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Definition and Overview
William Shakespeare wrote one
hundred fifty-four sonnets. A sonnet is a form of lyric poetry
with fourteen lines and a specific rhyme scheme. Lyric poetry
presents the deep feelings and emotions of the author as opposed
to poetry that tells a story or presents a witty observation. The
topic of most sonnets written in Shakespeare's time was love or a
theme related to love. Sonnets in later times also focused on religion, politics,
and other concerns of the reading public.
Poets usually wrote their sonnets as part of a series. Each sonnet
was a sequel to the previous one in the same way that an episode
of a soap opera on Wednesday is a sequel to the episode on
Tuesday. However, many sonnets could stand alone as separate
poems. Sonnets afforded their author an opportunity to show off
his ability to write memorable lines. In other words, sonnets
enabled a poet to demonstrate the power of his genius in the way
that an art exhibition enabled a painter to show off his special
Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in London in the 1590's during an
outbreak of plague that closed theaters and prevented playwrights
from staging their dramas. Sonnets 138 and 144 were published in
1599 in a poetry collection entitled The Passionate Pilgrime [Pilgrim]. The other
sonnets were published in 1609 in Shake-speares Sonnets.
It is possible that the 1609 sequence of sonnets is out of its
Shakespeare did not title his sonnets. Instead, he numbered them,
using Roman numerals. For example, the first sonnet is Sonnet I;
the second, Sonnet II; the third Sonnet III; and the fourth,
Sonnet IV. This study guide generally uses Arabic numbers (1, 2,
3, 4, etc.) to identify a sonnet.
of the Sonnets
The feelings and opinions
expressed in a sonnet or any other poem do not necessarily
represent those of the author. Sometimes an author presents his
lines as if they were written or spoken by someone else.
Consequently, when writing about a Shakespeare sonnet or another
author's poem, critics and scholars customarily call the voice of
the poem the "speaker" or the "persona." Either term can refer to
the author or to a real or fictional person presenting the lines.
of the Sonnets
Sonnets 1 through 126 focus on
an unidentified young man with outstanding physical and
intellectual attributes. However, the speaker does not always
address the young man directly. In some sonnets, the speaker
presents his own feelings as he considers his relationship with
the young man.
The first seventeen sonnets urge the young man to marry so that he
can pass on his superior qualities to a child, thereby allowing
future generations to enjoy and appreciate these qualities when
the child becomes a man. In Sonnet 18, the speaker presents this
observation: that the sonnets may be all that is necessary to
immortalize the young man and his qualities.
In Sonnets 127 through 154, the speaker devotes most of his
attention to addressing a mysterious "dark lady"—a sensuous,
irresistible woman of questionable morals who captivates the
speaker. The speaker also presents his feelings and observations
and separate poems. References to the dark lady appear in previous
sonnets (35, 40, 41, and 42), in which the speaker reproaches the
young man for an apparent liaison with her. The first two lines of
Sonnet 41 chide the young man for "those petty wrongs that liberty
commits / when I am sometime absent from thy heart," a reference
to the young man's wrongful wooing of the dark lady. The last two
lines further impugn the young man, saying he uses his good looks
to attract the dark lady. In Sonnet 42, the poet charges, "thou
dost love her, because thou knowst I love her."
Generally, Shakespeare's sonnets
have received high praise for their exquisite wording and imagery
and for their refusal to stoop to sentimentality. Readers of his
sonnets in his time got a taste of the greatness that Shakespeare
exhibited later in such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth,
King Lear, Othello, and The Tempest.
The Shakespearean sonnet has
fourteen lines presented in three four-line stanzas and one
two-line stanza with end rhyme. A four-line stanza is called a
quatrain. A two-line stanza with end rhyme is called a couplet.
All of Shakespeare's sonnets conform to this description of a
sonnet's structure except Sonnet 126, which has only twelve lines
consisting of six couplets. The stanzas and concluding couplet of
each sonnet stand as a single block of type. No spaces divide one
stanza from another or the last stanza from the couplet.
The meter of Shakespeare's
sonnets is iambic pentameter except for Sonnet 145 and Sonnet 126.
