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Shakespeare's sonnets are poems that William Shakespeare wrote on a variety of themes. When discussing or referring to Shakespeare's sonnets, it is almost always a reference to the 154 sonnets that were first published all together in a quarto in 1609; however there are a few additional sonnets that Shakespeare wrote and included in the plays Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Love's Labour's Lost.
The primary source of Shakespeare's sonnets is a quarto published in 1609 titled Shakespeare's Sonnets. It contains 154 sonnets, which are followed by the long poem "A Lover's Complaint". Thirteen copies of the quarto have survived in fairly good shape from the 1609 edition, which is the only edition, there were no other printings. There is evidence in a note on the title page of one of the extant copies that the great Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn bought a copy in June of 1609 for one shilling.
The sonnets cover such themes as the passage of time, love, infidelity, jealousy, beauty and mortality. The first 126 are addressed to a young man; the last 28 are either addressed to, or refer to a woman. (Sonnets 138 and 144 had previously been published in the 1599 miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim).
The title of the quarto, Shakespeare's Sonnets, is consistent with the entry in the Stationer Register. The title appears in upper case lettering on the title page, where it is followed by the phrase "Neuer before Imprinted". The title also appears every time the quarto is opened. That the author's name in a possessive form is part of the title sets it apart from all other sonnet collections of the time, except for one -- Sir Philip Sidney's posthumous 1591 publication that is titled, Syr. P.S. his Astrophel and Stella, which is considered one of Shakespeare's most important models. Sidney's title may have inspired Shakespeare, particularly if the "W.H." of Shakespeare's dedication is Sidney's nephew and heir, William Herbert. The idea that the persona referred to as the speaker of the Shakespeare's sonnets might be Shakespeare himself, is aggressively repudiated by scholars, however, the title of the quarto does seem to encourage that kind of speculation.
The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to the young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation. Other sonnets express the speaker's love for the young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker's mistress; and pun on the poet's name. The final two sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the "little love-god" Cupid.
Whether Thorpe used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy is unknown. George Eld printed the quarto, and the run was divided between the booksellers William Aspley and John Wright.
Shakespeare's Sonnets include a dedication to "Mr. W.H." The identity of this person is not known, and, since the 19th century, this has provoked a great deal of speculation.
The dedication reads:
One editor described the dedication as a "dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders".
The upper case letters and the stops that follow each word of the dedication were probably intended to resemble an ancient Roman lapidary inscription or monumental brass, perhaps accentuating the declaration in Sonnet 55 that the work would confer immortality to the subjects of the work:
The initials "T.T." are taken to refer to the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, though Thorpe usually signed prefatory matter only if the author was out of the country or dead. However, Thorpe's entire corpus of such consists of only four dedications and three prefaces. It has been suggested that Thorpe signing the dedication, rather than the author, might indicate that Thorpe published the work without obtaining Shakespeare's permission. Though Thorpe's taking on the dedication may be explained by the great demands of business and travel that Shakespeare was facing at this time, which may have caused him to deal with the printing production in haste before rushing out of town. After all, May 1609 was an extraordinary time: That month saw a serious outbreak of the plague, which shut down the theatres, and also caused many to flee London. Plus Shakespeare's theatre company was on tour from Ipswich to Oxford. In addition, Shakespeare had been away from Stratford and in the same month, May, was being called on to tend to family and business there, and deal with the litigation of a lawsuit in Warwickshire that involved a substantial amount of money.
The identity of Mr. W.H., "the only begetter of Shakespeare's Sonnets", is not known for certain. It is thought that he may be the same person as the young man, or the "faire youth" who is addressed in 126 of the sonnets. It is also considered possible that the young man in the sonnets, is not the same young man throughout the sonnet sequence, but may represent a persona that is based on two or three young men.
