The Sonnets

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The Sonnets



Historians and scholars are uncertain as to when Shakespeare composed his sonnets; he may have written them over a period of several years, beginning perhaps in 1592 or 1593. Some of the fourteen-line poems were being circulated in manuscript form among the author's acquaintances as early as 1598, and in 1599 two of them—Sonnets 138 and 144—were published in The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of verses by several authors. The sonnets as modern readers know them were certainly completed no later than 1609, the year they were published in a quarto by Thomas Thorpe under the title Shake-speares Sonnets. While many scholars have expressed the belief that Thorpe acquired the manuscript on which he based his edition from someone other than the author, modern critics generally see little reason to doubt the text's authenticity. On the other hand, few believe that Shakespeare directly supervised the publication of the manuscript, as the text is riddled with errors—and Thorpe, not Shakespeare, authored the dedication. Regardless, Thorpe's 1609 edition is the basis for all modern texts of the sonnets.

With only a few exceptions—Sonnets 99, 126, and 145—Shakespeare's verses follow the established English form of the sonnet. Each is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter, comprising four sections: three quatrains, or groups of four lines, followed by a couplet of two lines. Traditionally, different, though related, ideas are expressed in each quatrain, and the argument or theme of the poem is summarized or generalized in the concluding couplet. Many of Shakespeare's couplets do not have this conventional structure or effect. However, the poet did consistently employ the traditional English sonnet rhyme-scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Where Shakespeare incorporates feminine rhymes, or rhymes of two syllables with the second unstressed, the last syllable constitutes an added eleventh syllable in the line in question.

Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, taken together, are frequently described as a sequence, and this is generally divided into two sections. Sonnets 1-126 focus on a young man and the narrator's intimate friendship with him, and Sonnets 127-152 focus on the narrator's relationship with a woman. (The narrator is often referred to as the poet.) However, in only a select number of the poems in the first group can the reader be certain that the person being addressed is male; in fact, most of the poems in the sequence as a whole are not directly addressed to another person. The two concluding verses, Sonnets 153 and 154, are adaptations of classical verses about Cupid; some critics believe they serve a specific purpose—though they disagree about what this may be—but many others view them as providing the collection with perfunctory closure.

The English sonnet sequence reached the height of its popularity in the 1590s, when the posthumous publication of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella (1591) was widely celebrated and led other English poets to put forth their own sonnet collections. In turn, all of these sequences, including Shakespeare's, are indebted to some degree to the literary conventions established by the Canzoniere, a sonnet sequence composed by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. By the time Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, anti-Petrarchan conventions had become established, whereby traditional motifs and styles were satirized or exploited. Commentators on Shakespeare's sonnets frequently compare them to those of his predecessors and contemporaries, including Sidney, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Samuel Daniel, and Edmund Spenser.

The principal topics of twentieth-century critical commentary on the sonnets are their themes and poetic style. Analyses of formal elements in the poems include examinations of the rhetorical devices, syntax, and diction Shakespeare employed throughout. The multiple and indefinite associations of his words and phrases have proved especially intriguing—and problematic—for scholars as well as for general readers. The complexity and ambiguity of Shakespeare's figurative language is also a central critical issue, as is the sequence's remarkable diversity of tone and mood. Shakespeare's departures from and modifications of the poetic styles employed by other sonneteers have also drawn a measure of critical attention.

Many of Shakespeare's themes are conventional sonnet topics, such as love and beauty, and the related motifs of time and mutability. Yet Shakespeare treats these themes in his own distinctive fashion, most notably by addressing the poems of love and praise not to a fair maiden but to a young man and by including a second object of passion: a woman of questionable attractiveness and virtue. Critics have frequently called attention to Shakespeare's complex and paradoxical representations of love in the sonnets. They have long discussed the poet's claim that he is immortalizing the young man's beauty in his verses, thereby defying the destructiveness of time. The themes of friendship and the betrayal of friendship are also significant, as is the nature of the relationship between the poet and the young man. The ambiguous eroticism of the sonnets has elicited varying responses, with some commentators asserting that the relationship between the two men is platonic and others contending that it is demonstrably sexual.

Because Shakespeare's lyrics are passionate, intense, and emotionally vivid, over the centuries many readers and commentators have grown convinced that they must have an autobiographical basis. However, little concrete evidence indicates that this is so. Still, biographers have produced endless speculation about what the sonnets may tell us about their creator, and various scholars have attempted to identify the persons who were the original models for the persons the poet refers to and addresses. The fact remains, however, that no one can determine to what degree Shakespeare's personal experiences are reflected in his sonnets. Likewise, no one can know with any certainty whether the persons depicted in the poems are based on actual individuals or are solely the product of Shakespeare's observation, imagination, and understanding of the human heart.

Overall, contradictions and uncertainties abound in Shakespeare's sonnets. Both individually and as a collection, the poems resist generalities and summations. Their complex language and multiple perspectives have given rise to a number of different interpretations, all of which may in some respect be valid—even when they contradict each other. Few modern critics read the sonnets as personal allegory, with most commentators asserting that speculation as to implications about Shakespeare's life, morals, and sexuality is a useless exercise. The narrator of the poems, then, is precisely the person he seems to be to each individual reader; as in much great poetry, his confused and ambiguous expressions of thought and emotion serve to heighten readers' own sentiments about universal matters such as love, friendship, jealousy, hope, and despair.


Shakespeare's sonnets do not describe or enact a clear sequence of events, nor do they follow a straightforwardly logical or chronological order. They allude to only a few specific actions, and even these are presented in general rather than particular terms. The setting, too, is generalized, with no reference to any specific locales. A sense of time elapsing is evoked through the sonnets' portrayal of developments in the speaker's relationships with the young man and the woman, but only one suggestion is made about how long either of these associations lasted. Below, the sonnets are broadly summarized in a small number of commonly recognized groupings. Only sonnets that belong to connected series or that bear some particular overall significance are mentioned individually; these series and significances were largely gleaned from the Arden Shakespeare's Sonnets, Third Series, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones.

Sonnets 1-17

In the first seventeen sonnets—the most coherent group in the sequence, often referred to as the "procreation sonnets"—the speaker urges a young man of aristocratic birth to marry and have children so that his extraordinary beauty will be preserved for the ages. The young man is portrayed in this opening group as somewhat vain or narcissistic, through lines such as "Or who is he so fond will be the tomb / Of his self-love, to stop posterity?" (Sonnet 3). Thus, he is understood to be uninterested in procreating because he only truly loves himself. The poet frequently stresses that the young man's beauty will fade as he ages, to be lost entirely upon his death—and saved only in the person of his offspring.

Sonnet 1 begins with the argument that the "fairest creatures" are the ones that ought to procreate; Duncan-Jones equates this suggestion with the modern concept of eugenics, wherein the breeding of humans might be controlled so as to improve the race. In Sonnet 11, the poet again states that those whom nature has "best endowed" should seek to reproduce. In Sonnets 5 and 6, the poet likens the process of marrying and begetting children to the process of preserving the essence of a rose by distilling rose water. In Sonnet 10, the poet first reveals that he not only appreciates the young man's beauty but also bears some degree of affection for him, requesting, "Make thee another self for love of me." Soon thereafter, in Sonnet 13, the poet calls the young man "dear my love." In the last three sonnets in this group the poet presents another means of forestalling the destructiveness of time: the poet will immortalize the friend's beauty in his verses.

Sonnets 18-126

As with the first twenty-six sonnets in Shakespeare's sequence, the ensuing 109 are understood to revolve around the relationship between the poet and the young man (even though many of the sonnets make only unspecific, ungendered reference to a beloved). The two experience absences from each other, and at length the young man is understood to have somehow betrayed the poet in matters of love. Nevertheless, the poet remains largely infatuated with and reverent toward his friend, frequently expressing his devotion. Later on, the poet seems to have likewise been somehow unfaithful to the young man. The last poem in this group is fairly inconclusive, allowing for various interpretations and conjectures as to the fate of the men's friendship. Overall, Sonnets 27-126 depict a recurring cycle of contrition and coldness on the part of the friend and forgiveness, understanding, praise, and reproach on the part of the poet. The poet vacillates between, on the one hand, confidence in his art and in his friendship with the young man and, on the other, doubt and anxiety that either of these will prove to be of lasting value.

Laying aside his insistence that the young man procreate, the poet elaborates on the notion that he can partly preserve his friend's beauty through his verse in Sonnets 18-26. The poet makes extravagant claims about the fame and durability of his poetry but also expresses some artistic humility. In addition, new motifs are introduced, particularly, in Sonnet 20, the possibility of a physical relationship between the poet and the friend; this famously ambiguous sonnet has been cited both to refute and to support the notion that Shakespeare himself had homosexual inclinations. In Sonnet 21 the poet compares his work to that of other poets; later on, he will make explicit mention of a rival poet.

In Sonnets 27-31, the poet relates the emotional experience of suffering his friend's absence; in Sonnets 27 and 28 he cannot escape the image of the young man at night, while in Sonnets 29 and 30 he laments the failures of his life but is consoled by thoughts of the man. In Sonnets 33 and 34 the poet invokes metaphorical language, speaking of sun, clouds, and rain, to allude to some betrayal committed by the young man; in Sonnet 35 the poet seems somewhat conflicted but forgives his friend. In Sonnets 40-42, the poet reveals that the young man betrayed him by associating with a mistress of the poet's.

In Sonnets 43-45 the poet again speaks of an absence from his friend and of seeing his friend's image at night; he also divides up what Elizabethans understood as the four basic elements, associating earth and water with himself, fire and air with the young man. In Sonnets 46 and 47 the poet's eyes and heart first compete with each other over the young man, then share in appreciating him. By Sonnet 49, however, the poet is anticipating a future in which the poet and young man will no longer be friendly acquaintances. In Sonnet 50 the poet reluctantly embarks on a journey, once again achieving an absence from the young man, which he laments in the following two sonnets. In Sonnets 53-55, the poet now praises the young man's moral virtue (irrespective of the earlier mention of betrayal) and asserts that he will immortalize that virtue through his verse. Then again, in Sonnet 56, the poet mentions that the love between the two men has diminished.

In Sonnets 57 and 58 the poet refers to himself as the young man's "slave," reflecting his utter subservience to the friend. In Sonnets 59 and 60, the passage of time and its effects on the world are discussed. In Sonnet 63—which number, being seven times nine, Duncan-Jones refers to as the "grand climacteric," as associated with great changes in life—the poet ruminates more directly on how the young man must eventually age; in Sonnet 64, the poet anticipates the young man's death. Duncan-Jones notes that Shakespeare may have made Sonnet 66—which has twelve rather than fourteen lines—a particularly despairing one in connection to the biblical connotations of the "evil" number 666. In the two following sonnets, in turn, the broader corruption of society is mentioned.

The poet returns to his friend's moral qualities in Sonnets 69 and 70, asserting that his outward appearance belies his inward degradation—then suggesting that he is perhaps denounced by others simply because he is so beautiful. In Sonnets 71-74 the poet anticipates his own death and implores the young man to dissociate himself from the disrespected deceased. In Sonnets 76 and 77 the poet focuses on the quality of his verse, as inspired by the young man. In Sonnets 78-80 and 82-86, then, he speaks of others who have also written poetry about his friend, perhaps of superior quality; in Sonnet 80 the poet specifically remarks, "A better spirit doth use your name." However, the poet asserts that even if his verse is plainest, his love for the young man, at least, is the purest and best.

Duncan-Jones notes that Sonnet 87 may be interpreted as something of a turning point within the collection of verses about the young man: "The use of feminine rhymes in every line except 2 and 4 draws attention to the sonnet as unusual in form …, perhaps to mark a new phase in the sequence: the rival poet is forgotten, but all is not well with the friends." Sonnets 88-90, then, focus on a separation between the two men brought about by the disparity in their respective worths. In Sonnets 91 and 92, the poet describes the grief that the young man's rejection of him would cause and the relief that he would thus find in death; in Sonnets 93-95 he regrets the deceptiveness of the young man's beautiful, kindly appearance, while in Sonnet 96 he lauds the young man even for his faults. Sonnets 97-99 make further reference to separation between the two men, this time employing the imagery of the seasons.

Sonnet 100 is referred to by Duncan-Jones as a "new beginning," as the poet is attempting to revive his Muse's interest in the young man. The Arden editor writes, "We may imagine either that a period of poetic silence has elapsed between 99 and 100, or that the speaker's absence and preoccupation with mere shadows of the youth [from Sonnet 98] constitutes a poetic desertion of him." In Sonnets 101-103, then, the poet speaks further with his Muse and ponders his recent dearth of verse. In Sonnet 104 the young man seems to finally be aging, though the poet professes to still love him greatly in this and the following verse.

Sonnet 107 is understood to allude to the death of Queen Elizabeth—"The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured"—and the accession to the throne by James I. The poet seems to take stock of his achievements thus far in Sonnet 108, at which point he has matched the length of the seminal sonnet collection by Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella. Sonnets 109 and 110 deal with the poet's voluntary separation from the young man. Sonnet 111 has been widely interpreted as making reference to Shakespeare's public career as an actor. In Sonnets 113 and 114 the poet speaks of yet seeing the young man's image in all things, while in Sonnets 115 and 116 he ponders the evolving nature of love.

In Sonnets 117 and 118, the poet is now defending himself against accusations of unfaithfulness. Afterward, in Sonnets 119 and 120, he contemplates his estimation of his self and the extent to which his love for the young man persists, hoping for forgiveness—but in Sonnet 122 he reveals that he no longer possesses some written work given to him by the young man. In Sonnets 123-125, the poet speaks in somewhat obscure terms about the passage of time, reminiscence about the past, political fortunes, and the permanence of his love. Finally, in Sonnet 126, the poet returns to the subject of the young man's death, ending with two lines containing naught but empty parentheses. Duncan-Jones provides a survey of possible meanings for these cryptic punctuation marks, including "marks in an account-book enclosing the final sum, but empty"; "the shape of an hourglass, but one that contains no sand"; or "a repeated waxing and waning of the moon, pointing to fickleness and frailty." She lastly suggests that they may point to the young man's failure to have procreated: "The poet's verse is incomplete, and so is the youth's life." Regardless, the sonnets making exclusive reference to the young man have come to a close.