To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the
term iamb, which is pronounced EYE am. An iamb is a unit of
rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed
syllable. Consider the words annoy,
fulfill, pretend, regard, and serene. They are all iambs
because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or
unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented), as
illustrated here: an NOY, ful FILL, pre TEND, re GARD, and ser
ENE. Iambs can also consist of one word with a single unstressed
(unaccented) syllable followed by another word with a single
stressed (accented) syllable (example: the KING). In addition,
they may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word
followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word.
The following presentation of the first stanza of Sonnet 18
graphically demonstrates iambic pentameter. The unstressed
syllables are lower-cased and the stressed syllables are
upper-cased and boldfaced.
Shall I comPARE thee TO a SUMmer's DAY? If I
compared you to a summer day
(In Shakespeare's time, May (line 3) was considered a summer
month (line 4).
Thou ART more LOVEly AND more TEMperATE: I'd
have to say you are more beautiful and serene:
Rough WINDS do SHAKE the DARling BUDS of MAY, By
comparison, summer is rough on budding life,
And SUMmer's LEASE hath ALL too SHORT a DATE: And
doesn't last long either:
Sonnet 18 also demonstrates the
end rhyme of the sonnets: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The capitalized
letters indicate the rhyming lines. Following is graphic
presentation of the rhyme scheme of Sonnet 18 and all the other
sonnets except Sonnet 145 and Sonnet 126.
A Shall I compare thee to
a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
D And often
is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
D By chance
or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
E But thy eternal summer shall not fade
F Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
E Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
F When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.
of the Sonnet
The sonnet originated in Sicily
in the thirteenth century with Giacomo da Lentini (1188-1240),
according to the Encyclopaedia
Britannica. The poetic traditions of the Provençal region
of France apparently influenced him, but he wrote his poems in the
Sicilian dialect of Italian. The English word sonnet comes from the Italian
word sonetto, meaning little song. Some early
sonnets were set to music, with accompaniment provided by a lute.
The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic priest,
popularized the sonnet more than two centuries before Shakespeare
was born. Other popular Italian sonneteers were Dante Alighieri
(1265-1321), Italy's most famous and most accomplished writer, and
Guido Cavalcante (1255-1300). The format of Petrarch's sonnets
differs from that of Shakespeare. Petrarch's sonnets each consist
of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a six-line stanza (sestet).
The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops
it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave):
ABBA, ABBA; (2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE (or CDC, CDC; or
The sonnet form was introduced
in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl
of Surrey (1517-1547). They translated Italian sonnets into
English and wrote sonnets of their own. Surrey introduced blank
verse (verse in unrhymed iambic pentameter)
into the English language in his translation of the Aeneid of Vergil. Wyatt and
Surrey sometimes replaced Petrarch's scheme of an eight-line
stanza and a six-line stanza with three four-line stanzas and a
two-line conclusion known as a couplet. Shakespeare adopted the
latter scheme in his sonnets. Besides Shakespeare, well-known
English sonneteers in the late 1500's included Sir Philip Sidney
(1554-1586), Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), and Michael Drayton
Some Shakespeare interpreters
maintain that his sonnets to the young man are expressions of
homosexual love. They make this assertion even though no evidence
exists in the record of Shakespeare's life or in reports on his
friendships, his marriage, and his social activities to indicate
that he was anything but heterosexual. Only one specific reference
to homosexuality occurs in his plays. This reference, which is in
Troilus and Cressida, condemns homosexuality in
strong, insulting terms. The speaker is Thersites, a Greek with a
scurrilous tongue. He addresses Patroclus, famous in Greek
mythology as the male paramour of Achilles, the greatest warrior
on either side in the Trojan War. Here is the exchange between
Thersites and Patroclus:
Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
thou art thought to be Achilles' male
varlet. [varlet: attendant, page, slave]
PATROCLUS: Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?
THERSITES: Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries! (5.1.14-24)
It can be argued, of course, that Thersites is not speaking for
Shakespeare but instead is expressing a view that existed since
the time when Homer wrote of Achilles in The Iliad, completed between 800 and 700 BC.
