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Studies in Shakespeare

A Note on Shakespeare's Sonnets

[The following note has been prepared by Ian Johnston for students in English 366 at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released August 1999, last revised on August 22, 1999]


The collection of poems called Shakespeare's Sonnets includes 154 short poems composed as sonnets. These were published, together with a poem called "A Lover's Complaint," in 1609. It seems clear, however, primarily on stylistic grounds, that many of the sonnets were written well before that date. There is very little direct evidence in the poems themselves which might point to a specific date (Sonnet 107 is sometimes held to refer to the coronation of James I in 1603), and we have no independent authorities to help us with the dates of composition. The range of styles and attitudes explored in the poems suggests that some of them must have been written during the so-called "problem" period (1600-1603), for there is a great similarity between some of the sonnets and the style of Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida. Others seem much earlier than this.

The Sonnet Convention

The sonnet, as a poetic genre, began in Italy in the thirteenth century, and, under the later influence of the Italian poet Petrarch, became internationally popular. Petrarch established the basic form of the so-called Petrarchan sonnet: 14 lines divided into two clear parts, an opening octet (8 lines) and a closing sestet (6 lines) with a fixed rhyme scheme (abbaabba cdecde). Often the octet will pose a problem or paradox which the sestet will resolve. Petrarch also established the convention of the sonnet sequence as a series of love poems written by an adoring lover to an unattainable and unapproachable lady of unsurpassed beauty. The Petrarchan sonnet convention, in other words, established, not merely the form of the poem, but also the subject matter.

The sonnet form was brought into English poetry in the sixteenth century by Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard (Earl of Surrey). They introduced some modifications in the form, sometimes substituting for the traditional division into octet and sestet a division into three quatrains (4 lines each) and a closing couplet, with a different (but still tightly controlled) rhyme scheme. This form later became known as the Shakespearean Sonnet, named after its greatest practitioner. Shakespeare uses both the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean structure in his sonnets. By Shakespeare's time the sonnet sequence was a very well established literary convention.

The Petrarchan convention of love (despairing lover writing to a lovely, unattainable lady in words of reverent praise and worshipful adoration) gave rise, as all really popular conventions do, to its opposite, an anti-Petrarchan convention, in which the woman to whom the poem was addressed was castigated as a deceitful and often ugly manipulator. In other words, the sonnet form developed as subject matter both the faithful adoration of the idealized female lover and the spiteful contempt for a person entirely unworthy of love (which was a continuation of a very old misogynist tradition in European literature).

An important part of the sonnet convention was often a celebration of the poet's "wit," that is, of his ability to show his poetic skill in appropriating metaphors and conceits (extended metaphors) in clever ways, so that the poem becomes, not just a tribute to the lady but also a testament to his great skill as a poet. Hence, the sonnet convention often encouraged a highly artificial and very literary treatment of feelings of love. One of the most remarkable features of many of Shakespeare's best sonnets is the way his language transforms this frequently artificial and conventional form of literature into something direct, urgent, and sincerely passionate.

The Sequence of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The precise order of the poems in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence has occasioned some scholarly dispute, although there is, in general, widespread agreement with a more or less standard order. Conventionally the sonnets fall into three clear groupings: Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to or concern a young man; Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to or concern a dark lady (dark in the sense of her hair, her facial features, and her character), and Sonnets 153-154 are fairly free adaptations of two classical Greek poems.

Attributing Sonnets 1-126 to a young man and Sonnets 127-152 to a dark lady is somewhat problematical, since in many of the poems the gender of the person addressed is not at all clear (although sometimes it is). We have no clear mandate to interpret poems invoking "my love" as referring necessarily to a male or to a female, since the term is used to refer to both sexes equally.

The Subject Matter of the Shakespeare's Sonnet Sequence

One can study Shakespeare's sonnets as independent poems or, in some cases, as short sequences of a few poems (since many are linked together by subject matter), or as an entire sonnet sequence, trying to make of the total collection some form of coherent or semi-coherent narrative. We have no particular need or right to construct such a narrative (after all, the poems may be quite independent of each other), but the temptation to do so is almost irresistible.

Shakespeare's sonnet sequence begins with a series of poems urging the young man to whom they are addressed to get married, so that he will leave the world a copy of his beauty, which will therefore not suffer the ravages of time. The young man is clearly single, very accomplished, good looking, and of noble birth. In Sonnet 18 the theme shifts slightly, as the speaker of the poem (who identifies himself as the poet) claims that the young man will achieve immortality through these very sonnets, which will preserve his beauty for all time. But the tone of the sonnets quickly becomes much more personal as the speaker explores his love for the young man and, at times, his despair at absences from the young man and at the young man's unfaithfulness. In at least one poem (Sonnet 20) there seems to be a very explicit homosexual basis to the relationship between the speaker-poet and the young man. Elsewhere, there is a suggestion that the young man is having an affair with a woman also loved by the speaker-poet (an issue which Sonnet 42 raises and which is later explored in Sonnet 144, a poem which suggests that the young man and the dark lady are lovers). Sonnet 78 starts a concern for some rival poet who has engaged the attention and the affection of the young man. The unfaithfulness of the young man leads the speaker to question his moral character with very specific images of infection and disease (which suggests venereal infection--as in Sonnets 94 and 95).

