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Shakespeare's Sonnets Explained

With Summaries, Notes, Background Information, and Annotated Texts of All the Sonnets

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Sonnet 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 techniques.

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 original order.

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.

Voice 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.

Focus 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."

Critical Reception

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.

Structure

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.

Meter

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
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:

(In Shakespeare's time, May (line 3) was considered a summer month (line 4).

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Rhyme

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?     
B   Thou art more lovely and more temperate:     
A   Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,     
B   And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

C   Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines
D   And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;   
C  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:

G     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
G     So long lives this and this gives life to thee.    

Origin 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 CDE, DCE).

Appearance in England

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 (1563-1631).

Sonnets and Sexuality

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:

THERSITES: 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.
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Among those who believe that Shakespeare expresses homosexual love in his sonnets is Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Shakespeare. She has written:

There is 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 (267).

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, saying:

The 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, he says:

Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu!
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)

Proteus and Valentine have eyes only for females, yet Proteus calls Valentine "sweet" and speaks of himself as "thy Proteus."


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,
The Rival 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

Henry 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 brother.

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 and Cambridge.

William Hammond: A literary patron.

William Holgate: A little-known poet.

The Dark Lady

Mary 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 three men.

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 Shakespeare.

The Rival Poet

Michael 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 in London.

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.

The Complete Annotated Sonnets

Format Guide

Difficult words 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."

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