Supplies for Teachers
Among those who believe that Shakespeare expresses homosexual love
in his sonnets is Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Shakespeare. She
profound resistance to accepting Shakespeare, the icon of
Western civilization, as gay. High school teachers introduce
Shakespeare's Sonnets as passionate love lyrics, neglecting to
mention that they were written to a man. . . . But there's no
getting around it: the Sonnets are clearly addressed to a young
man, and even allowing for what professors call the "Renaissance
cult of male friendship," many of the poems are quite ardent
Don Paterson, a poet and reviewer for The Guardian (a
liberal British newspaper with a U.S. edition), says,
The question . . . "was Shakespeare gay?" strikes me as so daft as
to be barely worth answering. Of course he was. Arguably he was
bisexual, of sorts, but his heart was never on his straight side.
. . . The arguments against his homosexuality are complex and
sophistical, and often take convenient and homophobic advantage of
the sonnets' built-in interpretative slippage – which Shakespeare
himself would have needed for what we would now call "plausible
deniability", should anyone have felt inclined to cry
sodomy. The argument in favour is simple. First, falling in
love with other men is often a good indication of homosexuality;
and second, as much as I love some of my male friends, I'm never
going to write 126 poems for them, even the dead ones."
One wonders how Paterson could know that Shakespeare's "heart was
never on his straight side." The only source he cites for his
assertion is the sonnets themselves. Using his research method,
one may conclude that Shakespeare was anti-gay—or homophobic
(Paterson's word)—by citing the passage above from Troilus and
Cressida. However, Hallet Smith, writing in The Riverside Shakespeare,
rejects the view that the sonnets express homosexual desire,
attitude of the poet toward the friend [the handsome young man]
is one of love and admiration, deference and possessiveness, but
it is not at all a sexual passion. Sonnet 20 makes quite clear
the difference between the platonic love of a man for a man,
more often expressed in the sixteenth century than the
twentieth, and any kind of homosexual attachment" (Evans, G.
Blakemore, textual ed. Boston: Houghton, 1974. Page 1746).
Shakespeare scholar G.B. Harrison observes: "It was a common
belief in Shakespeare's time that the love of a man for his
friend, especially his 'sworn brother,' was stronger and nobler
than the love of man for woman" (Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New
York: Harcourt, 1952. Page 366). In fact, Shakespeare's plays
contain many passages in which heterosexual males express
non-sexual love for one another in doting language. For example,
in Shakespeare's play The Two
Noble Kinsmen, Arcite addresses his friend this way:
"Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood" (1.2.1). In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,
Rosencrantz says to Hamlet, "My Lord, you once did love me."
Hamlet replies, "So do I still . . . . (3.2.348).
In the play Antony and
Cleopatra, Agrippa says of Lepidus: "How dearly he adores
Mark Antony!" (3.2.9). Adore
is a word a twenty-first-century American male heterosexual
typically would use only in reference to a female. However,
Shakespeare uses it here to signify political love and friendship,
not sexual love. In Cymbeline,
Iachimo speaks of Posthumus Leonatus as "such a holy witch / that
he enchants societies into him; / Half all men's hearts are his"
(1.6.166-168). Iachimo and Posthumus are both heterosexuals. When
Proteus bids good-bye to his best friend, Valentine, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona,
thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu!
Proteus and Valentine have eyes only for females, yet Proteus
calls Valentine "sweet" and speaks of himself as "thy Proteus."
Think on thy Proteus, when thou haply seest
Some rare note-worthy object in thy travel:
Wish me partaker in thy happiness
When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,
If ever danger do environ thee,
Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers,
For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine. (1.1.11-18)
It is true that the London of Shakespeare's time had a homosexual
culture which included writers and actors, as well as theatre
patrons who paid their pennies to see boy actors playing the parts
of women. But it is also true that society in general condemned
homosexuality. Liza Picard writes: "Homosexuality was viewed as an
abhorrent divergence from the natural order, a crime punishable by
death" (172). But society's condemnation of homosexuality would
have had no bearing on whether a person was or was not a
homosexual. It would, however, have influenced his decision on
whether to acknowledge his sexual preference if he was gay.