William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke). Herbert is seen as perhaps the most likely identity of Mr. W.H. and the "young man". He was the dedicatee of the First Folio. Though thorpe would have been unlikely to have addressed a lord as "Mr", it is thought that may have been a suggestion to the printer by the author, who wanted to refer to Herbert at an earlier time. There is a later dedication to Herbert in another quarto of verse, Ben Jonson's Epigrammes (1616), in which the text of Jonson's dedication begins, "MY LORD, While you cannot change your merit, I dare not change your title ... " The emphasis on his title, and Jonson's comment, seem to be chiding someone who had the audacity to use the wrong title, as perhaps occurs in the dedication in Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton), with initials reversed, has received a great deal of consideration a likely possibility. He was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks.
The following is a list of other possibilities that have been suggested:
The sonnets are almost all constructed from three quatrains, which are four-line stanzas, and a final couplet composed in iambic pentameter. This is also the meter used extensively in Shakespeare's plays.
The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. Sonnets using this scheme are known as Shakespearean sonnets. Often, either the beginning of the third quatrain or of the last couplet mark the volta ("turn"), or the line in which the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany.
There are a few exceptions: Sonnets 99, 126, and 145. Number 99 has fifteen lines. Number 126 consists of six couplets, and two blank lines marked with italic brackets; 145 is in iambic tetrameters, not pentameters. In one other variation on the standard structure, found for example in sonnet 29, the rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the second (b) rhyme of quatrain one as the second (f) rhyme of quatrain three.
When analysed as characters, the subjects of the sonnets are usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. The speaker expresses admiration for the Fair Youth's beauty, and--if reading the sonnets in chronological order as published--later has an affair with the Dark Lady. Current linguistic analysis and historical evidence suggests, however, that the sonnets to the Dark Lady were composed first (around 1591-95), the procreation sonnets next, and the later sonnets to the Fair Youth last (1597-1603). It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fiction or autobiographical; scholars who find the sonnets to be autobiographical, notably A. L. Rowse, have attempted to identify the characters with historical individuals.
The "Fair Youth" is the unnamed young man to whom sonnets 1-126 are addressed. Some commentators, noting the romantic and loving language used in this sequence of sonnets, have suggested a sexual relationship between them; others have read the relationship as platonic love.
The earliest poems in the sequence recommend the benefits of marriage and children. With the famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") the tone changes dramatically towards romantic intimacy. Sonnet 20 explicitly laments that the young man is not a woman. Most of the subsequent sonnets describe the ups and downs of the relationship, culminating with an affair between the poet and the Dark Lady. The relationship seems to end when the Fair Youth succumbs to the Lady's charms (Sonnet 144).
There have been many attempts to identify the young man. Shakespeare's language often seems to imply that the subject is of higher social status than himself. Shakespeare's one-time patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and his later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, are frequently suggested. Both claims begin with the dedication of the sonnets to "Mr. W.H.", "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets"; the initials could apply to either earl, though in one case their order would have been reversed.
In his short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," Oscar Wilde proposed that some lines of the sonnets represent a series of puns suggesting that the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, in his story Wilde acknowledges that there is no evidence for such a person's existence. Samuel Butler believed that the friend was a seaman. Joseph Pequigney argued in his book Such Is My Love that the Fair Youth was an unknown commoner.
The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127-154) distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion. Among these, Sonnet 151 has been characterised as "bawdy" and is used to illustrate the difference between the spiritual love for the Fair Youth and the sexual love for the Dark Lady. The distinction is commonly made in the introduction to modern editions of the sonnets. The Dark Lady is so called because the poems make it clear that she has black hair and dun coloured skin. As with the Fair Youth, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual. Lucy Negro,Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier, Elizabeth Wriothesley, and others have been suggested.
The Rival Poet's identity remains a mystery; among the varied candidates are Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, or an amalgamation of several contemporaries. However, there is no hard evidence that the character had a real-life counterpart. The speaker sees the Rival as competition for fame, coin and patronage. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 78-86.
