Read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets below, along with a modern English interpretation of each one. These are intended to offer an easy read-through to aid understanding of the sonnets. There’s no attempt to ‘translate’ Shakespeare’s sonnets word for word, as Shakespeare’s poetry is intense and heavily layered with multiple meanings and use of rhyme, metre, and metaphors – all in iambic pentameter.

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets published in his ‘quarto’ in 1609, covering themes such as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, infidelity and jealousy. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man, with the last 28 are either addressed to a woman.

These 154 sonnet translations offer only the argument of each sonnet and a general impression of the main sense, whilst following each line and image as a modern version. Take your pick from the list of Shakespeare sonnets below (or learn how to write a sonnet of your own!):


Picture of Shakespeare's sonnets folio

Shakespeare’ sonnet 1 as shown in his “quarto” of 1609

A widely held belief contends that the sonnets were published without Shakespeare’s consent. Had Shakespeare endorsed their publication, many believe he would have provided their printer with an authoritative text and a dedication. However, “Shakes-peares Sonnets” contains no dedication from the author and the text has many errors. Some critics also maintain that some sonnets are unfinished and that the sequence is too incoherent to have been intended for publication.

Exponents of this view have argued that someone whom Shakespeare trusted betrayed him by giving the poems to their first publisher, Thomas Thope, or that a thief, perhaps motivated by animosity or personal profit, seized the poets manuscript and sold it on. Some hold that the publication of the sonnets surely upset Shakespeare, whose poems dealt with scandalous forms of love; homoerotic and adulterous. Others variously insist that these subjects are more shocking to post-Victorian readers than to Jacobean ones; that, whilst the sonnets voice strong feelings, these were entirely appropriate to the form; and that emotions expressed in his sonnets do not mirror Shakespeare’s own any more than those of dramatic characters in his plays.

Certain features of the sonnet form – not least the first-person narrative and themes of love – do give the impression of offering direct access to their author’s inner world. Since there has long been intense curiosity about the ‘youth’ addressed in the sonnets, clues to his identity have also been extracted with no little strain from the frontispiece of the first edition. The author of this dedication, T.T, was Thomas Thorpe, the publisher. But the identity of the “begetter” of the sonnets, “Mr W. H.” remains a mystery. Some think this is a misprint for “Mr W. S.” or “Mr W. Sh.”, as in William Shakespeare. Others suspect that the “begetter” refers to the scoundrel who may have conveyed the poems to Thorpe against Shakespeare’s wishes.  But the most widely held assumption is that the “beggetter” must be the person who inspired the “ensuing sonnets”, the majority of which address a young man.

Working from the scant evidence offered by the initials W. H., literary detectives have proposed many candidates. One is Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in the mid-1590s. Another is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose name figures among those to whom the First Folio was dedicated in 1623. A third candidate is Sir William Hervey, stepfather of the Earl of Southampton, who may have commissioned lyrics urging the young man to marry and produce an heir – the first 17 sonnets of the sequence treat this theme. Of these candidates, however, two were earls and one was a gentleman, referred to as “Sir”. None would have been called “Mr” save by error or to suggest intimacy. In the end, these probing enigmas of Shakespeare’s sonnets are forced to speculate; information is poor, scarce and inconclusive.

Download ebook of all 154 Shakespeare sonnets in modern English >>

As well as his 154 sonnets, Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and many poems, in which he gave the world inumerable memorable quotes, remarkable characters such as Lady Macbeth and Desdemona and brought many new words and phrases into being. But as a body of work Shakespeare’s sonnets are an incredible collection, and are themselves almost a synonym for “love poem”. What’s your take on the Shakespeare sonnets listed above? Let us know by joining in the conversation in the comments section below.

Who knew that <a title=”Shakespeare’s sonnets” href=”/sonnets/”>Shakespeare’s sonnets</a> and mathematics were so linked?

In the super-interesting video below, Professor Roger Bowley talks about the tight constraints – and shape – that numbers gave to Shakespeare’s sonnets.


14 replies
  1. jrastin
    jrastin says:

    I have translated 40 sonnets into Farsi, and I am looking for a way to get them published in a book. If can help me please inform me. thanks

    Reply
  2. Megan W.
    Megan W. says:

    I love sonnet 145. That has to be one of my favorite sonnets.
    And 130 is just great. Like a straight smack to the face 😀

    Reply
  3. Adithya
    Adithya says:

    shakespeare is my favorite and especially his sonnet 18 he handle words with such delicacy and he express his feelings with simplicity and beauty and thats what makes him a great poet.

    Reply
  4. Daniel Klayton
    Daniel Klayton says:

    Ahh, I love the sonnets! I think I’m getting ready for a new reading of them… I like to go back and rediscover them every once in awhile 🙂

    I love the snarkiness of sonnet 11: “Nature meant for ugly people to die without having kids, because they’re so dang ugly”… oh Shakespeare….

    I wrote a piece about the sonnet as a form – what it can accomplish, and what the structure makes it particularly attuned to… if you love Shakespeare’s sonnets, check it out, methinks you’ll enjoy it 🙂

    http://www.waistcoatandwatch.com/2012/07/05/the-sonnet/

    Reply
      • Daniel Klayton
        Daniel Klayton says:

        Mm, well that certainly would be one way of reading it.

        Frankly though, I think we’re a bit too ready to remember Shakespeare as the cosmically-super-serious-brilliant voice of Hamlet, and not as the hilariously-snarky-and-inappropriate voice of Falstaff. Especially in his sonnets, in which I think he’s far more often intending to be ironic and funny than I think he’s given credit for.

        If he’s being serious in Sonnet 11 when he says certain people should rightly “barrenly perish,” then he’s sort of being a jerk – whether he’s talking about physically unattractive people, rude people, mean people, dumb people – whomever.

        If he’s being serious, then the sonnet is elitist and eugenist. If he’s being snarky and funny, then the sonnet is snarky and funny.

        I’ll take the latter 😉

        Reply
    • megan
      megan says:

      sonnet 18 is beautiful now that i understand it fully in modern english. I have put it into my homework about shakespeare sonnets 🙂

      Reply

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