Sonnets 127-154

Sonnets 127-154 portray the poet's relationship with the woman known as the "dark lady." The poet offers even less of a sequential story line here than he did in the first 126 sonnets. His attitude toward his mistress—and toward himself—shifts radically from one poem to the next. He teases her, insults her lusty sensuality, accuses her of repeated infidelities, praises her unfashionable dark beauty, upbraids himself for his own carnal desires, and plays bawdily on the numerous meanings of "will." As with the majority of the sonnets to the young man, the poet's conflicting thoughts and emotions do not follow any logical sequence; indeed, critics disagree about whether either of these two sections of Shakespeare's sonnets comes to a close with a sense of finality or resolution.

In Sonnet 127, the poet opens the sonnets about the "dark lady" by contrasting her complexion with that of both traditional and modern, cosmetically enhanced beauties. In Sonnet 130, he goes as far as to describe her individual features as not apt for comparison to certain traditionally invoked objects. In Sonnet 133 and 134, he laments that the woman has also reduced a friend of his to a sort of amorous servitude. Sonnets 135 and 136, in turn, make fairly explicit reference to the woman's sexual prowess and desirability. The poet admits that he has been deceiving himself with regard to the woman's virtue, having judged her based on her attractive appearance, in Sonnets 137 and 138. In Sonnets 139 and 140 he elaborates on the woman's infidelity, which greatly disturbs him, and in Sonnet 143 he describes her neglect of him.

The poet seems to make additional reference to the young man in Sonnet 144, in which he speaks of his "two loves" having had sexual relations. Sonnet 145 is unique in that it features tetrameter instead of pentameter, with the last lines (and the mentions of "'hate' away" and "And") perhaps indicating that the Sonnet was written for Anne Hathaway early in Shakespeare's life. Sonnet 146, in turn, has received critical attention for its religious elements. In Sonnets 147 and 148 the poet speaks of his poor judgment, as debilitated by his affections, while in Sonnet 149 he comments further on his emotional dependence on the mistress in question. Sonnets 151 and 152 speak of the poet's descent, along with the woman, into sexual sinfulness and her betrayal of him. Finally, in Sonnets 153 and 154 the poet uses a mythological framework to comment on sexual encounters and sexually transmitted diseases, seeming to conclude that even the pain of disease does not quench his libido.


No "characters" are present in Shakespeare's sonnets as the term is usually understood in literary analysis. None of the figures to whom the poet refers in the sequence is given a proper name. Specific details about physical features and demeanors are noticeably scarce. For the sake of convenience, many modern commentators have adopted some form of the designations used here, but these names do not appear in the sonnets themselves.


  • Sir John Gielgud, a legendary British theater figure, offered a reading of 120 verses from Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1963. It was produced by Caedmon Audio and was redistributed in 1996.
  • Dove Book Audio produced readings of the 154 sonnets and other verses in The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare: With "A Lover's Complaint" & Selected Songs in 1996. The various verses are read and performed by Roscoe Lee Browne, who narrates, as well as Christopher Cazenove, Vanessa Redgrave, Elliot Gould, Alfre Woodward, and Michael York.
  • A comprehensive audio version of William Shakespeare: The Sonnets appeared in 1996. It was produced by High Bridge Classics and was read by the London-born dramaturge Simon Callow.
  • Another audio version entitled William Shakespeare: The Sonnets, featuring all 154 sonnets, was produced by Naxos Audio-Books in 1997, and was read by the English actor Alex Jennings.

The Dark Lady

While she is specifically called "dark" only once, the woman discussed by the poet in Sonnets 127-152 is understood to have dark hair and eyes. Her social rank or status in society is not specified. She may be married, but the poet refers to her as his "mistress." He alternately describes her as ill favored and attractive, while characterizing her as sensual, tyrannical, and playful. He eventually alleges that she has betrayed him by seducing his friend, often understood to be the young man of the earlier sonnets. Commentary on the "dark lady" often deals more with the speaker's frame of mind than with the woman herself. Again, as with the young man, most critics doubt that anyone will ever definitively determine if a "real-life" prototype for the "dark lady" can be determined. Regardless, the reader can consider her character based only on the sonnets that allude to her.

Indeed, as befits her name, the "dark lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets is even more shadowy than the young man. She is consistently described as lusty and seductive, and the poet professes that he is irresistibly drawn to her, but little concrete evidence of her character is provided. Commentators suggest that although the poet loves her—or has loved her in the past—he also despises her, perhaps in that through her he has compromised his own virtue. The woman has apparently seduced the young man while carrying on an affair with the poet, but the extent of her promis-cuity—along with the question of whether she is married and therefore an adulteress—is not evident to all readers. Several critics have evaluated the "dark lady" sonnets in the context of literary conventions, arguing that these verses offer a parody of Petrarchan lovers through the depiction of a mistress who has neither virtue nor beauty. Over the centuries, many commentators have identified the woman in question with a debased form of love. However, late twentieth-century studies, especially those written from feminist perspectives, have been more sympathetic, challenging the accuracy or reliability of the poet's account of his mistress and calling for an appraisal that takes into account his obvious bias.

Regarding the poet's disparaging portrayal of the "dark lady," James Winny points out that most of the poet's descriptions of her suggest, rather brutally, that she is fickle, ill-favored, and cruelly contemptuous of his feelings. J. B. Leishman notes that the poet not only despises her but also loathes himself for loving a woman who has made a slave of his young friend. Similarly, John Klause argues that the poet continues to desire the woman despite his revulsion and that their mutual depravity keeps them together. Philip Edwards, in turn, finds more evidence of the poet's conflicted attitude toward the woman than of the character of the woman herself in the various descriptions; he pointedly contrasts the warm and charming description of the mistress in Sonnet 130 with the subsequent depiction of her as "an agent of damnation" from whom the poet turns away in disgust. Indeed, as Heather Dubrow and others have remarked, negative appraisals of the woman have often been countered by negative appraisals of the poet himself. Dubrow maintains that the poet's inconsistent portrait of his mistress should make us wary of trusting his judgment and forming any definitive interpretations about her character.

Among those who have agreed that the lens of the poet's verse distorts the image of the woman, S. Schoenbaum suggests that because the disclosures about the woman are obscure and contradictory, and because the speaker's hostility toward her is so apparent, reliable conclusions about her simply cannot be drawn. Likewise, M. L. Stapleton argues that the poet's descriptions of his mistress are neither accurate nor reliable. We must always keep in mind, she warns, that the "dark lady" is entirely a creation of the poet's—and he is a self-admitted liar. Kenneth Muir is one of several critics who have emphasized the bitterness and anger present in many of the "dark lady" sonnets, pointing out that the mood changes swiftly and frequently as the poet turns from attacking or insulting her to begging for her kindness or forgiving her transgressions.

Several commentators—including Douglas L. Peterson, Katharine M. Wilson, and James Winny—have read the "dark lady" sonnets as a satirical treatment of Petrarchan sonnet conventions, in which context the mistress herself becomes something of a gross caricature of an "immoral" woman by design. Peterson maintains that Shakespeare's verses effectively mock the Petrarchan ideal of the fair beloved in a sustained parody of the traditional sonnet modes of praise, complaint, and plea. Wilson, meanwhile, asserts that the "dark lady" sonnets specifically satirize the artificiality of sonnets written by Shakespeare's English predecessors and contemporaries. Reading the sonnets about the poet's mistress as a subversion of conventional attitudes toward love in the Petrarchan tradition, Winny identifies several targets of Shakespeare's satire, including the lover's devotion, the beloved's moral perfection, and the ennobling power of love. The character of the "dark lady," then, especially by virtue of her evident lack of virtue, would be the most essential aspect of this satire.

The Poet

As used here, the term poet denotes the narrator of the sonnets—who of course speaks at length of his poetry—as distinguished from the man who wrote them. The poet is a complex and contradictory figure. He appears to be generous and long-suffering—even self-effacing—yet he also expresses anger and pride. The poet describes himself as older than the young man and the mistress, but he gives few indications of what his actual age may be. Furthermore, he refers to himself as untruthful, raising doubts about his reliability in reporting the interpersonal and social situations he describes. This fact is important because only through the poet does the reader know anything about the other figures in the sonnets.

Most late twentieth-century critics maintain that the psychological portrait of the poet is in fact the principal focus of the sonnets. In their judgment, the sequence depicts a mind torn between conflicting thoughts and emotions as the speaker deals with issues that are central to human existence: love and friendship; birth and death; self-knowledge and self-delusion; sin and virtue; and the vagaries of fortune and the ravages of time. Many commentators view the poet as prone to misjudge both himself and the young man. Others contend that he willfully avoids facing the truth about the young man's nature and conduct—either because he continues to love his friend or because he does not want to acknowledge the malignant effect of the relationship on himself. Most agree that the sonnets depict a man who is struggling to make sense of his life and bring order out of chaos.

In accord with the poet's expression of his tortured thoughts and feelings, he has been variously described as enigmatic, self-deluded, inconsistent, and servile. Both Philip Martin and John Klause have discussed the poet's deferential attitude to the young man. In Martin's judgment, the poet abandons the self-effacing demeanor of the early sonnets once he and the young man have achieved a relationship of greater intimacy; thus, the poet is initially self-effacing for the same reasons that any person seeking a relationship with a person deemed of greater worth would be self-effacing. In contrast, Klause argues that the poet's self-deprecation is one of the strategic ploys he uses as he tries to teach the youth the meaning of love. In Klause's estimation, the poet's other strategies include flattery, rebuke, forgiveness, and deceit.

Many critics have disparaged the poet's servile attitude toward the young man. Others similarly condemn his acquaintance with the "dark lady," remarking that the poet seems unable to break away from relationships that he finds degrading. Indeed, the poet's passivity or hesitancy to take action has been frequently noted, as he seems trapped in a state of reflection and beset by fears and anxieties. Belying his otherwise servile attitude, the poet repeatedly notes his own deceitfulness; some critics maintain that the poet himself is the principal victim of his dishonesty, as he brings suffering upon himself by sustaining relationships that he must lie to sustain. In turn, many critics caution that since the poet represents himself as an unreliable witness, the reader should not assume that what he says about the young man and the woman are necessarily true or accurate. Indeed, his descriptions of the other figures in the sequence may reveal as much about himself as about those he describes.

The poet's moral, ethical, and intellectual confusion is fairly prominent. He often refers to the dilemma he faces in remaining constant to a beloved who has proved inconstant. Sometimes he demonstrates generosity, while other times he seems subtly or obviously self-interested. With respect to his art, he sometimes proudly affirms the power of his poetry and sometimes expresses grave doubts about the value of art and the worth of his own verses. Such inconsistencies in the poet's characterization have been variously explained. Some commentators allege that if the sonnets were reordered the poet could be shown progressing steadily from one state of mind to the next rather than fluctuating back and forth throughout the sequence. Others view this wavering between confidence and uncertainty as a function of the discrepancies in age and social rank between the poet and the young man. Still others see it as a realistic portrayal of the quandary facing a man whose beloved is simultaneously attractive and loathsome.

Regarding the poet's dishonesty—his distortion of the truth or evasion of it—Heather Dubrow argues in her book Captive Victors that this characteristic reflects the poet's moral confusion and underscores the general absence of truth and certainty in the sonnets. Furthermore, she suggests that the reader's wavering confidence in the poet's truthfulness influences his or her responses: the reader may sometimes identify with him, but when his honesty is called into question, the reader may become more detached. Whether the poet is deceiving himself as well as his readers has been addressed by a number of commentators. Emily E. Stockard, for one, maintains that when he can no longer deny the reality of his friend's desertion, the poet adopts a strategy of consolation designed to isolate him from that reality; thus, he claims to find comfort in the young man's absence, even though he is essentially deluding himself. Similarly, Michael Cameron Andrews argues that in the sonnets that refer to the young man, the poet is initially unaware of his friend's true nature, but when the young man's duplicity becomes evident, the poet devises a series of specious arguments to rationalize or justify what he cannot bear to confront. From Andrews's perspective, the poet is caught up in a profound struggle as he tries to hide his feelings from himself.

Other critics who have considered the issue of the poet's self-deception include Philip Edwards and James Winny. Focusing on the "dark lady" sonnets, Edwards argues that here the poet desperately tries to make sense of his life—to understand why a man such as himself would betray the nobler aspects of his nature and be ruled by base instinct. Edwards traces the poet's various attempts, all grounded in self-deception, to portray carnal desire as something other than a degradation. Also directing his attention to Sonnets 127-151, Winny maintains that these poems depict the poet struggling with the recognition of his mistress's unworthiness on the one hand and his inability to resist her on the other. In Winny's opinion, the poet ultimately judges himself as harshly as he judges the woman with whom he has been associating.

The Rival Poet(s)

Sonnets 21, 78-80, and 82-86 refer to a competitor or competitors for the young man's favor and patronage. The poet describes his rival(s') verses as more ornate and artificial than his own, and he represents them as a threat to his relationship with the friend. The rival poets exist in the sonnets almost exclusively in name, as the narrating poet mentions only their verse, not their persons, and only in passing. Katherine Duncan-Jones notes that Francis Davison, John Davies, Samuel Daniel, George Chapman, and Ben Jonson, all contemporaries of Shakespeare, have been identified as possible inspirations for the rival poets of the Sonnets.

The Young Man

The man about whom the poet writes much of his verse is characterized as younger, as holding superior aristocratic rank, and as unmarried. The poet describes him as unusually beautiful, and at times his inner virtue seems to match his outward nature. On other occasions he appears cold, narcissistic, and morally corrupt. Sometimes he returns the poet's love, but he is also accused of having an illicit sexual relationship with a woman—perhaps one who was the poet's mistress. Commentary on the friend has been a mixture of biographical speculation and literary analysis. Many modern commentators believe that the issue of who inspired so many of the sonnets will never be resolved. Thus, they have instead focused attention on the picture of the friend that the poet provides and on what can be determined or inferred about the friend in light of the poet's constantly changing point of view.

Critics have variously viewed the young man as aloof, sensitive, vulnerable, impulsive, and inscrutable. Many have emphasized his essential egotism. While the opening sonnets celebrate his physical beauty, subsequent ones question his integrity and faithfulness, and he is increasingly portrayed as arrogant and self-important. A number of critics have proposed that the young man can be understood as a profoundly contradictory figure. Stephen Spender, for one, explicitly describes him as having a dual or divided nature. On the one hand, Spender observes, the poet relates an idealized portrait of his friend as a young man of incomparable beauty and worth; yet based on the flustered and frustrated reactions he occasionally produces in the poet, the young man must also be understood as cold, selfish, proud, and decadent. Similarly, Hallett Smith notes that while the poet focuses on his friend's merits and beauty, the young man demonstrates that he is capable of slighting and even rejecting the poet. Providing a less sympathetic view of the young man, John Klause emphasizes his inferior judgment and character. From Klause's perspective, the young man has not yet learned how to love or how to be worthy of love. Also highlighting the friend's contradictory nature, Michael Cameron Andrews remarks on the disparity between the youth's attractive appearance and his offensive behavior. In Andrews's judgment, the friend's unusual beauty masks a "rampant sexuality," and his most prominent attribute is deception.

