Study Guide

Sonnet 55

By William Shakespeare

Sonnet 55 Introduction

You may know William Shakespeare as the man who brought you Hamlet and 400 years of bad puns on "to be or not to be." But Shakes was the kind of guy who shakes things up. Even though his plays were bringing home the bacon, he didn't limit himself to one genre. From 1593 to 1601, he churned out 154 sonnets that dish about every aspect of love, from longing and lust to full-blown jealousy.

At the same time, they're super-self-conscious—not like, "Does iambic pentameter make me look fat?", but because they discuss the purpose and power of poetry. Will says it himself in line 2: nothing will outlive "this powerful rhyme." These sonnets are ripped and they know it.

So how does Sonnet 55 fit into the game? The sonnets are usually divided in two sets: the ones written to an unidentified young man (1-126) and the ones written to the even more mysterious "dark lady" (127-152). (The final two are so weird that they're pretty much their own category.) This puts Sonnet 55 smack-dab in the middle of the "young man" set and, more specifically, in a group of sonnets concerned with the relationship between love and time. Spoiler alert: after enough time passes, everything dies, including love.

But that's where poetry swoops in like Superman to save the day—literally. Like many of its amigos, Sonnet 55 is a half-sad, half-confident meditation on love and poetry's power to preserve it. Wars and death may come and go, destroying buildings, art, and even the physical bodies of young lovers, but Shakespeare is forever.

What is Sonnet 55 About and Why Should I Care?

It happens every New Year's: you make a resolution to write in your diary and actually, really, this-time-I-promise commit to doing it. And even if you do peter out by February, that still leaves a whole month of remembered days: how you felt when you bombed the biology test, that freak-summer day when you played Frisbee after school, the stupid but hilarious joke that made you laugh in the library—all the stuff you never would've remembered if you hadn't thought, "Hey, maybe I should stop chewing this ballpoint pen and actually write down what I'm feeling right now."

Shakespeare's on the same page. Unless you're a poetic and dramatic genius, your private musings are probably not on par with Shakespeare's finest—let's keep it real, friends—but your diary and Sonnet 55 are coming from a similar place: they both want to preserve a specific moment forever.

Now, Shakespeare's a savvy guy. He knows what happens to beautiful young men as the years go by (hint: it involves wrinkles). Soon people start to forget how smokin' hot you were and, before you know it, you're all living at the senior center wearing dentures and watching reruns. It's not a pretty picture.

But trust the greatest writer ever to have a pen—or should we say, quill?—up his sleeve. Shakespeare outwits the violence and sadness of time by writing a poetic diary, by preserving the memory of his love and his beloved's beauty in sonnets. "But you shall shine more bright in these contents," he tells his lover in line 3, "than unswept stone besmear'd with sluttish time." In other words, everything is subject to decay and aging, even stone and marble. But because this beautiful dude is memorialized in Sonnet 55, his memory will stay fresh and vibrant forever. Not bad for 14 lines, right?

Sonnet 55 Resources

Websites

The Basics
Get the scoop on what makes a sonnet a sonnet and how this elegant 14-line verse form developed, from Petrarch to Rilke. Also gives pointers on how to distinguish a Petrarchan from a Shakespearean sonnet.

Blog it, Bill
Here's your up-to-date, tech-savvy source on all things Shakespeare.

"A Year of No Great Consequence"
Check out this chatty, British-professor-on-holiday introduction by Oxquarry Books for some great sonnet context. Includes the texts of every Shakespearean sonnet in addition to sonnets by Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, and a host of others.

Video

Interpretive Claymation Should be a College Major
Yeah, we're not sure either. What does Sonnet 55 have to do with a 2D gingerbread house?

Sonnet 55: The Video Game?!
Have you ever wondered what Sonnet 55 would look like reinvented as a Pokemon video game? Yeah, us neither.

Audio

May the Sonnet Be with You
Darth Vader reads Sonnet 55, giving a whole new meaning to wearing "this world out to the ending doom" (12). Could doom = final galactic battle between Emperor and Rebels?

Set to Music
Sir John Gielgud's reading, accompanied by period music, comes with high praise: "Listening to Gielgud's consummately wrought and deeply felt recitations is like having the verses whispered in your ear by the creator himself." We assume he means Shakespeare and not God.

Kill it, Calder
It's really meant for an iPad, but watching David Calder's jowls quiver passionately as he recites the lines of sonnet 55 is still mesmerizing. The lines light up as he says them. Ah, technology.

Images

Originals
Click through these facsimiles of the original 1609 quarto to get a feel for how Shakespeare's sonnets looked when they first hit the world.

Dead Marble
Check out these sixteenth-century funerary monuments to see what Will meant in lines 1-2: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme." These Tudors knew how to go out in style.

Wear it
Show your Shakespeare love by proudly wearing Sonnet 55 across your chest.

Articles & Interviews

So, Is This About Shakespeare or What?
In this introduction to the sonnets as love poetry, Professor Jonathan Bate warns readers against reading Shakespeare's life into his poetry: "Don't be drawn into the trap of supposing that they are autobiographical: that is an illusion of Shakespeare's art."

O that One's Horrible
For a cheeky take on the sonnets, fill up on Dan Paterson's opinionated introduction that starts with blushing through a cheese course and ends with Shakespeare's genius.

Books

Evolution
With over 600 examples of sonnets, Phillis Levin shows us how this form evolved (grew feathers and legs?) over the ages.

Collector's Edition
Get a load of this hardcover edition of the sonnets, complete with context, "its relationship with its neighbors, its argument, and the details of its language and musical effects." For the discerning reader.

Sonnets, Art of
Helen Vendler, one of the bossest poetry critics around, gives the sonnets a definitive interpretation in this lavish treatment from 1997. Don't have time to linger over 700 pages of meticulous poetic analysis? Get the skinny at thesreviews.

A Shakespeare Play?
Get the New York Times' take on a 2010 production of Peter Brook's Love is My Sin, a theatrical adaptation of 31 Shakespeare sonnets. The show held true to the themes: "the production, presented by Theater for a New Audience, leaves behind a haunting afterimage of the struggle to make evanescent things—love and beauty and the art that celebrates them—defy life's inevitable endings."