The top ten greatest sonnets by William Shakespeare, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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?’).
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…
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’).
A woman’s face, with Nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion…
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 20 has prompted more analysis and discussion than virtually any other Shakespeare sonnet. Oscar Wilde, in his 1889 short story ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’, took the line ‘A man in hew all Hews in his controlling’ as a clue to the identity of the mysterious Mr W. H. to whom the 1609 publication of the Sonnets was dedicated. The italicising and capitalising of ‘Hews’ in some editions is interpreted as a hint, a pun on the name of (entirely fictitious) boy actor Willie Hughes, whom Wilde identifies as the real-life inspiration for the Fair Youth. But as with so much to do with the Sonnets, this remains mere speculation. The Sonnets always wriggle free of such attempts to pin them down to a specific reading.
Sonnet 29 (‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes’).
Yet in these thoughts my self 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…
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’).
Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now…
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’).
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow…
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’).
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
That Time will come and take my love away…
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? On a technical note, it’s worth observing that ten out of the fourteen lines of Sonnet 64 end with a long ‘a’ vowel sound: defaced, age, razed, rage, gain, main, state, decay, ruminate, away. This repetition of the same sound underscores the march of time, building a relentlessness to the line endings which is only marginally offset by the break provided by ‘shore’ and ‘store’; it also mimics the gaping incredulity Shakespeare feels when confronted with such devastation.
Sonnet 94 (‘They that have power to hurt, and will do none’).
They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow…
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’).
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…
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’).
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust…
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’).
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…
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.