Interestingly, the treatment of the young man throughout the sonnets features a remarkable lack of specificity. To begin with, his beauty is generalized rather than particularized; J. B. Leishman observes that the reader is never told anything of his height, for example, or of the color of his eyes and hair. Beyond the young man's appearance, the reader only hears of his words and actions through the poet's responses and reports, and in fact, the young man is never portrayed or described in the midst of some activity where he displays the charms and graces the poet ascribes to him. The poet eventually accuses him of a grave fault—seemingly of a sensual nature—but even this fault is never completely particularized. Thus, the young man is a thoroughly indistinct figure, presented suggestively rather than concretely. Heather Dubrow has noted that the friend never functions as an active participant in the sonnets. She also highlights the fact that in addition to being nameless and shadow-like, he has no voice of his own; the poet either reports what the young man has said or predicts what he is likely to say. In Dubrow's judgment, this contributes to a sense of detachment—a failure of engagement—between the reader and the friend.

Several commentators have called attention to the significant change in the relationship between the poet and the friend after Sonnets 1-17. Hallett Smith proposes that Sonnet 18 signals that the poet's friend has become his beloved, and Kenneth Muir offers a similar assertion. Muir also argues that in Sonnet 20 the poet recognizes that his love for the young man is erotic as well as spiritual. Robert Crosman interprets Sonnets 1-17 as reflecting a period when the poet and the friend were establishing a personal association—one that would grow from friendship and patronage to a union of kindred souls, linked by mutual sympathy and understanding. Yet, as Katherine Duncan-Jones notes, the last sonnet in the portion of the sequence devoted to the young man, with its closing of two lines of empty parentheses, seems to indicate that ultimately, the friendship in question came to some sort of an end.


Love of All Kinds

Human love—in a variety of manifestations—is a principal focus of Shakespeare's sonnets. Among the many different kinds of love expressed in these verses are spiritual and erotic, parental and filial, and love that ennobles and love that corrupts. The poet explores the paradoxical nature of human passion at length from different perspectives, sometimes idealizing love and sometimes treating it sardonically. Many critics have highlighted Shakespeare's innovative and unique treatment of the traditions of courtly and Petrarchan love, comparing the Renaissance ideal of human love—a relationship in which earthly and heavenly desires are balanced and complementary—with the sonnets' representation of these desires as polar opposites.

In Shakespeare's sonnets, critics have argued, love is sometimes presented as an inspiration for transcendent art, with the lover claiming that he can eternalize his beloved's worth and beauty by enshrining them in his poetry. Thus, love and art can unite to triumph over time and its destructive effects. Love is also represented as an impulse that can help a person realize the noblest aspects of human nature: patience, understanding, selflessness, and forgiveness. On the other hand, some commentators maintain that the sonnets' depiction of self-effacing love represents a satire on the servile lover of sonnet tradition, who willingly assumes the role of abject servant and devotes himself to obeying his mistress's every wish. Critics have pointed out that love in the sonnets sometimes manifests itself as infatuation, turning the lover's head and blinding his judgment. It is also represented, particularly in Sonnets 127-152, as lust or carnal desire, a passion that corrodes the soul and debases the lover. Yet, as critics have pointed out, some of the "dark lady" sonnets wittily and exuberantly portray sensual love as a vital expression of human nature. Love is also represented as friendship, and some commentators have read the relationship between the poet and the friend in terms of the classical notion that an intimate friendship between two men has greater intrinsic value than a sexual relationship between a man and a woman.

Among the commentators who have discussed the paradoxical nature of love as presented in the sonnets, David Lloyd Stevenson, for one, discusses the literary conventions that shaped Shakespeare's depiction of human passion. In Stevenson's judgment, the bard made use of conventional romantic sentiment but rejected the traditional notion of idealized love. Instead, he argues, Shakespeare emphasized the irrationality of human love—the conflicting impulses of aversion and attraction that are characteristic of the experience of sexual desire. Likewise addressing the sonnets' depiction of love as contradictory or paradoxical, Anthony Hecht notes that these verses exploit, and to a certain extent seek to reshape, the traditional philosophical notion that the antagonism between soul and body can be resolved when sacred and profane love are brought together in an ideal relationship. Marion Bodwell Smith similarly evaluates the theme of love in the sonnets in the context of Renaissance philosophy, concluding that Shakespeare disavowed the notion that love could encompass both spiritual and physical values. Instead, Smith maintains, the sonnets portray the two faces of love as polarities: in the verses to the young man, love is a joining of souls, but in the ones involving the mistress, love is an enslavement of the body. Stephen Spender suggests that one conflict in the sonnets is that between the appearance of love and the actual experience of it. He suggests that the poet is committed to reconciling the disparity between the outward semblance of love in the young man and his corrupt inner nature.

Ambiguous Eroticism

Over the centuries, commentators have alternately denied, confronted, accepted, and celebrated the ambiguous eroticism of the sonnets. In 1640 John Benson infamously exchanged all the masculine pronouns and adjectives with their feminine counterparts so that the beloved of Sonnets 1-126 became a woman. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editors and commentators likewise struggled with the implications of the use of masculine address in the central portion of the sequence. Twentieth-century critics, in turn, were divided on the issue of whether the relationship between the poet and the young man should be considered sexual. In turn, critics remain unsure as to whether the nature of the relationship portrayed in the sonnets sheds light on the personal life of their author.

Regardless of the presence of autobiographical aspects, critical discussions of the nature of the relationship between the poet and the young man typically raise the question of whether it is represented as love-in-friendship or whether it has a sexual component. Kenneth Muir, for one, interprets Sonnet 20—a verse at the center of this controversy—as the poet's frank admission that his feelings for the young man are not only spiritual but also erotic. In that verse, the poet praises the young man as being like a woman but superior in several respects, with his eyes brighter and his emotions more constant. The poet goes on to express regret over the fact that nature had not left him a woman, as he was "first created," but had added "one thing" to make him a man. The pun in line 13 leaves no doubt as to what this addition was, as the poet, addressing the young man, rues that nature "pricked thee out for women's pleasure." The question, then, is whether the poet and the young man can or should be understood to enjoy any sort of sexual relationship regardless of whom nature intended them to please. Muir, for one, asserts that even if the poet experiences erotic inclinations toward the young man, he never seems to consider acting on them: "There seems to be no thought in his mind of the possibility of a physical consummation of his love, or even that he would have been tempted if the possibility had existed."

To the contrary, in his 1985 book Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Joseph Pequigney put forth one of the first comprehensive readings of the poems as demonstrating sincere homosexual affection. He contends "that the friendship treated in Sonnets 1-126 is decidedly amorous—passionate to a degree and in ways not dreamed of in the published philology, the interaction between the friends being sexual in both orientation and practice," as well as "that Shakespeare produced not only extraordinary amatory verse but the grand masterpiece of homoerotic poetry." Like many preceding commentators, Pequigney offers a detailed examination of Sonnet 20. After a complex analysis of the possible meanings and connotations of various words within the sonnet, including "purpose" and "treasure," he concludes, "Even though Nature's creative 'addition' may be represented as an obstacle to fleshly intimacy between the friends, its presence does not divert the poet's 'passion' but may, indeed, serve as a principal cause of its arousal." Pequigney goes on to identify Sonnets 52, 75, and 87 as seeming to contain sexual innuendo regarding interactions between the men.

Other critics have offered diverging perspectives on the eroticism inherent in the sonnets. Marion Bodwell Smith suggests that Shakespeare's sequence simply traces the development—and dissolution—of love-in-friendship, as the poet moves from confidence to doubt and from despair to an acceptance of the contradictions inherent in human love. Anthony Hecht calls attention to the fact that from the classical era through the Renaissance, male friendship was seen as an advanced form of human relations—that is, superior to heterosexual love. Hecht suggests that from this perspective, Shakespeare's sonnets constitute an inquiry into the truth of that notion. Likewise reading the sonnets in the context of the era in which they were written, Paul Innes describes social and cultural norms governing relationships between men in the English Renaissance. He notes that the system of literary patronage deepened the gap between aristocratic benefactors and socially inferior writers. Calling attention to the connection between "the language of love and the discourse of patronage" in the sonnets, Innes suggests that one of the poet's greatest fears is that if the young man rejects his love, he will lose the social and monetary benefits he presently enjoys. Overall, while various critics have made various suppositions about the degree of amorousness between the poet and the young man, no one is expected to ever be able to offer irrefutable proof on the matter.


In Shakespeare's sonnets, an important theme associated with love is the betrayal of love. Most commentators agree that although the poet accuses his mistress of sexual infidelity, he is far less concerned about her faithlessness than he is about the young man's. As critics have noted, the poet fears that the young man will prove inconstant, yet he tries to suppress his doubts and trust his friend. When the young man betrays him, the poet attempts to justify and excuse his infidelity, then reproaches the young man for his deception and himself for believing in the youth. Several commentators have remarked that the shock of the betrayal is intensified because the poet is convinced that there is a direct symmetry between the young man's outward appearance—his extraordinary beauty—and his inner self; when the poet finds disparity rather than correspondence there, he is desolate. Indeed, physical beauty was more often associated with moral virtue in the Elizabethan era than in modern times, with both sorts of assets being grouped together as gifts bestowed on individuals by nature. In the case of Shakespeare's Sonnets, the poet must come to terms with the moral deficiency of the beautiful man, as manifested in his infidelity. Overall, commentators generally agree that the poet's love for the young man is sustained to the end, as tempered by a more realistic appraisal of the friend's true nature.

Critics have generally agreed with regard to the poet's gradual revelations regarding the young man's true nature. M. M. Mahood highlights the poet's frequently expressed fears that the young man is treacherous and deceitful and concludes that the young man is destined to be unfaithful. Still, Mahood confirms that the poet's love endures: even when the young man repudiates him, the poet assures him of his continuing affection. Hilton Landry focuses on the poet's response to betrayal in Sonnets 92-96, finding in this series a variety of reactions, including fear, irony, ambivalence, and concern for the young man's well-being. Kenneth Muir also sees irony and ambivalence in the poet's reactions to his friend's faithlessness, but in addition he detects disgrace and shame. The poet certainly experiences precisely the wide range of emotions one would expect him to display given the emotional circumstance of having to come to terms with the infidelity of a beloved.


Several critics have asserted that narcissism is an important motif related to the principal theme of love. Indeed, this motif is most evident in the so-called "procreation sonnets," the first seventeen, in which the poet urges the young man to marry and beget children so that his beauty and virtue will be replicated in succeeding generations of his family. Many of these initial verses underscore the sterility and deceptiveness of self-love and emphasize the belief that "To give away yourself keeps yourself still" (Sonnet 16). Critics have pointed out that the sonnets equate self-love with barrenness in other ways as well. A narcissistic view of one's natural gifts as personal assets rather than attributes to be shared with others is also a sort of sterility; hoarding one's treasures rather than using them is the same as wasting them, for time will ultimately consume them. Moreover, some commentators observe, the sonnets warn that self-love inevitably traps the narcissist into believing what false friends and lovers tell him about himself.


  • Pick one of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets and write an intense examination of the verse without the assistance of an editor's annotations. With regard to style, discuss the nature of the rhymes, any possible variations in the meter, and poetic qualities like assonance and alliteration. Look for multiple meanings in words, and provide a discussion of the overall thematic content and message of the poem. Afterward, consult critical comments and annotations on the sonnet and mention any noteworthy discrepancies, corrections, and agreements provided by the scholars in question. Finally, comment on the process of analyzing Shakespeare's verse without any assistance.
  • In an essay, provide a full account of ancient Greek conceptions of love (of all kinds) between men, then contrast this historical perspective with prevalent societal attitudes toward love between men in modern America.
  • Images from nature appear frequently in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Write a report in which you identify ten sonnets featuring images from nature and compare and contrast the various connotations and symbolic meanings of these images.
  • Research the nature of the plagues that occasionally afflicted London and its environs during Shakespeare's lifetime. In an essay, present your findings and offer a detailed comparison of the overarching threat of plague to some similar threat that has been experienced in modern society.
  • Write an essay about the Japanese haiku, a poetic form with historical significance comparable to that of the sonnet.

Philip Martin proposes that Shakespeare's treatment of the young man's narcissism is unusually complex. Self-love, the critic argues, is portrayed as a destructive alliance with "devouring time," for by concentrating on himself the friend will inevitably lose his essence instead of perpetuating it through procreation and love of others. In a psychoanalytic reading of the sonnets, Jane Hedley contends that the poet himself is caught up in narcissism. She asserts that by loving a youth of incomparable beauty, the poet is able to recapture an idealized image of himself—one that has been eroded as he has grown older. Similarly, Stephen Spender discusses the affinity between the narcissistic young man and the poet who seeks to immortalize his beauty. In Spender's judgment, both men regard the friend's beauty as a "unique value" that must be preserved in some way, and in their shared determination to achieve this, they become one.


The Absence of a Narrative

Assessments of narrative elements in the sonnets frequently begin by pointing out that the order in which Shakespeare's sonnets appear in most modern editions follows the one established by Thomas Thorpe in the original publication of these verses in 1609. Historians are unsure as to whether Shakespeare had any hand in this publication, and thus no one can definitively assert that he intended them to be read in the order they are presented therein. Many scholars, believing that a coherent story would emerge if the sonnets were rearranged, have revised the order, but none of these rearrangements has gained significant acceptance among other critics and commentators. While countless summaries of the narrative line of Shakespeare's sonnets have appeared in print, ranging in length from one sentence to thirty pages or more, critics generally agree that few traces of a traditional plot can be found in the sonnets. Indeed, most commentators offer some analysis regarding the absence of a definable progression of events, specific actions, and indications of time and place. More recently, critics have considered the possibility that some of Sonnets 1-126—long assumed to all be addressed to the young man—may be addressed to the "dark lady." Of course, since scholars cannot be certain as to whom many of the sonnets refer, they cannot easily trace the course of a developing—if illogical—narrative.