The dark lady sequence (which starts with Sonnet 127) also offers tantalizing narrative suggestions. She is conventionally referred to as the Dark Lady although she is rarely called dark (the adjective "black" is much more commonly applied to her), and we have no evidence that she was a noble (as the term lady might suggest). The speaker establishes that both he and the lady are no longer young, and he knows his love for this lady is wrong (sinful) but he cannot escape it. This puts him in a powerful moral anguish (as in Sonnet 129, 144, and 147). She is unfaithful to him, and he is unfaithful to her, and both are committing adultery with others and with each other (including, it seems, the young man). And yet at times his expressions of love are unequivocally beautiful and confident (Sonnet 116).

What is particularly remarkable about the sequence of poems addressed to or concerning the young man and the dark lady is the extraordinary range of emotions explored, everything from confident declarations of total love, to gloom at separation, joy at reunion, bitter disappointment at mutual infidelity, and savage despair at being locked into behaviour which will damn him to hell.

What is also remarkable is the range of styles in the sonnets. Some of the poems are relatively conventional sonnets in execution and achievement; and some are inferior poems by any standard. Some are clearly designed to show off the poet's skill at the expense of any real sincerity of feeling. Many have a richly complex style, and others are apparently very simple in vocabulary, syntax, and form (none more so than Sonnet 66). But the best of the sonnets, the finest love poems in English, display an astonishing synthesis of technical sophistication and passionate eloquence, qualities which transform any lingering conventional attitudes to love into something which registers as uniquely and sincerely felt (e.g., Sonnet 116, Sonnet 138, Sonnet 129, Sonnet 144, Sonnet 147, to name a few).

A Biographical Basis for the Sonnets

Not surprisingly, many scholars (professional and amateur) have seen in Shakespeare's Sonnets a revealing insight into the biography of William Shakespeare. There is, of course, absolutely no reason why we have to see these poems as based upon real experience; the poems could be about entirely imagined people and experiences. However, given the emotional pressure contained in many of these sonnets and the fact that some of them are about a person named Will, many people believe they must contain important clues to Shakespeare's life. And so the scholarly hunt is on. Who is the young man? Who are the rival poet and the dark lady? An enormous amount of energy has been spent on such questions; all suggestions, however, remain inconclusive.

There is, so it is alleged, one vital clue given by the dedication to the Sonnets, which runs as follows:


The initials T.T. at the bottom evidently refer to Thomas Thorpe, the publisher. But who is Mr. W. H.? If he is "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets," then he might be the young man. Hence, if there is a biographical basis for the sonnet sequence, we need to find a young, single, rich, handsome, noble young man with the initials W.H. and with some connection (if possible) to William Shakespeare. Depending on when we date the composition of these sonnets about the young man, our candidates for the role will change. There is not time to rehearse all the suggestions, which range from Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, to Willie Hughes, a homosexual ship's cook or boy actor. The initials may be a misprint for Mr. W. Sh. referring to the author.

There have also been many suggestions for the identity of the rival poet and of the dark lady. Again, there is no consensus on a particular candidate. But the search goes on.

The Sonnets in English 366

In this course we are not undertaking a systematic study of the Sonnets as a totality. We will, however, be looking at a selection of sonnets and discussing them in the newsgroup. The major purpose of this discussion is to explore some of the variety in the collection and to improve our ability to interpret lyric poetry.

In the discussions of the sonnets, students should remember that the purpose of an interpretative discussion is not simply to reach some agreement on a prose translation of the sonnet (i.e., determine its literal meaning by providing a summary of the content). That may be an important initial step. But the real challenge is to explore the range of the feelings illuminated by the particular language of the sonnet, that is, to see how the particular words, images, rhythms, rhymes, and so on help to take us into a range of feelings about the experience which the speaker is presenting. In carrying out this task, we should bring to bear some evaluative criteria (e.g., Is this a successful poem? What criticisms might one express about it? How does this sonnet compare with others on a similar theme? And so on.). It is vitally important that our discussions do not get bogged down in interminable arguments about the precise denoted meaning of the lines (i.e., into arguments about the literal translation). If we don't discuss elements of the style and explore how those contribute to our understanding of the emotional attitude of the speaker, then we will be missing the main point of such interpretation.


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