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 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.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Discussion Questions for "Sonnet 116"

Recall and Interpret
1. In your own words, summarize two main points the speaker makes about the nature of true love. What is the speaker implying about bad relationships? Explain.
2. What metaphor (see page R9) does the speaker use to describe love in the second quatrain? How does the comparison help relate the speaker's message?
3. What does the final couplet add to the speaker's message? (See page R4.)

Evaluate and Connect
4. Are there qualities that you would add to the speaker's definition of true love? Explain.
5. Why might this poem be appropriate for a marriage ceremony?

"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"

Recall and Interpret
1. How does the speaker describe the woman he loves? Does his description tell you his real opinion of her? Refer to lines from the poem to support your answer.
2. How does the final couplet change the meaning of the poem?
3. What sort of poetry does this sonnet mock or criticize? What message about love is implied with this criticism?

Evaluate and Connect
4. In what ways do Americans show their fascination for physical beauty in today's society?
How might the speaker in the poem have responded to this fascination?
5. Think back to the discussion you had for the Reading Focus on page 286. What more have you learned about Shakespeare's sonnets?

"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"

Recall and Interpret
1. To what three things does the speaker compare himself? What do you think these three things all symbolize (see page RI6)?
2. What is the speaker praising his friend for in the final couplet? How do you think the speaker feels toward his friend based on these lines?

Evaluate and Connect
3. How would you describe the tone of this poem? What details create that tone?
4. Theme Connections: As you see it, what are the benefits and drawbacks of "loving well' that which we "must leave ere long'?
5. How is the subject of this sonnet different from the subjects of other sonnets you have read?

"Sonnet 29"

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf 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"

Recall and Interpret
1. What does the speaker complain about in the first part of the sonnet? Based on the early lines of the poem, what kind of person would you say he is?
2. At what point in the sonnet does the speaker's mood change? How does it change?
3. How does the final couplet relate to the rest of the poem? How would you characterize the speaker after reading the entire poem?

Evaluate and Connect
4. Do you find the transition in the speaker's mood convincing? realistic? Explain.10. Based on this sonnet and on Sonnet 73, how would you describe the value Shakespeare puts on human relationships?

"Fear No More the Heat o' the Sun"

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"

Recall and Interpret
1. Name some of the things the person addressed in the song need no longer fear. Why are these things no longer a threat?
2. What do all"golden lads and girls," "the scepter, learning, physic," and "all lovers" come to? Why might the speaker have mentioned these particular people in a dirge for a young woman?
3. What do the speaker's words suggest about life and death?

Evaluate and Connect
4. In the last stanza of the song, Shakespeare changes the rhyme scheme. (See literary Terms Handbook, page R13.) In your opinion, is this change effective? Explain why or why not.
5. Do you find this song consoling? Explain your response.

"Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind"

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly;
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
Thou dost not bite so nigh

As benefits forgot;
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
Heigh ho! sing heigh ho! unto the green holly;
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then heigh ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Discussion Questions for
"Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind"

Recall and Interpret
1. According to the song, what is more unkind than the winter wind? Why?
2. What is ironic about the speaker's words in lines 10 and 20? (See literary Terms Handbook, page R8.)
3. Describe the speaker's tone (see page R17) in the song. Refer to specific words or lines that contribute to the tone you describe.

Evaluate and Connect
4. What view of love and friendship is related in the song? Do you agree with this view? Explain your answers.
5. Why might Shakespeare have used images from nature to convey his message? (See literary Terms Handbook, page R8.)