose identity has long intrigued scholars. The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, wrote a dedication to the first edition in which he claimed that a person with the initials W. H. had inspired the sonnets. Some have thought these letters to be the transposed initials of Henry Wriothesley, 3d earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; or they are possibly the initials of William Herbert, 3d earl of Pembroke, whose connection with Shakespeare is more tenuous. The identity of the dark lady addressed in sonnets 127–152 has also been the object of much conjecture but no proof. The sonnets are marked by the recurring themes of beauty, youthful beauty ravaged by time, and the ability of love and art to transcend time and even death.

"Sonnet 29"

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deal heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Discussion Questions for ”Sonnet 29“

1) With whom or what is the speaker in disfavor?
2) What are three things the speaker wishes for?
3) When the speaker thinks of the person to whom the sonnet is addressed, how does his attitude change?
4) How would you describe the mood of the first eight lines and of the last six lines?
5) Why is the comparison with the lark an appropriate one for the speaker to make?
6) How do the last two lines summarize the theme of the sonnet?

"Sonnet 73"

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Discussion Questions for ”Sonnet 73“

1) To what season of the year does the speaker compare himself?
2) To what time of day does the speaker compare himself?
3) What comparison does the speaker make in the third quatrain?
4) How does the speaker resemble the three things to which he compares himself?
5) In the "bare ruin'd choirs" of line 4, the word choirs refers literally to the loft where church singers perform. What does it mean as Shakespeare uses it here?
6) Explain the meaning of "Death's second self."
7) How does the thought in the final couplet relate to the rest of the sonnet?

"Sonnet 116"

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom. I
f this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Discussion Questions for ”Sonnet 116“

1) According to the speaker, what are three things that love is not?
2) To what is love compared in the second quatrain?
3) What are the points of similarity between true love and the North Star?
4) The speaker notes that “Love's not Time's fool." What does he mean and how does this idea fit in with the central theme of the sonnet?
5) Ordinarily, the final couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet offers a summary or solution. This final couplet is a bit different. What point does it make about the content of the rest of the sonnet?

"Sonnet 130"

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Discussion Questions for ”Sonnet 130“

1) What is less than perfect about the mistress's lips, cheeks, breath, and voice?
2) "Sonnet 130" is often called an anti- Petrarchan sonnet. What do you think is meant by "anti-Petrarchan"?
3) There are indications even before the final couplet that the speaker loves his mistress despite her supposed imperfections. What is one such indication?

a song from The Merchant of Venice

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender'd in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell
I'll begin it,--Ding, dong, bell.
Ding, dong, bell.

Discussion Questions for
”Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred“

1) What two possible sources of fancy are mentioned at the beginning of the song?
2) Where does the reply to the two questions place the origin of fancy?
3) The word fancy is central to the meaning of the poem. It means "love," to be sure, but a superficial kind of love-a love based only on outward appearances. Why is this distinction important?
4) What is it that helps fancy flourish?
5) Why do you think the speaker says that fancy dies in the cradle?
6) What does it mean to "ring fancy's knell"?

a song from As You Like It

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that a life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And therefore take the present time,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino;
For love is crowned with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding:
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Discussion Questions for
”It Was a Lover and His Lass”

1) What do lovers love?
2) To what do lovers compare life?
3) Why do you think springtime is called "the only pretty ringtime"?
4) What recommendation about love is made in the last stanza?

a song from Cymbeline

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish'd joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

Discussion Questions for
”Fear No More the Heat o'the Sun“

1) What are five aspects of life that the deceased no longer has to worry about?
2) What will happen to young lovers?
3) In the last stanza, what do the three concerns mentioned have in common?
4) Judging by the things the deceased no longer has to fear, what status in life do you think she held?