William Shakespeare: Sonnets 1 - 154
Capsule Summaries by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: Many of these sonnets are not quite as pleasing to me now as I thought they were in earlier years. I will need to read and study them someday more carefully to be able to come to a fuller appreciation of them, if this would ever be possible, and I continue to find them very difficult to understand and interpret. Some are quite dark and depict the poet's revulsion, etc., so I find these unsatisfactory in their bleakness and seemingly misogynistic viewpoint. Thus my summaries are incomplete.

Per Bevington:  Most of sonnets 1-126 are thought to have been written to WS's young handsome aristocratic wealthier male friend and some appear to be homoerotic. Sonnets 127-152 are written to the "Dark Lady". Sonnets 153-4 are unrelated. 73 is considered one of the best. Sonnets 138 & 144 appeared in the pirated "The Passionate Pilgrim".


Sonnets mostly addressed to a young aristocratic male friend

1. Addressed to a young male friend, presumably a sensitive educated male aristocrat of leisure. I encourage you to procreate and thereby perpetuate your beauty

2. Suggests you will be comforted and spared from shame in your old age by having children.

3. Now is the time, a wife awaits you, don't cheat the world of your legacy, do like your mother did.

4. Don't hoard or consume your beauty, which is a bounteous loan of nature, make it bear interest.

5. Time relentlessly destroys the vigor and beauty of youth, so pass on your essence (like perfume) to a child.

6. Having children is the proper use of your endowment which will make you and wife happy and will diminish the sting of death.

7. The admiration the man enjoys in his prime will like the setting sun go away if he grows old childless. 

8. Be like the lute strings and seek the harmonious sounds of having a family.

9. The world will lament you as a widow would if you die childless--this would waste your beauty and bring shame on yourself.

10. Overcome your hatred and lack of love for others and make a child for me.

11. Children bring wisdom, beauty, and properity. If everyone stayed childless , we would all die out. You were marked by nature to procreate.

12. Time destroys beauty and only having children can defy Time.

13. Prepare for death, don't neglect your house by failing to have children.

14. I can predict, not as an astrologer but by using your eyes to guide me, that [?all] beauty and truth will die unless you have children.

15. I will keep you alive through my poetry [the poet here does not mention children].

16. But you would be better immortalizing yourself with children than by my sonnets.

17. People in the future would not likely believe my lavish praise of you, but children would give you a second and more believable form of praise.

18. Shall I compare you to a beautiful day? No, such things are too changeable. You will be eternally beautiful, preserved in this poem, as long as men can read. [This sonnet is thematically in octave/sestet form.]

19. Time, do anything you want except destroy the beauty of my love's beauty. But even if you do, it will live on in this verse.

20. You [my male friend] have a woman's features and beauty but not woman's falseness, and are both master and mistress of my passion. Since you are a man, be my love but use women for sex.

21. - 28.  [Unsummarized].

29. When I am in despair, I think about you and am uplifted.

30. When I think about past losses I can weep, but thinking about you restores all my losses.

31. - 39.  [Unsummarized].

40. - 42. These sonnets are to the poet's mistress and his distress that she has taken away his male friend.

43. - 72.  [Unsummarized].

73. Someday you may see me aged and unattractive, and eventually die, even as the night takes away the day, or like a fire dies in its ashes. Realizing this, you should love me now more strongly before I leave you. (William S. Streitberger: This is a perfect English sonnet; each quatrain repeats "in me").

74. - 77.  [Unsummarized]

78 - 86. These sonnets are regarding the rival poet.

87. - 126.  [Unsummarized].

Sonnets mostly addressed to the "Dark Lady"

127. First sonnet to the "Dark Lady". My dark lady is dark but nonetheless beautiful, and thereby sets a new standard for beauty, not falsified by cosmetics.

128. I would love to change places with the keys of your keyboard, would like your fingers to play on my lips.

129. Pursuit of shameful lust leads one to hell and self-hate.

130. My mistress is not conventionally beautiful as described by other sonneteers yet is just as extraordinary.

131. You are as cruel to me as cruel beauties are. Some men say you do not have the beauty to make ensnare a lover, but my 1000 groans prove you do. You are dark only in your deeds, giving rise to the slander on your attractiveness.

132. Your dark eyes seem to mourn me, since they know your heart has disdained me. Let your heart also mourn for me, and I will declare only women of your complexion beautiful.

133. You have enslaved me but why also enslave and torture my friend. I want to shelter him from you, yet can't since all I have is controlled by you.

134. - 137.  [Unsummarized].

138. We are both false to each other but lie together nonetheless.

139. - 152.  [Unsummarized]

Unrelated Sonnets

153.  [Unsummarized]

154.  [Unsummarized]