Figurative Language in Sonnet 18

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  • 0:03 Shakespeare's Sonnets
  • 2:04 Figurative Language & Metaphor
  • 3:43 Imagery
  • 4:27 Personification
  • 5:33 Hyperbole
  • 6:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

How important is figurative language in poetry? Complete this lesson to discover how Shakespeare used various types of figurative language in his 'Sonnet 18.'

Shakespeare's Sonnets

William Shakespeare is perhaps the most well known playwright across the globe. However, many might not know that he was also the author of over 150 poems. These poems were sonnets, or 14-line poems with a set rhyme scheme.

Browsing through his many sonnets, you are likely to recognize many famous lines. 'Sonnet 18,' which we will be discussing today, has several of those well-known quotes. So let's dive in and take a closer look at the figurative language within 'Sonnet 18.'

In order to analyze the figurative language, we must first read the sonnet:

Sonnet 18:

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 dimm'd;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;

Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st 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.

Anything sound familiar? This poem has a few lines that have been referenced many times in other literature and even pop culture. The basic message of this poem centers on the speaker comparing his love to a summer's day. He draws several different connections between summer and the woman he loves, until he finally makes the point in the final two lines that summer days end (as do human lives). However, since he has captured his love in this poem, it will live on forever through the people who read it.

One technique Shakespeare uses to emphasize this message is figurative language.

Figurative Language & Metaphor

To begin, let's review this term. Figurative language consists of words or phrases with a different interpretation other than the literal meaning. For instance, imagine there is a storm raging outside your window and you yell to your mother, 'It's raining cats and dogs!'

The literal interpretation of that statement would be that animals are falling from the sky. Is that true? Of course not! Instead, you have a figurative interpretation that the rain is coming down really hard. This figure of speech emphasizes that message.

Now we can look closer at different types of figurative language used in this sonnet. Our first one is a metaphor, which compares two things without using 'like' or 'as.' Metaphors usually draw the comparison by stating one thing is another.

Returning to Shakespeare, let's go back to the very first line of 'Sonnet 18:'

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

This line outlines the metaphor for the whole poem, which compares the woman the speaker loves to a summer day.

We see another metaphor further on in the poem:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;

In these lines, the metaphor is comparing the sun to the eye of heaven. This figurative language emphasizes the beauty or radiance of the sun. His underlying point lies in the fact that even the sun (the eye of heaven) will get dim from time to time, but the beauty of his beloved will never fade. This can be seen again later in the poem:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Again, this metaphor reiterates the fundamental comparison of this woman to a summer's day.


Next, let's look at the use of imagery, or words that appeal to our five senses to create a vivid description. The following lines contain imagery:

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 dimm'd

Can you pull out any words that appeal to the five senses? 'Rough' and 'hot' appeal to the sense of touch, while 'shines' and 'gold' appeal to the sense of sight. In fact, the 'buds of May' can be an appeal to the sense of smell by referring to flowers. These are just a few instances of the imagery Shakespeare uses to create a vivid description of a summer day.

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