Thus, in that critics have generally agreed that the sonnet sequence focuses not on a linear series of events but on the speaker's thoughts and emotions, debate has revolved around the extent to which the sequence does contain narrative or dramatic elements. Most twentieth-century commentators find little more than a skeletal "story" in these verses. Kenneth Muir, for instance, summarizes what he termed "the basic facts" of the sonnets in a single sentence. He reminds readers that the verses do not represent a novel in poetic form, although he acknowledges that Shakespeare effectively convinces the reader that the sonnets are sincere expressions of the speaker's emotions, from one day to the next and from year to year. Heather Dubrow stresses the fact that only rarely do the sonnets relate even a brief chronological sequence of events. She calls attention to the lack of specific references to time and place, and to the scarcity of sonnets that describe something that actually happens to the poet, the young man, or the mistress. Thus, the experiences of the poet, in being vague, are more universal, and the resulting emotions are more easily vicariously felt by the reader.

From the middle of the nineteenth century to the present, Shakespeare's sonnets have frequently been read as a series of dramatic speeches. Thus, many commentators describe the sonnets as "dramatic" in that they provide immediate emotional contact between the poet, who can be thought of as a speaker, and his reading audience. Indeed, Dubrow, for one, interprets the sonnets as a series of internal monologues, delivered in a lyrical mode, bringing before the reader, immediately and intensely, the conflicted mind of the speaker. In a way, dramatic confrontations occur not between external forces but between the poet's competing or contradictory thoughts and emotions, and this struggle is conveyed through meditations that resemble, to some degree, soliloquies in plays. Michael Cameron Andrews also maintains that the sonnets are dramatic in the sense that they constitute a dynamic portrayal of a mind at war with itself. He argues that these poems vivify the tempestuous flow of conflicting emotions in the speaker's mind as he tries desperately to resolve—through justification, pretense, self-deception, and other subterfuges—the discrepancy between his idealized vision of the young man and the knowledge that his friend has deceived him. G. K. Hunter similarly maintains that Shakespeare's sonnets bring readers into direct contact with the poet's suffering and, through their poignancy and immediacy, evoke the same feelings of pity and terror elicited by tragic drama. Furthermore, some critics view the tensions that the poet describes between himself and the young man, and between himself and his mistress, as essentially dramatic in nature. On the other hand, some critics argue that the sonnets are non-dramatic in that they seem to take place in an eternal present.

Multifaceted Language

The linguistic inventiveness of the sonnets is one of their most celebrated characteristics. Critics have noted that the language is dense and complex, with richness in significance, contradictions, overtones, and echoes. Many have pointed out that Shakespeare's vocabulary, imagery, and diction are inseparable from the various themes or topics within each poem. Some have argued that the ambiguity of Shakespeare's language is a reflection of his ambivalent attitude toward the subjects of his poetry. Others have suggested that the wide range of tone in the sequence—with the often abrupt shifts from playfulness to derision, intensity to detachment, ecstasy to despair—should be read as evidence of Shakespeare's extensive understanding of the multifaceted operations of the human mind under the influence of love. In general, studies of the sonnets' elaborate verbal patterns have focused on such elements as alliteration, assonance, syntax, neologisms (words originally coined), punning, and other forms of wordplay, as well as on Shakespeare's use of paradox and antithesis.

Regarding the connections between verbal and stylistic patterns and the sonnets' various themes and topics, Philip Martin argues that the poems characteristically display an intimate connection between themes and linguistic modes. Martin offers a deft analysis of the phraseology of Sonnet 1, observing the manner in which certain words balance others in terms of meaning, rhythm, and poetic quality. In the first line, for example, "From fairest creatures we desire increase," the words "creatures" and "increase" are connected by placement within the line, by alliteration, and by logical association; in the seventh line, in turn, "Making a famine where aboundance lies," the words "famine" and "aboundance" are contrasted through placement, rhythm, and meaning. Regarding the ambivalent nature of this opening sonnet, Martin concludes, "It is not just the equivocality of attitude which is characteristic of so many later sonnets: it is the slyness of tone which goes with this attitude and reveals it." Calling attention to the patterns of balance, repetition, and reiteration that occur throughout Sonnets 1-17, Martin suggests that in addition to stressing the idea that the youth must marry and have children, this group of verses introduces or suggests all the central themes of Sonnets 1-126. Thus, he concludes, the initial verbal balancing effort is directly related to the overall ideological balancing effort: "This is not a clever balancing-act or parrying of experience, nor an attempt to stand outside or above it: it is a recognition of many-sidedness, of the need to give full weight to the various and sometimes conflicting elements which may be present simultaneously in human affairs." Jane Hedley, in turn, emphasizes the regular appearance of ambiguity, obsessive repetition, contradiction, and specious argument in the sonnets dealing with the young man. She links these verbal patterns to the poet's frequent shifts between identification with and estrangement from the young man.

In countless instances, the words and images in Shakespeare's sonnets—as in his plays—have multiple meanings and associations. Stephen Booth compiled an exhaustive commentary on the many connotations, nuances, and references in almost every line of the 154 sonnets. He offers encouragement to modern readers, asserting that Shakespeare's original audience would have been as challenged and bemused alike by the poet's words and phrases. Philip Martin recommends that the reader proceed slowly through each sonnet in order not to miss the networks of meanings embedded in the lyrics; this is "a poetry for contemplation," he advises, that can only be fully appreciated through careful consideration of each line and phrase. In offering a close reading of Sonnet 94, Hilton Landry remarks that this particular verse has been interpreted in many different ways; the language is so allusive, he argues, that the poem must be read in the light of those that precede and follow it, such that its richness, complexity, and subtlety are given some context.

Interconnected Imagery

The figurative or metaphorical language of the sonnets is a chief topic of critical interest. Generally, critics agree that the imagery of Shakespeare's sonnets is functional rather than merely ornamental: imagery often serves as a unifying agent between individual sonnets, creating formal patterns that link together poems that are otherwise discontinuous in logic or topic. Various commentators have contended that single images are often intentionally endowed with multiple associations, such that readers should not try to find one meaning in the rich mixture of connotations that is more significant than the others. Images drawn from nature appear frequently throughout the sequence, particularly with reference to heavenly bodies, to the passing of the seasons, and to cycles of growth and decay. Other important metaphorical patterns are linked to treasure or riches, corruption and disease, scarcity and abundance, and the effectiveness of procreation and poetry as means of immortalizing beauty and defying time.

Among the many critics who have discussed images and metaphors in the sonnets and their connections with thematic issues are Winifred M. T. Nowottny, James Dawes, Arthur Mizener, Neal L. Goldstien, and Anne Ferry. Focusing on the first six sonnets, Nowottny demonstrates that within an individual sonnet various images may at first seem unrelated, but closer examination shows that they are connected to images in adjacent verses. Thus, Shakespeare used imagery not merely for its beauty but as a means of integrating different parts of the sequence and intensifying the expression of the poet's experience. In an examination of images that represent mutability and constancy, Dawes similarly notes the unifying effect of the sonnets' imagery. He asserts that clusters of images that recur throughout the sequence function as substitutes for a traditional narrative or plot, weaving together different parts of the sequence. Mizener analyzes Shakespeare's compound metaphors, calling attention to the rich blend of connotations in many of them. No one meaning stands out from the others, he declares, or claims the reader's exclusive attention; instead, all meanings should be seen and understood simultaneously. Goldstien directs readers' attention to the various forms and associations of money imagery in the sonnets, noting that Shakespeare often uses riches as a synonym for sexuality and links treasure and beauty. Goldstien argues that these interwoven associations underscore the poet's profoundly ambivalent attitude toward love. Ferry assesses the significance of Shakespeare's immortalizing metaphors or conceits, particularly in Sonnet 15. Through metaphors that associate immortality with art and vegetation, she argues, the poet accentuates the principal idea of that poem: that he is at war with time. Ferry also points out that the use of the present tense in this sonnet represents another expression of the poet's attempt to control time.

The Art of Poetry

The topic of poetry as an art form merits brief mention here in that it is present in Shakespeare's Sonnets both thematically, with the poet often referring to the quality and possible immortality of his verse, and in the style of the work itself. That is, to a certain extent, Shakespeare devised poems that aptly reflect the mindset of his narrator not just in content but also in form. Katharine M. Wilson supports the notion that Shakespeare shaped his verse with the utmost deliberation: "He is an artist; that is to say, a conscious practitioner in the art of expressing feeling. He does not write by chance, nor wholly by intuition, but with deliberate design." In particular, both Winifred Nowottny and Douglas L. Peterson have commented on the frequent juxtaposition of an artificial or ornate style with a more direct or simpler one. Nowottny points out that the artificial style predominates when the speaker is most self-conscious; by contrast, when he expresses his feelings more sincerely, the style tends toward the commonplace. Peterson focuses on the sonnets invoking the rival poets and the "dark lady," concluding that the verses in both these groups demonstrate that Shakespeare found the traditional plain style employed by some sonnet writers just as insincere and exaggerated as the overly eloquent mode used by others.

The Sonnets as Parody

Few critics have disputed the notion that Shakespeare's sonnets are fairly extraordinary when viewed in light of the English sonnet tradition, for two primary reasons: first, most of the sonnets praise the beauty and virtue not of a woman but of a young man, and second, when Shakespeare finally does get around to glorifying a woman, he readily admits that the woman in question is not conventionally, if at all, attractive and can hardly be described as virtuous. Based on these and other aspects of the sonnets, then, some critics have concluded that Shakespeare wrote his sonnets with the express intent of producing a parody.

Katharine M. Wilson offers a comprehensive analysis of the sonnets as parody in her text Shakespeare's Sugared Sonnets. She first offers a discussion of the history of the sonnet, especially as employed by Englishmen in the sixteenth century. By the 1590s, she notes, sonnets were largely being passed around within a concentrated community of respected poets, almost all of whom were connected to the royal court in some way. Shakespeare, she asserts, "was neither a courtier nor a knight. He did not grow up in any such atmosphere. Although as a person he seems to have been respected, his status as an actor would not qualify him to be called a gentleman." The point she goes on to develop is that Shakespeare was not necessarily the type of person who would have played the game of courtly sonneteering simply for the sake of adhering to aristocratic social conventions. In fact, Wilson observes that the nature of the era itself seems to suggest that such a genius as Shakespeare would not have undertaken the writing of sonnets as a serious endeavor. Regarding Queen Elizabeth, she remarks, "It was in her reign that the English love sonnet had its short flowering. Perhaps I should say fruitage rather than flowering since by this time it was over ripe, at the decadent end of its history, with no basis in social reality." Evoking Shakespeare's personal history, then, she asserts that he would have found "sonnet love" to be marked by "unreality and artificiality."

Wilson next observes that Shakespeare's plays evidence a fairly critical attitude toward the sonnet tradition, such as in the very early comedy Love's Labours Lost, where a group of young men somewhat perfunctorily adopt the practice of penning poetry as if simply taking the next logical step after falling in love. Katherine Duncan-Jones likewise contends that Shakespeare demonstrates a disparaging attitude toward poetry in his plays, citing Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, and The Merry Wives of Windsor as all containing derogatory references to the writing of sonnets. Finally invoking a pair of Shakespeare's most famous male protagonists (the former coming from As You Like It), she observes, "Two of Shakespeare's most intelligent lovers, Orlando and Hamlet, deliver themselves when in love of puerile verses (though not in sonnet form) which suggest mental and aesthetic collapse. In the theatre, it seems, Shakespeare almost invariably presents the writing of love poetry in general, and sonnets in particular, as ridiculous."

Having drawn the same conclusion regarding the plays, Wilson finally addresses the nature of Shakespeare's sonnets themselves. The character of the "dark lady" alone certainly attests to the possibility that Shakespeare was not being serious, as she is essentially opposite to the traditional woman of sonnet idolatry in every respect; she is dark in mind and character as well as in complexion. Further, Shakespeare seems to have closely imitated certain sonnets by his contemporaries, including Barnabe Barnes, Samuel Daniel, and Henry Constable. Wilson identifies sonnet VII in Thomas Watson's Passionate Centurie of Love as being one candidate for the basis of parody in Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. Among other such similar lines, where Watson writes, "Her lips more red than any coral stone," Shakespeare counters, "Coral is far more red, than her lips red." She identifies numerous other sonnets that Shakespeare is likely to have read, and whether or not he intentionally parodied specific verses, he certainly seems to have parodied the types of verses in question. Overall, then, in the "dark lady" series, he took the typical sonnet proceedings and applied them to a situation that made them absurd.

Wilson makes similar arguments with respect to the sonnets associated with the young man. To begin with, sonnets simply were not traditionally addressed from one man to another, and Shakespeare's doing so would have been understood as comical by his contemporaries. Regarding Sonnets 1-17, all advocating procreation for the sake of the preservation of beauty, Wilson asserts that they effectively twist arguments made in a treatise by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus; she states, "All seventeen sonnets are structured to climb wittily to their inevitable end in an identical laughable climax which parodies equally Erasmus and the sonneteers." Wilson goes on to offer side-by-side comparisons of the remainder of Shakespeare's sonnets with contemporary verse, as well as with poetry by the ancient Roman Ovid, ever noting that given Shakespeare's genius and nature, he could not have been so pedantic as to offer such obviously unoriginal verse in any seriousness.


The Story of the Sonnet

Of all poetic forms, the sonnet perhaps occupies the most singular and influential place in history. In her text The Sonnet Over Time: A Study in the Sonnets of Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Baudelaire, Sandra L. Bermann remarks, "It would not be an exaggeration to say that the sonnet as first popularized by Petrarch and his Italian imitators played a larger role than any other single form in building a highly competitive, if also cohesive, European literary community." In discussing Petrarch's contributions, Bermann notes that the fourteenth-century Italian's sonnets were widely copied with respect to form as well as theme and particular rhetoric throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In fact, in the Elizabethan era originality was not held as so important a quality in poetic or dramatic works; Shakespeare appropriated a variety of stories from the annals of history and world literature for use in his plays, and some "poets" did little more than directly translate work from foreign languages—such as the sonnets of Petrarch. In theorizing as to the sonnet's popularity, Bermann points out that since the rhyme and meter were loosely standardized, poets could distinguish themselves by making only minor adjustments to the form. Interestingly, Bermann connects the appeal of a well-defined verse structure among the poetic community to the bourgeois mode of life: "Countless sonnet voices called for a hearing in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Together they moved in the direction of the solidifying ideals of middle-class culture: an easy freedom within constraint, a graceful containment of the individual within the larger community."