In the end, the only sure evidence (but not proof) of
Shakespeare's sexuality is that he was a husband and father of
three children, suggesting that he was a heterosexual. At age 18,
he married a neighbor, Anne Hathaway, after she became pregnant
with his first child, Susanna. He fathered two more children with
Anne, twins Hamnet and Judith. It is also worth noting that in the
first seventeen sonnets, Shakespeare urges the handsome man he
addresses to have children so that he may pass his excellent
qualities on to a new generation. In Sonnet 1, he writes: "From
fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty's rose
might never die" (lines 1-2). Increase
here means reproduction. The rose is the young man, who will
"never die" if he lives on in his children. If Shakespeare had
been homosexual, he would hardly have recommended that the object
of his affection seek the arms of a woman. What's more, in
Shakespeare's time, public discussion of love was limited to
conventional, biblical-approved love. As a practical man concerned
about the public's perception of him, Shakespeare probably would
never have jeopardized his reputation by owning up to homosexual
love. His expressions of affection in the sonnets were well within
the bounds of propriety in a day when males could freely voice
their love for one another with terms of endearment. Keep in mind,
too, that in early sonnets referring to the "dark lady"
Shakespeare actually rebukes the young man for attempting to
"steal" the dark lady from him.
However, there can be no gainsaying that Shakespeare had
competition in his admiration for the young man, for he refers in
several sonnets to a rival poet who also praises the young man.
The first four lines of Sonnet 80 make such a reference:
O, how I
faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit [the rival poet] doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
Likewise, the last two lines of Sonnet 80 refer to this rival.
"There lives more life in one of your fair eyes / Than both your
poets can in praise devise." No one has successfully pinned down
the identity of this rival poet. Nor has anyone cited irrefutable
evidence of the identity of the young man (or the mysterious dark
lady addressed in Sonnets 126 to 152).
The Young Man, the Dark Lady,
Poet, and W.H.:
Who Were They?
For centuries, literary sleuths
throughout the English-speaking world have pored over old texts
and dusty Shakespeare-era records to discover the identity of the
person to whom Shakespeare's sonnets were dedicated, the
mysterious "W.H." They have also spent countless hours trying to
establish the identities of the three principal personas addressed
or referred to in the sonnets: the young man, the dark lady, and
the rival poet. So far, no one has produced enough undisputed
evidence to identify any of these mysterious individuals by name.
The 1609 edition of the sonnets was dedicated to a person
identified only with the initials W.H. and signed by a person identified only with
the initials T.T.
The latter initials were probably those of the known publisher of
the sonnets, Thomas Thorne. He might have (1) written the
dedication to express his own wishes or (2) written or copied it
to express the wishes of Shakespeare at the time that he was
writing the sonnets.
If Thorne was expressing his own wishes, the W.H. to whom the
sonnets were dedicated was not necessarily the young man to whom
Shakespeare addressed the first 126 sonnets. Instead, W.H. might
have been William Hall, an unimportant London printer known to
have furnished manuscripts to other printers for publication;
William Harvey, the husband of the mother of Henry Wriothesley,
the Third Earl of Southampton (widely thought to have been the
young man addressed in the sonnets); William Hathaway,
Shakespeare's brother-in-law; or some other person. Thorne's
dedication may have simply been an expression of gratitude to
Hall, Harvey, Hathaway, or another person for bringing the sonnets
to Thorne's attention. However, if Thorne was expressing
Shakespeare's wishes, the initials W.H. in the dedication might in fact refer to
the young man addressed in the sonnets.
As to the identities of the young man, the dark lady, and the
rival poet, educated speculation has suggested the following names
as those of the mystifying trio.
The Young Man
Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624): Patron of
writers and favorite at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
Shakespeare dedicated his long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, to Wriothesley
(pronounced ROSE le). Wriothesley married Elizabeth Vernon, one
of the queen's attendants, in 1598. Supporters of Wriothesley as
the young man of the sonnets note that his initials, H.W., are the reverse of
the W.H. to whom the
sonnets are dedicated.
