Shakespeare over a number of years wrote 154 sonnets, addressed largely to a young friend and partly to a mistress. Among the most conspicuous merits of Shakespeare’s sonnets are their lyricism, their intense dramatic appeal, their psychological depth, their philosophical quality, their felicities of word and phrase, and their wealth of imagery.
Here is a list of the best William Shakespeare sonnets:
1. Sonnet 130
In Sonnet 130, Shakespeare finds his mistress wanting in all those attractions which are associated with beauty; and yet he thinks her to be the most beautiful woman in the world. This sonnet is undoubtedly the most personal, and its subjectivity enhances its lyrical character.
2. Sonnet 116
Sonnet 116 is one of the best-known sonnets of Shakespeare. The popularity of this sonnet is well deserved because it contains an idea which appeals to every reader, young or old. True love never undergoes a change. True love is constant like the northern star which used to serve as an infallible guide to ships on the sea in the olden days. True love never changes with the changing times.
3. Sonnet 18
In Sonnet 18, the imagery, the emotion, the music, the melancholy, and the personal element, all combine to make it one of Shakespeare’s most exquisite lyrics. The beauty of a day in summer is variable and short-lived, but the beauty of Shakespeare’s friend, however, is lovelier than this beauty. He promises that these sonnets would keep his friend’s beauty alive for ages. Shakespeare’s emotion in this sonnet is one of joy in his friend’s beauty and also one of pride in his own achievement in having written these sonnets.
4. Sonnet 29
In Sonnet 29, Shakespeare finds himself in a mood of acute distress because of his failure to have achieved what other people have got. Then he finds great relief in the thoughts of his friends. Having such a friend is a rich compensation to Shakespeare for all he wants. His friend’s love constitutes a treasure that is more valuable to him than all the wealth of kings. The intensity of Shakespeare’s love for his friend is the most striking feature of this sonnet.
5. Sonnet 129
In Sonnet 129, Shakespeare defines the nature of lust. Lust is by no means a source of any genuine pleasure to a man. A lustful man yearns for sensual gratifications, but this sensual gratification does not afford any real pleasure because the pleasure lasts only as long as the sexual intercourse lasts. The whole world knows about the superficial nature of sensual gratification, and yet nobody is able to avoid it or seek the means of avoiding it.
6. Sonnet 104
In Sonnet 104, the youth and beauty of Shakespeare’s friend must be declining with the passing of time, but to Shakespeare, it seems that his friend’s youth and beauty remain unchanged and are not likely to change ever. And yet Shakespeare realizes the fact that a change in the looks of a man takes place surely and undoubtedly. However, in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the youthful freshness and smoothness of Shakespeare’s friend would remain forever so that the coming generations would know that, although the beauty of Shakespeare’s friend died long ago, yet it has remained intact in these sonnets.
7. Sonnet 98
In Sonnet 98, Shakespeare once again describes his feeling of desolation when he is away from his friend. He feels no pleasure at all during the love month of April with all its flowers and other attractions because his friend is away. The lovely month of April is like winter to Shakespeare in his friend’s absence, and he can only spend his time playing with the flowers which attract him by their resemblance with the beauty of his friend.
8. Sonnet 73
In Sonnet 73, the poet is passing through the unhappiest time of his life and his death seems to him to be approaching. He calls upon his friends to love him even more than before because he would soon be departing from this earth. The feeling in this poem is again one of sadness, here almost of despair. However, the real purpose of the poet seems to be to enhance his friend’s love for him.
9. Sonnet 65
In Sonnet 65, Shakespeare once again speaks about the decline, the decay, and the eventual death of even the strongest objects in this world. The beauty of Shakespeare’s friend would also fade away one day, but it is possible that Shakespeare’s love for his friend would never die and would be preserved in these sonnets which he is writing in the praise of his friend’s beauty and to express love for his friend.
10. Sonnet 55
In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare says that his poetry would last longer than any marble tombs, memorials, and monuments. These sonnets, which he has written in honour of his friend and to celebrate him, would continue to be read by people always and would serve to keep the memory of his friend alive for all time.
11. Sonnet 33
In Sonnet 33, Shakespeare complains about a change for the worse in the attitude towards him of his friend. Although his friend has begun to treat Shakespeare with a touch of contempt, Shakespeare’s love for his friend has certainly not diminished in any way. The sun in the sky seems sometimes to lose its brightness because of a passing cloud. In the same way, his friend has become scornful towards him because of some change in the circumstance of their lives.
12. Sonnet 30
In Sonnet 30, the poet thinks of his past losses, misfortunes, sorrows, and grieves. The memories of those losses and griefs sadden him greatly. Thus a feeling of self-pity runs through the sonnet. At the end, however, Shakespeare feels compensated for the losses and sorrows by the thought of his friend who is still alive.
13. Sonnet 20
In Sonnet 20, Shakespeare says that while creating his friend, Nature had originally intended to bring into existence a woman of unusual beauty. That is the reason why the features, the face and the countenance of Shakespeare’s friend closely resembles those of a woman. However, having started the process of creation, Nature changed her mind only at the last moment and, instead of creating a woman, created a man. While Shakespeare himself has been deprived of the pleasure of sexually loving his friend, Nature has surely made it possible for the friend to make love to women in this world and provide them with the sexual pleasure which they might seek.
