Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Poet Appreciation #8: William Shakespeare

*Gasp* Billy Bard is celebrating his 450th birthday on the 23rd. I advise those attending the birthday party to stick to the crumpets and steer clear of the kippers, as they didn’t do ol’ William any good at his own birthday din celeb.

Would William be surprised to know how many Bardinators there are coasting about due to his most marvelous ability with words, wit, and retrofitting old tales into something more appealing?  Probably.  Ben Jonson knew his contemporary, and somewhat rival was “a man for all time.”

What better way to say “Happy Birthday, Bill!” than with a couple of his sonnets.

First, the Mona Lisa of his career:


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


Who hasn’t heard this lovely tribute of admiration? No matter how many years I’ve taught it to high school students they still “get it” and appreciate the trick ending of the couplet.  That’s what I like about Wm’s wit: it’s subtle and winking.  I think he’s winking right now as it’s being read. I’ll let Michael York recite it for you.  He gets it for sure, this is a loving tribute (don’t get shook up about it being for a man, like my freshmen do–this was supposedly to William S.’s patron, the guy who paid the bills so Wm could keep writing. Is that any different from dedicating a song or book to an agent, sibling, parent, or editor?)

Another tribute sonnet is perhaps not as complimentary, yet I think it showcases Shakespeare’s ability to take the accepted medium and poke fun at how poets tended to extol too vigorously the glories of a person, thus rendering him or her to be removed from humanity–it’s difficult to climb down off a pedestal that’s built too high. This particular sonnet at first sounds like a bash session; however, after a step back moment, it’s clear to see Shakespeare extols the real beauty of his love.  He loves this woman, warts–that is, frizzy hair, and all.


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.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

This video captures the satire of those mushy sonnets while intones the general attitude of love.  Alan Rickman and typography mash up at its best.  Wouldn’t you want Alan Rickman reciting a sonnet to you?  Check yes.



These are only a drop in the sonnet bucket.  Wills wrote 150 sonnets, far more than the 38 plays we know to be roaming about.  So why do we mostly associate him with being a playwright than a poet?  According to many historical sources, he considered himself to be more of a poet than a playwriter. Hmm, it’s easier to turn a play into a film than a sonnet, I suppose.

Once again, Happy Birthday, William!



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6 thoughts on “Poet Appreciation #8: William Shakespeare

  1. Ajaytao2010 on said:

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  2. Pingback: Rufus Wainwright Sings Sonnet 20, Happy Birthday to the Bard | The Dad Poet

  3. Love it! I agree with you about Sonnet 130. I wrote a paper about it in college because I loved the unconventional celebration of beauty. I’m a day late on the bandwagon, but this is one of my favorite renderings of one of his sonnets:

    • I’m smack in the middle of our Romeo and Juliet unit and I hope I’m encouraging my students to embrace the Bard. Many are seeking out versions of R&J on their own to watch! Yay!

  4. Inspired by your post and quickly attempted a sonnet – not quite William and lax on the iambic – but still I did. And I saved it to my USB drive and kept it in my pocket today – so it was a poem in my pocket!

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