One interpretation is that Shakespeare's sonnets are a pastiche or parody of the 300-year-old tradition of Petrarchan love sonnets; Shakespeare consciously inverts conventional gender roles as delineated in Petrarchan sonnets to create a more complex depiction of human love. He plays with gender roles (20), comments on political events (124), makes fun of love (128), speaks openly about sexual desire (129), parodies beauty (130) and even references pornography (151).
A Lover's Complaint is part two of the quarto. It was a normal feature of the two-part poetic form for the first part to express the male point of view, and the second part to contrast or compliment the first part with the female's point of view. The sonnet sequence considers frustrated male desire, and the second part expresses the misery of a woman victimized by male desire. The earliest Elizabethan example of this two-part structure is Samuel Daniel's Delia ... with the Complaint of Rosamund (1592) -- a sonnet sequence that tells the story of a woman being threaten by a man of higher rank, followed by the woman's complaint. This was imitated by other poets, including Shakespeare with his Rape of Lucrece, the last lines of which contain Lucrece's complaint. Other examples are found in the works of Michael Drayton, Thomas Lodge, Richard Barnfield, and others.
The young man of the sonnets and the young man of A Lover's Complaint provide a thematic link between the two parts. In each part the young man is handsome, wealthy and promiscuous, unreliable and admired by all.
"A Lover's Complaint", is not written in the sonnet form, but is composed of 47 seven-line stanzas written in rhyme royal. Like the sonnets, it also has a possessive form in its title, which is followed by its own assertion of the author's name. This time the possessive word, "Lover's", refers to a woman, who becomes the primary "speaker" of the work.
The poem begins with a young woman weeping at the edge of a river, into which she throws torn-up letters, rings, and other tokens of love. An old man nearby approaches her and asks the reason for her sorrow. She responds by telling him of a former lover who pursued, seduced, and finally abandoned her. She recounts in detail the speech her lover gave to her which seduced her. She concludes her story by conceding that she would fall for the young man's false charms again.
Shakespeare's Sonnets can be seen as a prototype, or even the beginning, of a new kind of "modern" love poetry. During the eighteenth century, The Sonnets' reputation in England was relatively low; as late as 1805, The Critical Review could still credit John Milton with the perfection of the English sonnet. As part of the renewed interest in Shakespeare's original work that accompanied Romanticism, The Sonnets rose steadily in reputation during the nineteenth century.
The Sonnets have great cross-cultural importance and influence. They have been translated into every major written language, including German, French, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Afrikaans, Esperanto, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew,  Welsh and Yiddish.
Like all Shakespeare's works, Shakespeare's Sonnets have been reprinted many times. Prominent editions include:
There are sonnets written by Shakespeare that occur in his plays. They differ from the 154 sonnets published in the 1609, because they may lack the deep introspection, for example, and they are written to serve the needs of a performance, exposition or narrative.
Three sonnets are found in Romeo and Juliet: The prologue to the play ("Two households, both alike in dignity..."), the prologue to the second act ("Now old desire doth in his death-bed lie..."), and set in the form of dialogue at the moment when Romeo and Juliet meet:
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
The epilogue at the end of the play Henry V is written in the form of a sonnet ("Thus far with rough, and all-unable pen...").
In the play Love's Labour's Lost the King and his three lords have all vowed to live like monks, to study, to give up worldly things, and to see no women. All of them break this last part of the vow by falling in love. The lord Longaville expresses his love in a sonnet ("Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye..."), and the lord Berowne does, too -- a hexameter sonnet ("If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?"). These sonnets contain comic imperfections, including awkward phrasing, and problems with the meter. After Berowne is caught breaking his vow, and exposed by the sonnet he composed, he passionately renounces speech that is affected, and vows to to prefer plain country speech. Ironically when proclaiming this he demonstrates that he can't seem to avoid rich courtly language, and his speech happens to fall into the meter and rhyme of a sonnet. ("O, never will I trust to speeches penned...")