In England, the publication of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella in 1591 essentially launched a sonnet craze within courtly circles in England. As Stanley Wells notes, within the next six years, around twenty sonnet sequences were published by various poets; Bermann notes that with its publication date of 1609, "Shakespeare's sequence appeared at the very end of the English Renaissance sonnet vogue." Offering an elaboration of Bermann's cultural analysis regarding the sonnet's popularity throughout Europe, Paul Innes ties the brief but intense popularity of the sonnet in England to its adherence to idealized notions of courtly love. That is, in writing verse that presented women in traditionally objectified ways, with the various parts of their bodies compared to various objects in nature, English Renaissance poets were invoking a chivalric aspect of human interaction that had largely been forsaken. Shakespeare, then, in writing of a woman of questionable virtue in his Sonnets, can be understood as responding to the gradual shift away from patriarchal feudalism and toward a less distinctly gendered society. Innes concludes, "Shakespeare's sonnets can therefore be seen as an attempt to manage the feminine subject in the midst of change."

Aside from Shakespeare's treatment of the "dark lady" in his sonnets, he diverged from the form's English and Italian roots in other unconventional ways. Bermann highlights Shakespeare's verbal intricacy, especially as marked by ambiguity and contradiction, as marks of his poetic originality; in her words, "The disturbing, often paradoxical play of Shakespeare's wit and the open-ended nature of his sequence make the Sonnets undoubtedly the most complex and problematic lyric collection of the era." Further, sonneteers before Shakespeare had rarely directly addressed their thoughts and statements to their beloved, as Shakespeare so often does. In that he incorporates the person being praised or discussed into the context of his verse, using the word "thou" with fair frequency, he adds a significant dramatic dimension to the work. A last singular aspect of Shakespeare's verse is the cumulative effect of his style on the reader, which commentators have attempted to describe in various ways. Bermann cites Samuel Taylor Coleridge as having described this aspect with particular eloquence; he remarked that Shakespeare constantly creates and evolves ideas throughout his individual poems, "just as a serpent moves, which makes a fulcrum of its own body and seems forever twisting and untwisting its own strength."

In summarizing Shakespeare's relationship to the overall development of the sonnet, Bermann is especially insightful. After commenting on how Shakespeare approached the sonnet from innovative angles while yet working within its accepted parameters, she states, "Though Shakespeare's Sonnets could hardly have been more tied to the tradition it deftly revised, the sequence virtually ended the sonnet's Renaissance phase." Noting that historical factors unrelated to Shakespeare's actual composition of his poems certainly influenced the sonnet's diminution in cultural relevance, she goes on to link his efforts to more expansive literary forms: "His revolutionary use of the sonnet found its most immediate echoes in larger lyric forms, as well as in the drama and narrative, which his well-defined sonnet personae and their 'plot' prefigure. But with the rise of these more capacious forms, the sonnet itself was gradually abandoned until, in the eighteenth century, it all but disappeared." Thus, in a sense, Shakespeare's literary successors could not outdo his performance in the Sonnets without turning to a less confining genre.

Shakespeare's Intentions

Scholars have long understood that Shakespeare composed and published his two narrative poems Venus and Adonis and Lucrece during a two-year-period early in his career when the London theaters were closed due to an outbreak of the plague. He would have been searching for income, and publishing poems dedicated to a noted literary patron would have helped him to both establish his reputation and secure his livelihood. The Sonnets, in contrast, were published midway through Shakespeare's career, in 1609, and scholars agree that he had written at least a portion of them back in the mid-1590s. Many historians, then, have wondered why, given his talent and primary interest in acting and the theater, Shakespeare chose to write such a substantial and unique sequence of courtly love sonnets.

Regarding the timing of the publication of the Sonnets, Katherine Duncan-Jones notes that from 1606 through 1610 plague indeed again infected London, resulting in the frequent closure of theaters. In fact, she suggests that the sonnets Shakespeare wrote early in his career "were, perhaps, being saved up against a plague-ridden day." Thus, once the closures had extended long enough to erase his theater income, he would have been financially obligated to make use of his poetry. Some historical scholars have contended that Thomas Thorpe, the man who published the text and also authored its cryptic dedication, in fact published the poems without Shakespeare's approval. Recent scholars, however, often citing Thorpe's distinguished and respectable publishing record as well as his friendship with the poet, have generally settled on the notion that Shakespeare probably failed to author the dedication himself simply due to a need to attend to business outside of London—as well as a desire to escape the plague-ridden urban environment as quickly as possible.

With the publication of the Sonnets accounted for, scholars have been left to wonder more specifically what Shakespeare's motivations were in writing them in the first place. In that the sonnet as a poetic form had arguably already moved beyond the pinnacle of its fashionableness in 1609, some commentators have contended that the ingenious Shakespeare was explicitly attempting to offer a new interpretation of the form. After pointing out the low opinion of poetry that the playwright demonstrates in his stage drama, Duncan-Jones states, "One answer, then, to the question of why Shakespeare composed a sonnet sequence might be literary. He sought to appropriate and redefine the genre, rejecting the stale conceits of mistress-worship, and to create a sonnet sequence so different from all his predecessors that the form could never be the same again." Stanley Wells offers similar comments, focusing on Shakespeare's portrayal of the "dark lady" in relation to the conventional adulatory praise of beautiful women: "The sonnets clearly addressed to a woman revile her for cruelty and infidelity, speak ill of her appearance, and explore a self-disgusted emotional and physical entanglement in language of, at times, gross sexuality. Shakespeare's sonnets can be seen, then, as both an endorsement of a convention and a fierce reaction against it."

In a more conjectural vein, Katharine M. Wilson contends that Shakespeare in fact sought to parody the systematic and conventional sonnets of some of his contemporaries, thus seeking to produce a humorous effect. Wilson herself came across the Sonnets in the course of researching Elizabethan sonnets as a genre, and having so recently perused the same publications that Shakespeare is likely to have read, she could not help but view them as intentionally comical. She asserts, "Shakespeare must have had the cadences, imagery and ideas of his predecessors in his mind as he wrote. He used the same or similar tunes and the same imagery and conceits as the other sonneteers, to pay the same flattering and devoted attention, but to a man, not a woman." Wilson concludes that by virtue of the manner in which Shakespeare directly imitated his predecessors with such contrary premises, "He reduced the whole thing to the absurd." Ultimately, of course, Shakespeare's precise intentions can presumably never be proved.

The Autobiographical Question

Perhaps since the first publication of Shakespeare's Sonnets, scholarly and lay readers alike have wondered as to what extent, if at all, the verses are autobiographical. Certain well-read commentators have made statements for or against this notion, igniting or swaying their contemporaries: In the early nineteenth century, William Wordsworth declared in a poem that the sonnets were the key with which "Shakespeare unlocked his heart," and as Kenneth Muir notes, critical discussion throughout that century revolved around that contention. More recently, Stephen Booth's pronouncement on what is termed the biographical fallacy has been frequently cited by other critics: "William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter." Muir cites J. W. Lever as notably advocating a balanced perspective with regard to the possibility of the sonnets' containing autobiographical material; Lever remarked, "The danger is twofold; of naivety, in accepting any sonnet as literal autobiography; or of false sophistication, in dismissing it off hand as mere 'literary exercise.'"

Robert Giroux elaborates on the notion that scholars would be unwise to dismiss the possibility that autobiographical material can be gleaned from Shakespeare's Sonnets. Giroux cites John Berryman as asserting, "'One thing critics not themselves writers of poetry occasionally forget is that poetry is composed by actual human beings, and tracts of it are very closely about them. When Shakespeare wrote, 'Two loves I have,' reader, he was not kidding.'" Likewise, Giroux concludes that one should not assume either that any given sonnet is autobiographical or that none of them are, declaring, "The truth is that we cannot assume anything. To eschew the biographical approach in favour of the antibiographical, in the hope of obtaining a purer or more accurate literary understanding of the sonnets, is an illusion."

The Identity of the Young Man

For hundreds of years, researchers have attempted to determine whether Shakespeare modeled the young man of the sonnets on a specific person. Many critics have considered investigations into the identity of the young man to be more important than those conducted in search of the "dark lady." As Robert Giroux observes of the mistress of the sonnets in opposition to the gentleman,

Her identity really makes very little difference to our knowledge of most of the poems. The identity of the young man is quite another matter, because, if it can be determined, it would throw great light on the date of the poems' composition, on puzzling textual questions, and on matters of poetic sincerity and truth, and would thus increase enormously our understanding and appreciation of the sonnets.

Most searches for the young man's identity have begun with the enigmatic dedication of the 1609 edition of the poems to "Mr. W. H.," described as "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets." Some scholars have contended that "begetter" means that "Mr. W. H." provided the publisher with the text of Shakespeare's sonnets. Others believe that "Mr. W. H." alludes to the young man who inspired the poems, and over the centuries, an impressive array of possible candidates has been proposed. At the top of the list are Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (1573–1624), and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (1580–1630).

Henry Wriothesley, commonly referred to as Southampton, has generally been supported as the most likely candidate by those who consider the Sonnets to have been almost entirely written in the mid-1590s, early in Shakespeare's career. Shakespeare did dedicate both Venus and Adonis and Lucrece to Southampton, which makes him a strong candidate for a subsequent dedication. Robert Giroux finds a significant correlation between these two dedications and Sonnet 26, with its emphasis on "duty." R. J. C. Wait, meanwhile, contends that Southampton must be the man in question because, the critic posits, Sonnet 126 seems to refer to the fact that a son and heir was finally born to the young man he had been urging to procreate all along. In contrast to Giroux, Katherine Duncan-Jones contends that the sonnets were written over a greater span of time, with Shakespeare having devoted energy to them not only in the mid-1590s but also around 1600, around 1603, and through the end of 1608 into 1609, just before their publication. Duncan-Jones suggests that if this dating is accepted, Southampton is less probably the young man of the sonnets in part because he was thirty-five years old by 1609, such that Shakespeare would not have been likely to write poetry then as if Southampton were far younger. In addition, Shakespeare makes no mention of any of the activities in which Southampton was involved as a young man, such as military matters—and, of course, his actual initials, H. W., would have to be inexplicably reversed to get the initials in the dedication in the Sonnets.

Duncan-Jones, then, considers the more likely candidate to be William Herbert, also referred to as Pembroke. Later, in 1623, Shakespeare's First Folio would be dedicated to Pembroke and his brother, Philip Herbert, such that an earlier dedication to the earl would not have been unlikely. Duncan-Jones cites J. Dover Wilson as suggesting that Herbert's mother, the Countess of Pembroke, may have asked Shakespeare to meet the young man on the occasion of his seventeenth birthday, in 1597, and to write seventeen sonnets devoted to the virtues of procreation. In fact, Pembroke proved unwilling to marry women suggested by his parents on several occasions, matching his character to that of the young man of the Sonnets. Further, by the time Shakespeare published his poems, Pembroke had proven willing to provide writers with financial remunerations for their efforts; Duncan-Jones describes him as "an exceptionally generous and intelligent patron of letters, and even something of a poet." Thus, of course, his sympathies are that much more likely to have lain with an established playwright and poet like Shakespeare. Regarding the dedication's reference to W. H. as "Mr.," rather than as "Earl," which seemingly would have been more proper, Duncan-Jones notes that in using the title that Pembroke would have borne until his father's death around 1601, Shakespeare could have been referring to the earlier period of time when Pembroke served as his inspiration. Overall, then, the editor of the Arden Sonnets argues quite convincingly that Pembroke is both the subject of the dedication and the gentleman on whom Shakespeare modeled the young man in his verses.

The Identity of the Dark Lady

As with the young man, much of what has been written about the "dark lady" over the centuries has been concerned with whether she has a historical antecedent. While her identity arguably bears less relevance to the full comprehension of the sonnets than the identity of the young man, some critics have focused on the "dark lady" far more ambitiously. Katherine Duncan-Jones posits two reasons for this particular focus: To begin with, proving the existence of a particular woman with whom Shakespeare was enamored would have made his enshrinement among the greatest European sonneteers—many of whose objects of affection gained substantial renown—much easier than if the woman in question was imaginary. Further, and perhaps more significantly, critical focus on the identity of the "dark lady" essentially served to divert attention from the fact that the majority of Shakespeare's sonnets are actually about a young man. As Duncan-Jones relates, "The foregrounding of 'the Lady' strongly implies that the predominant thrust of Shakespeare's Sonnets is heterosexual. Devotees of an idealized, domesticated image of Shakespeare the man may be a little uncomfortable at a suspicion of adultery, but this is nothing like so alarming as a suspicion of pederasty."

Regardless of the motivation for the search, the question of the identity of the "dark lady" bears some relevance to the study of the sonnets themselves, partly in that arguments in favor of certain women affect arguments in favor of certain young men, as the two are romantically linked in the Sonnets. Mary Fitton, a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, has been high on the list of candidates, but Duncan-Jones points out that evidence suggests that Fitton had a fair complexion; also, given her position within the royal court, Shakespeare would have likely had few, if any, opportunities to consort with her. Other candidates have included Luce Morgan, a London brothel-keeper, and Emilia Lanier, a woman whose virtue was apparently regularly compromised. Evidence regarding real-life inspirations for the "dark lady" is scarcer than that for the young man, such that few scholars proclaim with confidence that they have discovered a certain correlation. Anthony Burgess offers a useful perspective to adopt in this respect: "It is best to keep the Dark Lady anonymous, even composite. Shakespeare was a long time in London, and we cannot think that he limited himself to one affair. The Sonnets make statements of permanent validity about some of the commonest experiences known to men—obsession with a woman's body, revulsion, pain in desertion, resignation at another's treachery." The "dark lady," then, can be understood as an essential inspiration for these universal sentiments regardless of what her name might have been.


  • 1609: Men receiving secondary education are likely to be exposed to the ancient Greek notion that the love shared between men can be superior to the love shared between men and women; still, Shakespeare's sonnets, with their depiction of a poet's fierce and possibly romantic appreciation for a young man, do not prove popular.
    Today: In Western cultures, after centuries in which homosexuality has been widely outlawed and condemned, a large proportion of men have difficulty displaying genuine affection toward other men; in mainstream films, romances between men as part of the central plot are extremely rare.
  • 1609: Actors have difficulty subsisting on their talents during outbreaks of the plague, as theaters were periodically closed to prevent the spread of the disease.
    Today: Thanks to ever-increasing numbers of cable channels, television acting jobs are becoming easier to obtain.
  • 1609: Sexually explicit references in Shakespeare's Sonnets are considered partly responsible for its lukewarm reception.
    Today: With children of all ages exposed to such lewd entertainment vessels as MTV and Howard Stern's radio show, people are understood to be gaining sexual consciousness earlier in life.