William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630): Nephew of
the writer Sir Philip Sidney and student of poet Samuel Daniel.
Herbert became a privy councilor of England in 1611 and served
as chancellor of Oxford University from 1617 until the time of
his death. When Shakespeare's friends compiled the First Folio
of his plays in 1623, they dedicated it to Herbert and his
William Hughes: Supposedly a boy actor. The Irish playwright
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) championed a theory that Hughes was the
young man. However, no records are available to establish that
Hughes was a real person who acted in Shakespeare's time.
William Harte: Nephew of Shakespeare.
William Hatcliffe: A Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule
managed Christmas celebrations at the court of the monarch, at
the homes of favored nobles, and at the universities of Oxford
William Hammond: A literary patron.
William Holgate: A little-known poet.
The Dark Lady
Fitton (1578-1647): Woman of dark complexion who enjoyed a place
in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and was married and widowed
twice. She gave birth to three illegitimate children fathered by
Anne Whateley (or Whiteley): Resident of Temple Grafton, near
Stratford, who may have been a girlfriend of Shakespeare.
Evidence suggests that Shakespeare at one time intended to marry
her but broke off his relationship to marry Anne Hathaway, who
was pregnant with Shakespeare's child.
Jane Davenant: Wife of the owner of The Crown Inn on
Cornmarket Street in Oxford. (The inn still exists.) Supposedly,
Shakespeare stopped at the inn on trips between Stratford and
London. Shakespeare was the godfather of her child, William
Davenant (1606-1668), a playwright and poet of some
accomplishment. In 1638, Davenant became poet laureate of
England after the death of Ben Jonson (1572-1637), one of
England's great poets. Rumors abounded that Davenant was not
only Shakespeare's godson but also his biological son. According
to some accounts, Davenant once owned the famous Chandos
portrait of William Shakespeare.
Emilia Bassano Lanier (1570-1640s): Daughter of Baptista Bassano
of Venice. After she moved to England, she was the mistress of
Henry Carey, a patron known to Shakespeare. She married Alphonse
Lanier, a court musician. Shakespeare created characters named
Emilia in three of his plays: Othello,
The Comedy of Errors,
and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603): Queen of England from 1558 to 1603 and
a supporter of stage plays.
Lucy Morgan: A black woman said to be a prostitute.
Marie Mountjoy: A London landlord who rented lodging to
Drayton (1563-1631): Poet of considerable talent who wrote
sonnets, odes, and heroic poems.
Samuel Daniel (1562-1619): Poet, playwright, writer of masques,
sonneteer, and author of a verse history of the War of the Roses
and a prose history of England.
George Chapman (1559-1634): Playwright and translator of ancient
literature, including highly praised translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593): Elizabethan playwright of the
first rank who helped popularize the strengths of blank verse
(verse in unrhymed iambic pentameter). Marlowe's most famous
plays are The Tragical
History of Doctor Faustus (1588), The Jew of Malta (1589),
and Tamburlaine the Great
(1587). Marlowe also wrote distinguished poetry and, like
Chapman, translated ancient literary works.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637): Poet and playwright of the first rank
who advocated adherence to the drama rules (unity of time,
place, and action) established by the ancient Greeks and later
writers. Shakespeare acted in Jonson's first play, Every Man in His Humour, in
1598. Among Jonson's best plays are Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610). Jonson also wrote
masques and excellent poetry. He was a friend of Shakespeare who
met frequently with him and other writers at the Mermaid Tavern
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599): Poet of the first rank. He is most
famous for his monumental epic poem, The Faerie Queene. His wedding poem,
"Epithalamion," is one of the finest works of its type.
Complete Annotated Sonnets
and word groups are underlined. Immediately after each
sonnet—under the heading "Notes"—are definitions or explanations
of the underlined words or word groups. Following the notes is a
paraphrase or summary of the sonnet, under the heading "Summary
and Meaning," to help make plain what the sonnet says. Sometimes,
additional information appears under the heading "Comment."