14. Sonnet 106
In Sonnet 106, Shakespeare says that all the descriptions of beauty, written by the poets of olden times, were actually forecast and predictions of the beauty of Shakespeare’s friend. As those old writers had not actually seen Shakespeare’s friend and were only making prophecies about the birth of such a human being one day, their descriptions of his friend are inadequate and unsatisfactory because even the writers of today, who can actually see Shakespeare’s friend with their own eyes, are unable to do justice to the beauty of his friend.
15. Sonnet 1
In Sonnet 1, Shakespeare calls upon his friend to get married and to produce children in order to be able to perpetuate his name and his memory. As Shakespeare thought his friend to be one of the loveliest human beings, he wanted that the friend’s beauty should not get lost altogether. The poet’s love for his friend is the sentiment that prompted the poem. The beauty of his friend is as much a theme of this sonnet as the argument that the friend should get married and produce children.
16. Sonnet 60
Sonnet 60 describes the high speed at which Time travels first to bring out a welcome change in the life of a human being and subsequently travel even faster to bring about the decline in his life and then the end of his life. Time, which brings everything into existence, destroys everything as it passes rapidly minute by minute. Shakespeare’s friend too would die one day in a physical sense, but the sonnets, which Shakespeare is writing in praise of his friend, would preserve his friend’s name fame and beauty for all the times to come.
17. Sonnet 94
In Sonnet 94, Shakespeare says that there are people in the world who have the power to hurt others but who do not actually do so. Such persons have rightly inherited heavily graces. If such persons really do some wrong, they would be like flowers which are attacked by canker-worms; and such persons may be regarded as those sweet things which turn sour because of the deviation from the right.
18. Sonnet 138
In Sonnet 138, Shakespeare knows that his mistresses assertions that she loves him are all false and yet he believes these assertions. She seems to think him to be rowing experienced a young man who would swallow any untruth which she tells him. Actually, however, she knows that he has passed the prime of his youth and is not an inexperienced young man. He believes her untruths because a lover always tries produce an impression that he trusts his mistress even when she tells lies. Each tries to flatter the other by believing the lie told by the other.
19. Sonnet 110
In Sonnet 110, Shakespeare tried to make new acquaintances during his absence from London, but all those acquaintances have proved to be useless. He has found nobody as worthy and honourable as his old and original friend to whom he is as devoted as one is devoted to a God. Whenever Shakespeare returns from a journey, his friend’s welcome to him is almost like an entry into heaven.
20. Sonnet 97
In Sonnet 97, the season of summer seems to Shakespeare to be as trying and difficult a time as winter is to people. The reason for this is his friend’s separation from him because he has gone away for a time and left his friend behind him. All the joys of summer seem to have vanished for Shakespeare because of separation from his friend. Shakespeare’s love for his friend is the deepest conceivable so that no doubt at all is left in our minds about the intensity and sincerity of his love.
21. Sonnet 146
In Sonnet 146, Shakespeare speaks about the relative importance of the soul as compared with the body of a human being. Shakespeare feels that his soul, which is pure, dwells in a body that is impure. His body consists of the earth which is inferior stuff as compared to the soul which is something spiritual. A human being generally keeps a body dressed in fine clothes, but inwardly or spiritually he may not be able to preserve the purity of his soul. Shakespeare tries to bring about some kind of compromise between his body and his soul.
22. Sonnet 27
In Sonnet 27, the mood of the poet is one of despondency and gloom, with a very little consolation in it. At the end of the day, Shakespeare feels exhausted by his laborious work. During the night Shakespeare is constantly thinking of his friend whose absence has become a constant strain on his mind. Thus Shakespeare feels restless both at the end of the day and during the night which ensues. This sonnet shows the intensity of Shakespeare’s attachment to his friend, and his confidence that his friend too is intensely attached to him.
23. Sonnet 17
In Sonnet 17, Shakespeare says that nobody would, in the times to come believe his account of the beauty and charm of his friends, and that people would think that the writer of these sonnets had merely invented this beauty because no real human being can possess the beauty of this unique kind. It would therefore be much better if the poet’s friend adopt some other means of achieving mortality. The poet’s friend should get married and beget a son whose presence among the people would convince them that someone as beautiful as this child must have lived at one time and produce an exact copy of himself.
24. Sonnet 23
In Sonnet 23, Shakespeare is unable to express the full intensity of his love for his friend in spoken words. Unable to utter his whole love in speech, he takes recourse to writing, and so he has written these sonnets to give an adequate expression to his love.
25. Sonnet 134
In Sonnet 134, Shakespeare depicts his predicament in such a way as to appear a pathetic figure before us. Shakespeare’s mistress has become the mistress of his friend, and he feels that he has not only lost his mistress but also his friend. He had used his friend as only a kind of intermediary to convey his love to his mistress, but his friend head, in the process, lost his own heart to that woman. The result is that Shakespeare has lost the mistress and the friend, while the mistress has both him and his friend in her grip.