While Shakespeare's sonnets are generally celebrated in modern times, they were in fact long ignored, denounced, and even despised. In her introduction to the work, Katherine Duncan-Jones contrasts the sonnets' reception to those experienced by Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, Shakespeare's more successful poetic publications, both of which eventually saw numerous quarto runs. Referring to the sonnet quarto as "Q," as do many commentators, Duncan-Jones remarks, "Whereas the early narrative poems were received with immediate enthusiasm, prompting dozens of early allusions, citations and imitations, the 1609 Q seems to have been greeted largely in silence—a silence the more surprising given Shakespeare's literary celebrity in 1609, in contrast to his relative obscurity in 1593–1594." Duncan-Jones notes that the public may very well have been disappointed and even upset by the sonnets, likely because of the nature of the material. She posits that the contemporary author Ben Jonson, for one, may have found Shakespeare's narrator's devotion to a young man to be "morally compromising"; in turn, many readers may have found repugnant the fairly explicit, if colloquial, references to sexual activity in the "dark lady" sonnets. Thus, the verses may not have been publicly discussed simply for propriety's sake. One anonymous reader annotated the end of a copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets with the remark, "What a heap of wretched Infidel Stuff."

In fact, Shakespeare gained critical exposure when a pirated copy of the Sonnets was produced in 1640 by John Benson, who changed the pronouns in the references to the young man, such that the poems' addressee became a woman. Benson also reordered the sonnets and interspersed them with other works, but his publication was largely accepted as accurate for over a century. Regardless, critical opinions remained generally unfavorable; the sonnet itself became fairly unfashionable, and Shakespeare's sonnets in particular rarely garnered attention. In 1793, George Steevens displayed great disdain for the sonnets in excluding them from a copy of Shakespeare's collected plays and declaring that not even an act of Parliament could compel readers to find them favorable. Kenneth Muir notes that the renowned English poet William Wordsworth once offered a particularly negative view of the "dark lady" sonnets, calling them "abominably harsh, obscure and worthless" and describing them as characterized by "sameness, tediousness, quaintness, and elaborate obscurity."

Critical inattention or rejection continued through the nineteenth century, often on the grounds that Shakespeare was essentially promoting homosexuality. Muir notes that in 1839 the scholar Henry Hallam, making reference to the sonnets—and undoubtedly alluding to the narrator's devotion to the young man—declared, "There is a weakness and folly in all excessive and mis-placed affection, which is not redeemed by the touches of nobler sentiments that abound." Duncan-Jones points out that Oscar Wilde demonstrated particular interest in Shakespeare's sonnets, approvedly theorizing in The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889) that the "begetter" of Shakespeare's sonnets was the boy actor Willie Hughes. In that Wilde was later jailed for two years for homosexual acts, his affiliation with Shakespeare certainly did not soften attitudes toward the ambiguously erotic Sonnets. Duncan-Jones points out that critical attitudes finally, if slowly, grew more sympathetic and approving once the British Parliament made homosexual activity legal for consenting adults in 1967 (making Steevens's aforementioned comment somewhat ironic).

In general, modern commentators have managed to appreciate the poetry of Shakespeare's Sonnets irrespective of the supposed moral worth or biographical relevance of their contents. In distinguishing the appeal of Shakespeare's collection from that of other such sequences published during the same era, R. J. C. Wait asserts that some of Shakespeare's sonnets "are generally thought to be among the finest poetry in the English or any other language." Echoing that sentiment almost exactly, Stanley Wells remarks, "Shakespeare's sonnets include some of the greatest individual love poems in the English language." Wait also aptly verbalizes the notion that the sequence as a whole bears a certain unique historical value: "If some or all of its contents do indeed reflect personal experiences and emotions they represent practically the only personal statement which has been left to us by one of the greatest figures of the world's literature." Indeed, Shakespeare has somewhat tantalizingly left behind a collection of poetry that begs for interpretation in light of his personal life, even though any given line or word may have entirely fictional connotations. Wait concludes, "The immortality which their author claimed for the Sonnets, and about which the modern reader also holds no doubts, is due, not to any key which they may or may not contain to the secrets of Shakespeare's heart, but simply to their quality as poetry." Wells likewise focuses on the quality of the poetry itself, finding the challenging nature of the Sonnets to be especially redeeming. He notes that reading the verses in order is a difficult endeavor in that the final couplets limit the overall flow, no narrative sequence is provided, and the poet's mood changes so abruptly; further, the poet's emotions are at times quite dark, as characterized by disillusionment, self-abasement, and self-contempt. Wells admiringly concludes, "The single poem which is Shakespeare's Sonnets will never have the popularity of some of its parts, but, in its rapid shifts of mood, its intense exploration of the 'heaven' and the 'hell' of being in love, it is far greater than the sum of those parts."

Also perceiving a lack of autobiographical content in the Sonnets, Katharine M. Wilson contends that the sequence as a whole constitutes a grand parody of the sonnet tradition; in analyzing Shakespeare's approach from this angle, her appreciative critical stance is quite distinct from those of many of her fellow scholars. She writes, "As to method, Shakespeare gets fun out of such things as making play with the imagery or the situation, with exaggerating and mocking, with naive explanations or expressions of surprise that his experience is different, with translating sonnet situations into terms of reality and by treating them seriously showing how absurd they are." Wilson goes on to declare that the art of the sonnets is not diminished by their lack of gravity: "The parody has a sort of greatness, which I should say is sensed chiefly in its music. It mimics in a dance that has its own breadth, dignity and grace." She concludes that Shakespeare's sonnets "have the sound of great poetry" and "reveal a new aspect of his genius."

Overall, critical inquiry into the Sonnets is likely to continue indefinitely, given the many ambiguities surrounding Shakespeare's sequence. Critics may ever theorize with regard to the degree of autobiographical content; the identities of the young man and "dark lady"; the dates when the individual poems were written; the influence of contemporary authors on Shakespeare's creative imagination; and, of course, the meanings inherent in the poems themselves. Duncan-Jones notes that women were responsible for many of the most insightful readings of the late twentieth century; she conjectures that women may be generally better tuned to the "predominantly reflective, introspective subject matter" of the Sonnets while also perhaps being "able to remain at once calmly observant of, yet emotionally receptive to, the masculine homoerotic thrust of 1-126 that has caused such upset to generations of male readers."

In offering what he unabashedly frames as his own subjective reading of the Sonnets, David K. Weiser compares the multiplicity of meanings to be found therein with the countless combinations of moves that can be carried out in a game of chess. He writes, "Standard gambits and strategies do exist, but gifted players still devise endless variations…. There are 154 sonnets, most of them packed with enough complexity to inspire a dissertation. And there are infinite ways of combining them into meaningful patterns." Duncan-Jones echoes the thought that the Sonnets should be especially prized for their complexity, as possible "semantic readings," she asserts, "are, in truth, inexhaustible." She satisfactorily concludes, "Here, even more than in the rest of Shakespeare's work, it is open to each and every reader to arrive at an individual and original response. The notorious truism that no two people ever concur in interpreting Sonnets is not cause for despair, but for rejoicing."


Maurice Charney

In this concise appraisal of various issues associated with Shakespeare's sonnets, Charney pays particular attention to Shakespeare's development of the sonnet form and the effectiveness of his concluding couplets. Charney also discusses the motifs of time and mutability, the presence of both lyric and dramatic elements in the sequence, and the poet-speaker's reflections on his creative powers.

Thomas Thorpe published 154 Sonnets by Shakespeare followed by A Lover's Complaint (also said to be by Shakespeare) in 1609. Unlike the texts of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, the printed text has many obvious errors, and Shakespeare clearly did not proofread it or see it through the press. Although the Sonnets seem to have an authoritative manuscript behind them, they were certainly not published with Shakespeare's knowledge or permission. Sonnets usually circulated in handwritten "books" among one's private friends and acquaintances. It was not considered necessary or even desirable to publish them.

The great vogue of sonnet writing was in the 1590s, and we know from Sonnet 104 that three years had passed since the poet first saw his "fair friend," which makes it likely that the writing of the Sonnets occupied at least three years in the 1590s, probably the early 1590s. Some of the Sonnets may have been written in the early 1600s, but the bulk of them are associated with Shakespeare's ingenious, heavily conceited, and self-consciously rhetorical style of the early and mid-1590s. In 1598 Francis Meres mentions in Palladis Tamia Shakespeare's "sugred sonnets among his priuate friends," an obvious compliment to his elegant style, although we may have some doubts about sugred as a term of praise. In 1599 two Sonnets, 138 and 144, were printed in a slightly different form in The Passionate Pilgrim.

The Sonnets were dedicated to "Mr. W. H." as "the only begetter," but it is hard to know whether this is the poet's or the publisher's dedication. It is unlike the formal dedications of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to the Earl of Southampton, and it may be that Mr. W. H. is the only begetter in the sense that he made his manuscript copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets available to the publisher. There has been endless and mostly fruitless biographical speculation about the Sonnets, and even more elaborate autobiographical guessing about Shakespeare's own personal relation to the experience described in the Sonnets and to characters in the Sonnets such as the Friend, the Dark Lady, and the Rival Poet or Poets. There is no independent confirmation in other writing or records of the time of anything factual that is said in Shakespeare's Sonnets. We would expect, at the least, some outside confirmation of the Rival Poet's activities: his sonnets to the friend or to the lady, or some account of his love life. It is curious that in the elaborately punning Sonnets 135 and 136 it seems that Shakespeare, the Dark Lady's husband, and the Friend are all named Will. This is convenient because will is also a word for carnal appetite and lust.

We know nothing definite about the historical identity of the Dark Lady and the Friend. The Sonnets seem to be strongly homoerotic, but in terms of Petrarchan love conventions, the Platonic idea of friendship offers a much higher ideal than heterosexual love, as we can see plainly in the opening sequence between Leontes and Polixenes in The Winter's Tale or in the friendship of Palamon and Arcite (and Emilia and Flavina) in The Two Noble Kinsmen. Leontes' fiendish jealousy seems to be generated, like Original Sin, from sexuality itself, as Hermione his wife so keenly recognizes. Sexual love is represented repeatedly in the Sonnets as a source of grief and enslavement, nowhere more strongly than in Sonnet 129, "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame."

Sonnet 20 seems to lay out clearly the distinction between an ennobling love between two male friends and the potentially debasing sexual love between a man and a woman. The Friend has "A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted" and is "the master mistress of my passion." Nature first created him "for a woman," but then "fell a-doting, / And by addition me of thee defeated." Nature's "addition" seems to be clearly a penis, as we learn from the punning couplet close:

    But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,
    Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

There is a clear distinction between the noble "love" and the lesser "love's use," or intercourse. We learn later that the Dark Lady has seduced the Friend and engaged him in a sexual relationship (Sonnets 35, 40, 41, etc.). Sonnet 20 makes a sharp distinction between noble friendship and physical love. Sex is excluded from the relation with the Friend.

The Shakespearean or English sonnet is derived from the Earl of Surrey and has three quatrains (rhyming abab, cdcd, and efef) with a concluding couplet (gg) all in iambic pentameter. Most of the sonnets have fourteen lines, although there is one (Sonnet 99) of fifteen, with an introductory first line, and one of twelve (Sonnet 126), which has six couplets. There are vestiges of the Italian sonnet in Shakespeare, in which an octave is set against a sestet. The octave of two quatrains contrasts with the sestet, which consists of a quatrain and a couplet considered as a single unit. These are relatively uncommon in Shakespeare, although Sonnet 18 has the feeling of an Italian sonnet: it has three quatrains and a couplet, but the third quatrain has a different logical movement from the first two. The feeling of a distinct sestet is continued through the triumphant couplet:

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

This couplet provides an upbeat ending.

The most problematic feature of the Shakespearean sonnet is the couplet close, which is sometimes disappointing because it is so epigrammatic, so didactic, so much like a neat summary tacked on to a poem that doesn't need it. There are many feeble couplets, for example the one in Sonnet 37:

    Look what is best, that best I wish in thee.
    This wish I have, then ten times happy me!

This seems like mere filler for a sonnet that is clearly not one of the best, but is nevertheless complex, about a poet "made lame by Fortune's dearest spite," who shares in his friend's "abundance." This certainly doesn't indicate that the poet is literally "lame," and the couplet doesn't do justice to the poetic reasoning of the three previous quatrains.

The couplet works wonderfully well in Sonnet 73, and is generally successful when it has an element of dramatic surprise, like a punch line. In Sonnet 19 the couplet comes upon us as a sudden peripeteia to the irresistible powers of "Devouring Time":

    Yet do thy worst, old Time; despite thy wrong,
    My love shall in my verse ever live young.

This couplet introduces an alternative with its "Yet" and "despite" that comes upon us as a hidden truth. Sonnet 65 is similar. Against "sad mortality" and his "spoil of beauty" there is no protection, except for the miracle of poetry trumpeted in the couplet:

    O, none, unless this miracle have might,
    That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

The couplet form lends itself in the Sonnets (and in Shakespeare's plays, too, especially scene-ending couplets) to bold and emphatic statement. Sonnet 56 is not particularly memorable, but its couplet ending vibrates with promise and new possibility. The poem is an appeal to "Sweet love" to "renew thy force," presumably in a period of absence or neglect. The "Return of love" is connected syntactically with the couplet:

    Or call it winter, which being full of care,
    Makes summer's welcome thrice more wished, more rare.

A series of five accented syllables beginning with thrice in the last line is driven home with the unusual fourth-beat caesura, or mid-line pause, after wished. More rare soars in a way that redeems the entire poem.

Time is the most frequently repeated concept and image in the Sonnets. This is the pervasive Renaissance theme of mutability, and the poet presents various ways to defy Time. The first seventeen Sonnets constitute the most distinctive unit of the whole sequence, which is arranged more or less logically by similarity of theme. We don't, of course, know who devised the ordering of the Sonnets or what relation the sequence has to date of composition. The first seventeen sonnets all urge the young friend to marry and to reproduce his beauty in children. This is the familiar doctrine of use that is part of Venus's argument to Adonis in Venus and Adonis and that echoes the often-repeated parable of the talents in Matt. 25: 14-30. Man is the steward, not the owner, of his good qualities and possessions, and he is obligated to put his natural gifts to use for the benefit of others. If you are beautiful, you must make use of your beauty (as money accumulates "use" or interest) by having children on whom to bestow your god-given gifts.

The beginning of the first sonnet announces the immortality of beauty through propagation:

    From fairest creatures we desire increase,
    That thereby beauty's rose might never die.

You are not allowed to be in love with yourself and waste your substance in "niggarding," or hoarding, to be "contracted to thine own bright eyes" and feed "thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel." This is to make "a famine where abundance lies," that is, the potential abundance that comes from creating children to perpetuate one's beauty. Children are like "flowers distilled" (Sonnet 3), or perfume, that defies the tyranny of Time.

