The top ten greatest sonnets by William Shakespeare
Previously, we’ve analysed a good number of Shakespeare’s sonnets here at Interesting Literature, offering a brief summary and analysis of the sonnet in question and exploring its most significant points of interest. But we gave up analysing every single sonnet by the time we got to around a third of the way in. Not every Shakespeare sonnet is a classic, simply because it was written by the Bard. Below, we’ve chosen ten of the very best Shakespeare sonnets.
Sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’). This is where Shakespeare’s Sonnets start to get interesting, after the opening sequence of 17 ‘Procreation Sonnets’. Boasting one of the most famous opening lines in all of English verse, Sonnet 18 shows that Shakespeare is already sure that his poetry will guarantee the young man his immortality after all.
Sonnet 20 (‘A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted’). Sonnet 20 by William Shakespeare is one of the more famous early poems, after Sonnet 18. Its opening line, ‘A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted’, immediately establishes the sonnet’s theme: Shakespeare is discussing the effeminate beauty of the Fair Youth, the male addressee of these early sonnets.
Sonnet 29 (‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’). In this famous Shakespeare sonnet, the Bard is down on his luck and out of favour with his peers, and is all on his own, crying about being shunned by everyone. He cries up to heaven, but to no avail, and curses his wretched plight. He confesses his envy of those who have more luck, or more friends, or some talent or range of vision which he himself lacks. But then, in the midst of all these dark thoughts, just as he’s almost beginning to hate himself, by chance the Bard thinks of his beloved, and then he is filled with joy and, rather than wanting to cry to heaven he now sings hymns at heaven’s gate. Because remembering his beloved’s sweet love brings a ‘wealth’ far greater than anything owned by a king – love, if you like, makes a man ‘richer’ than all the gold that kings own.
Sonnet 33 (‘Full many a glorious morning have I seen’). The extended metaphor whereby ‘sun = Fair Youth’ is intended to pay homage to the young man’s beauty: he shines as brightly as that heavenly orb. Shakespeare piles on the flattery, though, with extra touches: the sun has a ‘sovereign eye’ and so, by association, has the Fair Youth – ‘sovereign’ suggesting royalty or at least nobility. The words ‘golden’, ‘gilding’, and ‘alchemy’ all reinforce this association with wealth and nobility.
Sonnet 60 (‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’). Sonnet 60 is one of those sonnets which contains a simple message or core meaning – that we are all going to die – but it’s rightly praised as a tour de force because of the deft way in which Shakespeare’s images work together. Just as the tide comes in and covers up the pebbles on the shore, our lives are relentlessly heading towards death – and yet Shakespeare keeps faith that his verse will survive to keep the Fair Youth’s memory alive.
Sonnet 64 (‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced’). This is a straightforward sonnet, but all the better for that: as with Sonnet 60, Shakespeare carefully builds his images of ‘time’s fell hand’ and its destruction, creating a picture of near-apocalyptic terror where even the mighty towers of great civilisations are not safe. In the last analysis, what’s the point of anything if it isn’t going to last?
Sonnet 94 (‘They that have power to hurt, and will do none’). Considered one of the most challenging and ambiguous of all the Sonnets, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, beginning ‘They that have power to hurt, and will do none’, is, for our money, also one of the top five best sonnets in the whole sequence. One scholar and poet, J. H. Prynne, has even written a whole book about this one sonnet. The poem is so ambiguous that it can even be read in two entirely different ways: the poet-critic William Empson argued that the poem is ironic, and we shouldn’t take its ‘meaning’ at face value. Decide for yourself by clicking on the link above to read the poem and our more detailed analysis of it.
Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’). This is a popular poem to be recited at wedding readings, and yet, as many commentators have pointed out, there is something odd about a heterosexual couple celebrating their marriage (of bodies as well as minds) by reading aloud this paean to gay love, celebrating a marriage of minds but not bodies (no gay marriage in Shakespeare’s time). This makes the poem, along with Robert Frost’s often-misunderstood ‘The Road Not Taken’, a candidate for the most-misinterpreted poem in English.
Sonnet 129 (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’). This is the first sonnet on this list that is about Shakespeare’s relationship with the ‘Dark Lady’. In his masterly commentary on Sonnet 129 in his Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, the poet Don Paterson brilliantly describes this poem as ‘a terrific display of self-directed fury, raging away in the little cage of the sonnet like a spitting wildcat.’ This poem, about the ‘mood-plummet’ that can ensue after sex, brilliantly captures the way we, as thinking animals, misinterpret this hormone-shift as a mind-issue rather than a body-issue. Has anyone expressed this very specific feeling better than Shakespeare? Each line seems to add some new and peculiarly acute insight into what it’s like.
Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’). Shakespeare is saying in Sonnet 130 that the Dark Lady is not exactly conventionally beautiful in any sense, but he still thinks she is just as fine as any other woman – only the Dark Lady, unlike these other women, isn’t having her beauty ‘talked up’ by excessive and ridiculous comparisons (‘you are rosy-cheeked’, ‘your eyes shine like suns’, ‘your voice is as sweet-sounding as music’, and the like). Here we might begin to see why Sonnet 130 can prove a bone of contention for readers of the Sonnets, who disagree not so much over what the sonnet means – on that everyone pretty much agrees – but on whether it’s a good poem in terms of its message.
If you enjoyed this pick of Shakespeare’s greatest sonnets, you might also like our selection of his best plays and the greatest speeches from Shakespeare. Further reading and recommended sources: Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Belknap); Don Paterson, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary.
If you’re studying Shakespeare’s sonnets and looking for a detailed and helpful guide to the poems, we recommend Stephen Booth’s hugely informative edition, Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene). It includes all 154 sonnets, a facsimile of the original 1609 edition, and helpful line-by-line notes on the poems.