Analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet

sample answer to an examination question

This analysis of a shakespeare sonnet is an example of literary analysis at third year undergraduate level. It’s also an example of an answer to an essay question set for a final-year exam paper. It poses the fairly standard test of analysing one of the sonnets. This is one of three questions to be answered in three hours. So – allowing ten minutes for making notes and maybe an outline plan, this shows what can be done in fifty minutes!

Write an essay on the following sonnet. Your answer should:

  • briefly summarize the argument of the sonnet
  • comment on the language Shakespeare employs and the way that language reflects the sonnet’s argument

You may wish to refer to other sonnets in your answer, but any references to other texts must be relevant to your broader argument.

Sonnet XXII
My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me;
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O therefore, love, be of thyself so wary,
As I not for myself but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
   Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
   Thou gav’st me thine, not to give back again.


In Sonnet 22, the speaker contemplates the difference in age between himself and his beloved, and asserts that he obtains youth through his relationship with the young man. In the second quatrain the speaker explains that the reason for this is the love between the himself and the young man which is portrayed as a mutual exchange of hearts, with the implication that the two have become one flesh. The speaker urges the young man to take care of himself and promises to be faithful to the young man. In the couplet, the motivating factor for the poem becomes clear, with the speaker acknowledging that he is afraid that his heart may be broken by the young man.

Although there are no personal pronouns which can confirm the sex of the addressee of the sonnet, the first 126 sonnets are assumed by critics to have been written to a young man. Sonnet 22 appears shortly after the early group of poems which urged the young man to have a child, and is one of the first sonnets to focus upon the speaker’s feelings.

The structure of the sonnet is 4-4-4-2, although there is a change of emphasis and tone after the 8th line which means that the sonnet has a distinguishable octave and sestet.

In the first quatrain, the speaker focuses upon youth and age and the disparity in age between himself and the young man. The opening line shows the speaker looking at himself in a mirror or ‘glass’ and is an echo of the opening line of sonnet 3 in which the young man was urged to look at himself in a mirror as a warning against growing old and remaining childless. The imagery of Q1 emphasises the disparity with ‘old’, ‘youth’, ‘date’, ‘death’ and the metaphor of ‘times furrows’ which effectively describes the wrinkles that the speaker has now and which the young man will have in the future’. The emphasis of this quatrain is on outward, physical appearance. The quatrain ends with the speaker looking forward to his own death which he hopes will be peaceful.

In the second quatrain, the emphasis changes and the poet uses an extended metaphor of the exchange of hearts to describe the mutual love between himself and the young man. The exchange of hearts was and still is a common motif of love poetry. However in this sonnet it is examined in a more literal way with the speaker suggesting that the two have actually exchanged hearts with the outward beauty of the young man being but ‘the seemly raiment of my heart’. Here the clothing imagery and the reference to the young man’s beauty link back to Q1 and the stress on external appearance.

Line 7, ‘which in thy breast doth live as thine in me’ is an allusion to the marriage service in which it is suggested that man and woman become one flesh. This, together with the opening lines which make the same suggestion, have convinced some critics that the relationship between the speaker and the young man is a consummated love affair. This however, is a contentious issue and one upon which critics remain divided.

The final line of Q2 links back to the opening line, with the speaker again referring to the age difference, this time asking the rhetorical question ‘How can I then be elder than thou art?’ again suggesting that the two have become one.

In the 3rd quatrain there is a change of tone, with the speaker making a direct exhortation to his beloved. ‘O therefore love, be of thyself so wary’. The heart imagery continues and the speaker uses similes of ‘nurse’ and ‘babe’ to describe himself and the young man’s heart. These similes have a two fold effect. Firstly, despite the speakers assertions to the contrary, they emphasis the difference in age between the speaker and the young man. However, they also change the imagery of the poems from those of old age such as ‘times furrows’ which was present in Q1, to ones of youth. In his way, the poem moves from age to youth. The structure of the sonnet therefore demonstrates the rejuvenation that the speaker is claiming to receive because of his relationship with the young man.

In the couplet, the motivation for the sonnet becomes clear. The poet is concerned that the young man will leave him and this will break his heart. He uses the word ‘slain’ which suggests murder and is in contrast to the peaceful death of old age that the speaker was wishing for in the first quatrain. The ‘heart’ is again the focus of the couplet, thus linking back to the 2nd and 3rd quatrains. Here however, there is the suggestion that the young man may want to take his heart back or leave the speaker. The poet warns him ‘presume not on thy heart when mine is slain’. The implication is that if the young man breaks the speaker’s heart, he will not get his own heart back – leaving him heartless – with the suggestion of cruelty.

In his sonnet, just as the imagery moves backwards from death to birth but with a final reference to death in the couplet, the quatrains take on new meanings in light of those that follow. Q1 is an assertion that the speaker is not old, Q2 explains the reasons for this assertion. Q3 is an exhortation to the speaker and the couplet explains the fear of being left broken hearted which is the underlying reason for the sonnet.

© 2000 Kathryn Abram – reproduced with permission.

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