Another way to wage war against Time is to write verse, which confers a kind of immortality upon the Friend. This is a repeated theme in the Sonnets. Posterity and poetry both do battle against oblivion. Nature is a destroyer of beauty, but poetry is immutable and guarantees that "thy eternal summer shall not fade" (Sonnet 18). In Sonnet 65 there is a series of unanswerable questions about Time, one in each of the first two quatrains, and two in the third:

    O, fearful meditation, where, alack,
    Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?

Presumably, "Time's best jewel" is the beautiful Friend, whom the Poet is trying to conceal from the ravaging hand of Time, who threatens to seize him and put him in his chest. How can "beauty hold a plea" against the rage of Time? The only solution to this "fearful meditation" is the miracle of poetry: "That in black ink my love may still shine bright." The immanence and immortality of poetry are postulated as a defense against the ravages of Time.

Two sonnets dwell specifically on music, 8 and 128, but the musicality of the Sonnets as a group is striking. The slow, sad lyrical effects are the most impressive, and they lend themselves to being set to music (as many sonnets have been). Sonnet 30 is best remembered as supplying C. K. Scott Moncrieff with the English title for Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. It is artful in its heavy use of alliteration and its legal / commercial imagery. In the first quatrain, "remembrance of things past" is summoned to appear at the "sessions of sweet silent thought," in which the poet presumably sits in judgment on the events of his own life. The predominance of s-sounds in the opening line immediately establishes a mood of reverie and meditation—the sibilants are associated with sleep, as in the colloquial expression a few z's, meaning a short nap. "My dear Time's waste" continues the most repeated theme in the Sonnets of Time the Destroyer. The memorializing of the second quatrain presents a mournful threnody for "precious friends hid in death's dateless night," "love's long since canceled woe," and "th' expense of many a vanished sight."

The sonnet is an elegy to death, the expiration of love, and the gradual disappearance of all that is lovely and beautiful. There is a sense in the third quatrain that "grievances foregone" can never be forgotten and that "The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan" must be paid anew as if it had never been paid before. The music of the three quatrains is an almost perfect elegy for "remembrance of things past," but the couplet is jarring and facile:

    But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
    All losses are restored and sorrows end.

It is as if a mere thought of the "dear friend" is enough to cancel the previous three quatrains. This is one of the most disturbing and inappropriate couplets in the Sonnets. We are soon to learn of many negative and unfavorable aspects of the "dear friend."

Sonnet 73 is similar to Sonnet 30 in its elegiac tone and in its meditation on man's mortality. It does not use such deliberate alliteration, but its prominent caesuras, or midline pauses, slow the rhythm down, especially in the three caesuras of line 2:

    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold …

The numerous accented syllables in the fourth line also slow down the movement of the poem practically to a funeral dirge: "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." "Bare ruined choirs" and "sweet birds sang" are all heavily accented without any intervening unaccented syllables. The autumn of the first quatrain is matched by twilight in the second, with black night and sleep, which is described as "Death's second self." In the third quatrain, the embers of the fires of youth match autumn and twilight as images of death. The fire consumes "that which it was nourished by." In this sonnet, the couplet is a perfect conclusion to the somber mood and adagio movement of the first three quatrains:

    This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Love is intimately connected with death, and the idea of mutability and mortality should serve to make love more intense.

The Sonnets are obviously related to the plays, but generically there are important differences between lyric and dramatic expression. The wooing sonnet in Romeo and Juliet (1.5.95ff.), for example, is a playful and witty part of the early courtship of Romeo and Juliet—they answer each other—but it would be inappropriate later in the play. If we consider specific sonnets in relation to plays, it is clear that Sonnet 66 looks ahead to Hamlet in its account of "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (3.1.58), especially in the third quatrain:

    And art made tongue-tied by authority,
    And folly (doctorlike) controlling skill,
    And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
    And captive good attending captain ill.
    Hamlet's "sea of troubles" includes
    the whips and scorns of time,
    Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
    The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
    The insolence of office, and the spurns
    That patient merit of th' unworthy takes …
    (Hamlet 3.1.70-74)

Despite verbal similarities in the catalogues of ills, in Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech they are part of an intolerable strain that includes the possibility of suicide. In Sonnet 66 the cry for "restful death" is rejected in the couplet close because it would isolate the poet from his love. The sonnet itself is a self-contained logical unit that ends by rejecting the possibilities of the first three quatrains. It has no relation to a highly characterized speaker or to a specific point in the dramatic action.

Even if radical differences exist between the Sonnets and the plays, the best sonnets still use dramatic devices that are similar to those in the plays. The sonnets that are most appealing seem to be those that explore a strong sense of turmoil and perturbation and that consequently offer poignant, often negative, characterizations. Sonnet 94 is powerfully dramatic—not theatrical in the sense of any imagined scenes—in its characterization of the Friend as cold, disdainful, and unattached. Despite all the earlier sonnets on the doctrine of use and the insistence on man's stewardship rather than absolute possession of his beauty, in the octave the Friend ironically claims to be one of those who are "the lords and owners of their faces" rather than "stewards of their excellence." He is "Unmovèd, cold" and husbands "nature's riches from expense." The opening line, "They that have pow'r to hurt and will do none," is so frightening because the powerful Friend is affectless, lacedemonian, and uninvolved. Therefore his beauty is like a flower that suffers "base infection," and that is why, finally, "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds." The lily pretends to be a nobler flower than a weed, and hence its possibilities of corruption are more extreme. The Friend is characterized in this and many of the surrounding sonnets as incapable of real love.

A comparably dramatic sonnet is 129 about the Dark Lady, who appears in Sonnets 127-52. She is much more specifically sexual than any of Shakespeare's dramatic heroines, including Cleopatra and Cressida, and she seems to enslave the Poet (and his Friend, too) in an irresistible but shameful intensity of lust, such as Tarquin's self-defeating lust in The Rape of Lucrece. Sonnet 129 is not directly about the Dark Lady, but about her demonic effect on the Poet, who doesn't know how "To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell." Active lust involves "Th' expense of spirit," or the expenditure of seminal fluid, "in a waste of shame," which may pun on waste and waist. Until ejaculation, male lust follows the pattern of Tarquin, who seems to be arguing with another self that he doesn't recognize: lust "Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust." The spondaic thrust of the last line carries some of the metrical and phonetic harshness of the meaning. Lust is deceptive and self-defeating: "Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight" and "A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe." The stark alternatives make this a very dramatic sonnet, as if lust is entirely outside a man's power to control. The Dark Lady is therefore both the heaven and the hell of the Poet.

The personal anguish of Sonnet 129 is displaced in the witty, mannered, sexual puns of Sonnet 151, "Love is too young to know what conscience is." It is as if the Poet has finally mastered the "sensual fault" (Sonnet 35) and "Lascivious grace" (Sonnet 40) of earlier poems, and he can proceed to the "sensual feast" (Sonnet 141) without any trepidations or pricks of conscience. The Poet willingly betrays his soul to his "gross body's treason," and "flesh" (specifically the penis) doesn't wait for any further excuses, "But, rising at thy name, doth point out thee, / As his triumphant prize." The double entendres on erection—reason, rising, pride, stand, and rise and fall—resemble Shakespeare's early comedies. Lust is no longer an excruciating torment, but rather an entertainment. The couplet cadence is playful:

    No want of conscience hold it that I call
    Her "love" for whose dear love I rise and fall.

This is a good example of a couplet that really concludes the three preceding quatrains and seems to answer the opening proposition of the sonnet. I am not offering the ingenious Sonnet 151 as an example of one of Shakespeare's best sonnets, but it does provide a contrast to the ferocious energy and reckless mood of Sonnet 129.

The wittiest sonnet is undoubtedly 130, which is endlessly quoted although it is not at all characteristic of Shakespeare's entire sequence. It stands out because it satirizes the very Petrarchan conventions upon which Shakespeare so firmly depends. Specifically, it ridicules the accepted clichés of a woman's beauty that were made so much fun of in Love's Labor's Lost and Shakespeare's early comedies. The Dark Lady, by definition, doesn't fulfill the Nordic criteria of beauty established in the 1590s: exceptionally white skin, brightly rosy cheeks, and brilliantly blonde hair, which standards were met more vividly by cosmetics than by nature. As Hamlet complains to Ophelia: "I have heard of your paintings, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another" (Hamlet 3. 1. 143-45). The Dark Lady, then, has eyes that "are nothing like the sun," presumably in clarity and brilliance. She lacks the classic war between the white and the red in her cheeks:

    I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks.

Her lips are not as red as coral nor her breasts white as snow. They are, in fact, "dun" colored, or dark and swarthy, like Cleopatra's, another Dark Lady, who shows a "tawny front" (Antony and Cleopatra 1.1.6) and is sunburned, "with Phoebus' amorous pinches black" (1.5.28). The Dark Lady is a practical and seemingly unromantic figure: her breath "reeks," her speaking voice is not very musical, and "when she walks" she is unlike a goddess because she "treads on the ground."

The couplet conclusion, however, is in an entirely different and unexpected tone:

    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

The soaring assertion and affirmation in the couplet is out of keeping with Sonnet 129, "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame," that immediately precedes it. This should give us pause about making exact autobiographical claims for Shakespeare's Sonnets. We don't know who arranged the poems in their present order—perhaps it was the printer, or perhaps he was only following the sequence of his manuscript—but there are some striking inconsistencies of tone and mood. The Dark Lady is hardly the same figure in Sonnets 129 and 130, nor do her sexual attractions seem to match in Sonnets 129 and 151.

We are struck by Shakespeare's skepticism about his own powers as a poet and a dramatist. He is excessively deferential to the Rival Poet or Poets, who are also writing sonnets to the Friend and the Dark Lady. His "poor rude lines" (Sonnet 32) are "exceeded by the height of happier men"—"happier" in the sense of more gifted. The "proud full sail" of the Rival Poet's "great verse" has "struck me dead" and swallowed up "my ripe thoughts in my brain," as if their womb became their tomb (Sonnet 86). This undercuts in some important way the power of the Poet to confer immortality on the love object through his poetry.

Shakespeare feels himself unable to cope with the newer and more refined style of such poets as John Donne and the Metaphysicals, who wrote what the Elizabethans called "strong lines." In Sonnet 76, Shakespeare complains that his verse is "barren of new pride," "far from variation or quick change," but "still all one, ever the same." He cannot seize the moment and use "new-found methods" and "compounds strange." The explanation is rather facile: "I always write of you," "So all my best is dressing old words new." We feel that the Poet is dissatisfied with the fact that "every word doth almost tell my name," but he doesn't know how to shift into a more innovative style.

The Poet expresses even stronger dissatisfaction with his public career as a playwright and actor, in which he feels trapped. In a striking image from daily life:

    And almost thence my nature is subdued
    To what it works in, like the dyer's hand.
(Sonnet 111)

Like Macbeth's, the dyer's hand is "incarnadine" (Macbeth 2.2.61), and "all great Neptune's ocean" (59) cannot change its color. Shakespeare is engaged in a profession to please the public, and "public means" breed "public manners." From this obvious cause comes the fact that "my name receives a brand." In the previous sonnet (110), Shakespeare apologizes to the Friend that he has made himself "a motley," or clown dressed in a motley, parti-colored costume, "to the view," and "Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear." In other words, he has betrayed his innermost thoughts to the public scrutiny of the theatrical public. I am not assuming that this is an autobiographical statement of utmost sincerity, but merely that it is an essential part of the fictional persona (and personas) created in the Sonnets. If Shakespeare is the most unrevealing and paradoxical English Renaissance author in his plays, there is no convincing reason to believe that he bares his heart in the Sonnets. The very directness of the revelations should put us on our guard.

It is unfortunate that Shakespeare's Sonnets have attracted a mass of biographical speculation different from that expended on the plays. Some of the same questions haunt all of Shakespeare's works, both dramatic and nondramatic: the ambiguous nature of art, revealing and concealing at the same time; the tendency to dramatize experience, as if "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players" (As You Like It 2.7.138-39); and, most comprehensively, the fictionalizing of human experience on the assumption that we enact and represent a reality that we create in our minds from our own histrionic imagination. The Sonnets share these qualities with Shakespeare's other works, especially those of the earlier 1590s. They can't be dealt with autonomously as if they were written by a poet separate from the man who wrote the plays.

Source: Maurice Charney, "The Sonnets," in All of Shakespeare, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 388-99.

Stephen Spender

Spender—the distinguished English poet and critic—suggests that the young man of the sonnets possesses a double or divided nature. Sometimes the friend's mind and heart appear to be as beautiful as his outward form, but on other occasions he is cold, selfish, arrogant, and dissolute. The poet reacts to this basic disparity in various ways, Spender observes, ranging from objectivity and irony to bitterness and despair. Spender also discusses what he sees as the friend's narcissism. He suggests that the poet's determination to preserve the young man's beauty in his verses reveals that he endows it with the same inestimable value as does the young man himself.

Clearing our minds of preconceptions, if we read the sonnets simply accepting what they tell us about [the young man], what impression would we get? The first thing that would strike us is, I think, that he has opposite characteristics. He is divided between his ideal nature, corresponding to his outward beauty, and his actual behavior, which is shown to be cold, self-seeking, proud, and corrupt.

On the one hand the poet reiterates the theme of "kind and true" and "For nothing this wide universe I call, / Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all" (109). On the other hand the rose is cankered (95):

    How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
    Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
    Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!

On the one hand the young man is pure essence; on the other hand he is essence tainted at the source.

Shakespeare was, of course, addressing the sonnets to the friend. He was not making a word portrait of him, and we attempt to deduce his character from things written to him, about him. What we see are two things, characteristics which the poet doubtless found present in the real young man, but which are so idealized that it is difficult to form a realistic picture from them: and, opposite to this, references to the friend's lasciviousness, sensual faults, coldness, falsity, and his ill reputation, a kind of counter-image held up before his eyes as a terrible example. One cannot but be reminded of the scene in which Hamlet holds up before his mother's eyes "the counterfeit presentment of two brothers," one with "a station like the herald Mercury," the other "like a mildew'd ear."

From reading the sonnets and making my own deductions—which may be very different from those of other readers—the picture I have is of a person who produced in the minds of others the double impression of the self-fixated. The doubleness in such people consists essentially in their being loved, but being unable to love back in return, through the cold self-sufficiency and self-attachment which is the result of their very beauty. They like to be loved partly because being loved is reflected self-admiration, but partly also because they would themselves perhaps like to love and think that through being loved they may learn to do so. The combination of beauty, coldness, and desire to learn to love, gives them a kind of purity. But in their behavior they may be corrupt because they accept, with involuntary indifference, whatever love they get, though they retain the air of perpetual seeking. What they are genuinely seeking is those qualities which they lack. When such a person is loved by an artist, he has the attraction of being an empty vessel, a blank page into which the admirer can read his own ideal.

