Study Guide

Sonnet 60 Themes

By William Shakespeare

  • Time

    The thoughts offered by Sonnet 60's speaker on the subject of time can be boiled down to two basic points. First: we're all completely at the mercy of time. We are born, we grow, and we ultimately all die, thanks to Time. Second? Time has no pause button. It just keeps on ticking away, no matter how much we could freeze frame any number of moments. Of course, as the speaker reminds us in the final couplet, even though there's no pause button, some things—like poems—are so enduring that they can last through the centuries, as if in slow motion.

    Questions About Time

    1. How does Shakespeare's use of "bad grammar" in the run-on sentence of quatrain 1 illustrate the speaker's perceptions of time? Can you point to any other moments in the poem when the speaker uses language in a certain way to act out the progression of time? 
    2. When the 20th-century poet Paul Celan translated Shakespeare's Sonnet 60 into German, he translated "minutes" as "Stunden"—the German word for "hours." How do you think the poem might be interpreted differently with "hours" in the place of "minutes"? 
    3. Why do you think Shakespeare chose to personify time in quatrain 3 and the final couplet?
    4. What does time have to do with love in this poem?

    Chew on This

    Shakespeare uses the word "minutes" instead of "hours" to focus our attention on the little moments of time that pass by without our noticing—but all those moments add up.

    Shakespeare personifies Time in the poem because he wants his speaker to have someone to fight against—and you can't exactly fight against an impersonal force.

  • Death

    Not to be a bummer, and not to quote The X-Files or anything, but everything dies. Ain't no gettin' 'round that fact, dear Shmoopers. But do our lives just flow by with no greater destination? Is there anything to look forward to? The first twelve lines of Sonnet 60 seem to say no, but the final couplet offers us a new kind of immortality—through art.

    Questions About Death

    1. What is the first hint the poem gives that it's talking about death?
    2. In quatrain 2, Shakespeare uses personified abstractions to refer to two different stages of human life: "Nativity" and "maturity." Why doesn't he refer to "mortality" here in the same way?
    3. Does the speaker of the poem believe in an afterlife? Why, or why not? How can you tell?
    4. This might sound like a stupid question, but…what does the speaker hate most about mortality? 
    5. Phrased another way, what do you think are his priorities in life?

    Chew on This

    The speaker of the poem doesn't give us any hint that he believes in an afterlife.

    The speaker seems to value beauty and youth more than anything. If beauty and youth could last forever, he would be happy.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Most of Sonnet 60 suggests a deep connection between human life and the natural world, what with all its comparisons between human life in the natural world. Life is like waves, no wait, it's like a sun rising and getting eclipsed, no wait it's like vegetation and crops, and… you get the picture. But by the end of the poem, the speaker puts the emphasis on humans making things (like poetry) as a way of separating humans from the natural world, which makes them so subject to the ravages of time.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Overall, would you say that the poem compares humans to the natural world, or compares nature to the human world? Does the distinction make a difference?
    2. Quatrain 2 begins by comparing human life to something that happens everyday: the rising of the sun. But then it compares aging and death to something that happens pretty rarely: a solar eclipse. What is the effect of these two comparisons? 
    3. In quatrain 3, Shakespeare seems to compare the way time treats humans to the way humans treat nature. What's the deal?
    4. So who wins: humans or nature?

    Chew on This

    Shakespeare's poem arguably makes nature look like human life more than it makes human life look like nature. That's the speaker's attempt to make the world more meaningful than it actually is.

    By portraying the downfall of the sun as "unnatural," or at least happening according to an extraordinary natural process, the speaker heightens our sense of outrage at the "injustice" of nature.

  • Art and Culture

    Sonnet 60 keeps its discussion of art and culture short—the only real clear reference to this theme comes in the last two lines, in the reference to the speaker's "verse." That said, this brief reference says it all. And then some. The speaker presents his work as an artist or craftsman as a way of opposing the destructive forces of nature. So long as his verse remains in existence, he will be able to continue praising his beloved. Even if most of the concrete details of Shakespeare's life remain shrouded in mystery, it is undeniable that some part of him lives on through his work. Now that's art.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. The speaker seems to put a lot of faith in art and culture at the end of the poem. Why? Do you think he's right to?
    2. In quatrain 3, time is described as having the same relationship to humans that humans have to nature. Why do you think Shakespeare made this comparison? 
    3. The speaker of this poem doesn't seem to have any belief in an afterlife, but seems satisfied that his poetry will live on. Can poetry provide any of the same consolations that religion can?

    Chew on This

    The speaker suggests that art can provide some limited consolation for death. But hey, some consolation is better than none at all, right?

    The speaker uses literary allusions to signal his disagreement with standard Christian belief. Zing!