[Bernard] Shaw points out that however much Shakespeare may have suffered on account of the dark lady, it is wrong to regard him as a victim. She can hardly have been happy reading about herself in 127, 130, and 138. The same holds good for the young man, whose behavior the sonnets analyze and excoriate. From the internal evidence of the sonnets he sometimes tried to answer accusation with counter-accusation. In 120 the poet admits in lines close to doggerel:

    For if you were by my unkindness shaken
    As I by yours, you've pass'd a hell of time,
    And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
    To weigh how once I suffer'd in your crime.

There are critics who idealize the young man and others who abhor him. But the poet's attitude to the friend is hardly discussed; and there is surely an element of unfairness in putting pressure on him to be something that he is not, and of then turning on him because he has failed to be the ideal. The poet seems often as much in love with the picture in his mind of the arranged relationship of complete mutuality as with the young man, who has to fit into this picture.

Yet so long as the poet continued to write sonnets I think that he must have believed in some ultimate quality of pure being which resided in the young man, under the misbehavior and the falsity. Even after bitter disillusionment he reverts to the purity of the original concept; in 105, for example:

    Kind is my love to-day, to-morrow kind,
    Still constant in a wondrous excellence.

So the sonnets express the conflict between idealization of the young man as the living equal of the poet's imaginings, and the realization that he is different from this. Sometimes the difference is analyzed as betrayal, sometimes the poet endeavors to find a basis on which he can accept it and yet retain the relationship. Sonnet 36 is an extreme example of acceptance of difference, in which he admits that their ways must be separate: "Let me confess that we two must be twain" and yet their "undivided loves are one." He invents metaphors for the relationship which suggest a rethinking of what it really is or must be. In 37, it is of father and son, and, indeed, where the young man fails, it tends to shift from the pattern of mutuality to that of a son whose errors are seen and suffered and forgiven by a loving father. In 33, contemplating the withdrawal of the "sun" into the "region cloud," the poet resumes the pun in the couplet with:

    Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
    Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth.

In 93, desperation drives the poet to the metaphor of a "deceived husband"; and frequently he is a slave who tends upon, and waits for, his lord.

Whether one thinks, as I do, that Shakespeare continued, in spite of everything, to love and (like a forgiving father) believe in the young man, or that the disillusionment of realization led to his regarding him only (or with very little qualification of charitable feeling) as a subject for irony, affects one's interpretation of the very important 94, "They that have power to hurt and will do none."

After a very close analysis, William Empson concludes (in Some Versions of Pastoral) that this sonnet expresses almost total contempt for the friend. The contempt is qualified only by the poet discovering, through his pretending to praise what he does not admire, "a way of praising W.H. in spite of everything."

It is not possible here to argue my way through Empson's close analysis, for which I have great respect. My disagreement with him is not in disputing his interpretation of references and complexities of meaning in particular phrases, but because I think that, through the irony and the realization, there seems to me a note of exhortation which still clings to belief, and which arises from a love that endures. In a word, I would say the sonnet found "a way of loving in spite of everything," rather than, or as well as, a way of praising. The love is cruel, but praise would be nothing except cruel and contradictory, since it means praising what the poet did not regard as praiseworthy. If it is praise, the sonnet is, as Empson notes, an "evasion." But if it is love, it is more in the nature of a desperate warning.

My argument is clear if I say that the two last lines of the previous sonnet (93), "How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow, / If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!" are more exhortatory than condemnatory. The poet still clings to the hope that even if while the young man's face shows nothing but sweet love ("… heaven in thy creation did decree / That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell") his heart (unlike others whose false hearts show in the "wrinkles strange" of their faces) may be false—that even so, he can, by an effort of willing truth, make inner being conform to the outward appearance of love. The kind of exertion required is not of making a lie true, but of making what is true, which has for some perverse reason become falsified, revert to its real nature, become true again. It is an argument based on love which appeals to the imagination to realize in action the truth which exists. It is a creative attitude different from a modern irony, though of course it uses irony. In fact it is very much the type of argument which Hamlet uses to his mother when, showing her the pictures of her two husbands, he appeals to her to use her eyes (her inner eyes) in order to make a choice which is imposed on her simply by her seeing which is false and which is true.

Condensing the argument of 94, the desperate appeal, based on a cool appreciation of the young man's nature, seems to me of this kind: "If you are cold and self-centered as I have now come to realize you are, then you may perhaps participate in the power, justice, and virtue of those who are detached from passion, but who nevertheless control the lives of others; but to be like them, you must have the virtue of coldness which is chastity. You are, after all, more like the funereal lily than the generous rose; but remember that when the cold are false, their corruption is far more evil than that of the warm." The thought is perhaps that the warm, being essentially more alive (and not like stone) go on being capable of self-renewal and repentance.

This is very much the attitude that a father, himself believing in the personal values of human relations and love and imagination, might feel toward a much-loved son, whom he discovered to be of a cold nature, but possessed of beauty and power to entrap others. The father does not cease to love his son, but begins to realize that his moral character will be ruined, unless he match his power with scrupulousness, his coldness with chastity. Otherwise the corruption of his personality will be worse than that of a person who is lascivious but warm-hearted, and because warm-hearted, capable of contrition and change.

The sonnet expresses, of course, a change of attitude, coming—as 93 and 95, the sonnets on each side of it, show—from a shock of realization of the deep corruption of the young man.

That the powerful are praised has surprised many readers. Previously, although a world of power has been taken for granted, it has not been discussed; it has remained the background to personal relations. But suddenly the poet expresses his admiration for the cold and powerful. If one remembers once again that the sonnets are one side of a dialogue, this is not so surprising. Number 94 was written perhaps during a phase when the poet was most critical of the friend's character. Surely, the friend may have said to the poet: "The truth is that your sorts of people are not mine. The people I admire are the great and powerful, and I want to belong to them." In this case the sonnet may be seen as taking up the theme, accepting, with whatever undertones of bitterness and despair, that the friend might belong to this other world, but using the acceptance as another way of hammering in the lesson of pure being.

Although 94 expresses such a shift from personal to public values, from the imagination to the world of power, the thematic material introduced in the sestet, which indicates the presence of the young man, remains the same as in earlier sonnets.

In fact the poem takes the form of a general statement about the virtues of the great and powerful, in the octave and then, in the sestet, applies this to the young man.

The octave is, as it were, a different voice, not quite that of the poet, but to which the poet assents, indeed lends his gift, stating a case in the strongest and most favorable terms.

The case is that those who are great and powerful and who, although they might do so, do not use their power to cause others pain—those who, while making others act, remain immovable themselves, and are untempted, incorruptible—merit their position. There is a feeling of rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. There is irony, but there is also assent. Angelo, in Measure for Measure, is admired so long as he remains cold and powerful. It is when he becomes lascivious and corrupt that he appears far worse than the carnal sinners on whom he sits in judgment.

In the first line of the sestet the young man appears in a guise with which we have been made familiar very early on, in fact in the first sonnet, where we read of the young man, "… thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes, / Feeds't thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel." Here he is the summer's flower, "to the summer sweet, / Though to itself it only live and die." The position is restated. In the first sonnet the self-sufficient lovely boy is asked to marry. Later he is asked to love the friend. Now he is being warned that perhaps he would do well to model himself on the coldly powerful, since he is himself cold. But if he does so, let him remain like them, solitary, chaste. If he does not do so, the lily (which he has chosen to become rather than the rose to which he has previously been compared) will, festering, "smell far worse than weeds."

Doubtless there is irony here, and bitterness, but what seems to me the strongest feeling is a despairing acceptance of the young man's coldness combined with an equally despairing warning.

The first seventeen sonnets are usually … regarded as being outside the main series. They are so, but they are also a kind of prelude, and throw light on the character of the friend.

Here, when the poet is exhorting the friend to marry, he also makes very apparent the reasons why he should not do so. They are that he is concentrated on, almost married to, his own image. The arguments used to persuade him to marry are that a son would provide, as it were, a mirror projecting the image of that beauty which culminates in his face now, into the future (13):

    O, that you were yourself! but, love, you are
    No longer yours than you yourself here live.

So while the friend is warned of the dangers of "having traffic with thyself alone," the poet nevertheless shares with him the view that he is the paragon. The poet puts himself at the young man's side fighting for the cause which is that a means should be found to perpetuate his beauty exactly as it now is. The poet offers two means of achieving this result. One is fathering a child, and the other, which plays an even more persistent part in the sequence, is the poetry. Sonnet 17 unites these two themes in the culminating couplet:

    But were some child of yours alive that time,
    You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.

So that while the poet dutifully uses the poetry to urge the friend to marriage, his verse itself is advertized as a means of achieving the same result as a son might do. In a manner of speaking, both child and poetry are mirrors of the young man's own face.

The modern reader may well be tempted to condemn the obvious narcissism of the friend, which Shakespeare exploits so much as argument. But it should be noted that Shakespeare does not appear to condemn it, though he may, later, deplore its callous effects. But he is in complete agreement with the friend as to his beauty, as though it is a value which both share, the young man having his face, and the poet having his poetry, which he identifies with the lovely boy. The poet has an attitude towards the young man's beauty which seems exactly the same as that of the young man himself. Both regard it as a unique value which must by every means possible be preserved.

The young man's narcissism—which, versed in modern psychology, we are apt to condemn—may indeed have been precious to the poet. For it is very difficult in the world of the sonnets to draw a line between the young man's self-regard—which the poet supports—and the claims that the poet makes for his immortal verse. To us, the readers, they may seem very different, but given the extraordinary aesthetic cult of the young man's external appearance, which is central to the sonnets, they may seem the same thing. Again and again the argument is put forward that the poetry is the immortalization of the young man's beauty. The boy's beauty has the inestimable virtue of being life. The virtue of the poetry is as a perpetuating mirror which freezes on its bright surface the fleeting image which will die. The attraction of the young man is that of all life, made incarnate in an incomparable beauty of form.

Narcissus fell in love with himself, but the water in which he gazed at his reflection surely also fell in love with his image. The mirror is in love with the mirrored because it becomes the gazer—that which the gazer never succeeds in doing himself. The poet through his poetry can retain the beauty which the friend himself is bound to lose. Moreover, the poet is changed into the beauty of the youth by virtue of retaining that image in his heart (22):

    My glass shall not persuade me I am old,
    So long as youth and thou are of one date …

Most critics are puzzled by the insistence of the poet on the contrast between his "chopped antiquity" and the young man's beauty and youth. Nothing is really less surprising. For a relationship which is based on the idea of identity is inevitably upset by dissonances. So the great and perhaps excessive insistence on the immortality of the poetry in these poems is a claim made not for the poet but for the friend. It is he who is going to survive in these lines, we are told through many variations (63):

    His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
    And they shall live, and he in them still green.

So the poet was occupied in giving back, by the means of his poetry, the image of the friend to himself. To us this bargain seems unequal, because all we have of the young man is the written words, which are Shakespeare's self. We should remember, though, that for the poet, the matter was different. He was taking life in its miraculous complexity and giving back words. The fact that the words are so marvelous is due (or may have seemed to him due) to the fact that the living reality was of such extraordinary value. Occasionally, for example, in 53, we experience the impact of million-faceted flesh, worshipped as the moment of beauty never matched in all past time:

    What is your substance, whereof are you made,
    That millions of strange shadows on you tend?

The mirror image constantly occurs in the sonnets. There is also implicitly the idea of two mirrors reflecting one another with rays that reach into infinity. When the "lovely boy" looks into the friend's poetry, he sees not only his own image, but that the physical presence of the poet has been changed into that beauty.

Perhaps the significance of the narcissism of the friend may be that if the narcissist has a character that requires a mirror, the artist also requires a mirror of life in which to see his art. As Hoelderlin observed in Socrates and Alcibiades, "often in the end the wise pay homage to the most beautiful." The world of art or thought which fills the mind of genius is essentially lonely. He finds it least of all reflected in the minds of other artists, and the public. He seeks it therefore in the beautiful, particularly among those in whom nature seems to have flowered spontaneously without the interruption of too-much intellectual process. The narcissist, in his self-cultivation (Montherlant describes the poet as one who gives himself up to "noble self-cultivation") may appear to have an affinity with the artist. The narcissist might be described as a living poem going in search of a poet.

At the same time, the discovery that the narcissist is vulgar, that his self-absorption and isolation do not prevent his belonging to the "region cloud," that he will look in any broken fragment of glass to see the same reflection of himself, is inevitable. But there was a time in the sonnets when the young man's beauty seemed of the season which is fresh in nature and which was also incomparably fresh in Shakespeare's poetry.

The failure was that of the poet to discover his own inner being mirrored—as it should have been—in the young man's external beauty, and leading there to the love in which they shared their being. The poetry is a plea to him to be true to his own appearance, and in doing this, true to the poet's imagination.

Source: Stephen Spender, "The Alike and the Other," in The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets, Basic Books, 1962, pp. 91-128.

Winifred T. Nowottny

Nowottny examines in detail the relation between diction, syntax, and imagery in the first six sonnets of Shakespeare's sequence. Particularly in Sonnets 5 and 6 she finds a carefully crafted organization of formal elements that enhances the development of the principal motifs in this group: beauty as a physical attribute and beauty as a treasure or inheritance that must be accounted for. Nowottony maintains that this harmony of ideas and style is sustained throughout the collection.

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Source: Winifred T. Nowottny, "Formal Elements in Shakespeare's Sonnets: Sonnets I-VI," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. II, No. 1, January, 1952, pp. 76-84.


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In a work well respected by scholars, Bell examines the courtly poetry of Elizabethan England from the perspective of women, discussing their responses to poetic suitors and their own poetic works.

Sidney, Philip, Sir Philip Sidney: The Major Works, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Duncan-Jones, who edited the third Arden edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, presents the most important works by a man who was not only a contemporary of Shakespeare's but also the uncle of William Herbert, who may have been the renowned young man of the Sonnets.

Smith, Bruce R., Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics, University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Smith offers what is widely viewed as the most comprehensive analysis of the homoerotic content of English Renaissance poetry, with substantial discussion of Shakespeare's sonnets.

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Focusing partly on its Italian origins but mostly on its evolution in England, Spiller offers an excellent introductory examination of many aspects of the poetic form of the sonnet.

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