Although William Shakespeare’s sonnets are generally considered to be among the most beautiful and most powerful poems in English literature, the attention of readers and scholars has more often centered on their possible biographical significance than on the literary qualities that give them their greatness. So little is known of the inner life of the poet, so little that helps to explain his genius, that it is not surprising to find critics minutely examining these lyrics that seem to reveal something of Shakespeare the man.
The sonnet sequence was one of the most popular poetic forms in the early 1590’s; modeled originally on works by Dante Alighieri and Petrarch, the genre developed in sixteenth century France and Italy and quickly reached England. Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), written a few years before the poet’s death in 1586, is a demonstration of how quickly the sonnet cycle achieved excellence in English. Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, and many other well-known Elizabethan men of letters followed Sidney’s example, paying tribute to the idealized ladies who inspired their almost religious devotion.
Shakespeare’s poems, probably composed at intervals during the decade between 1590 and 1600, differ radically from the sonnets of his contemporaries in several ways. They are not based on the traditional Petrarchan theme of a proud, virtuous lady and an abject, scorned lover, and there is in them relatively little of the platonic idealism that fills such works as Spenser’s Amoretti (1595), in which the poet’s love for his lady lifts him above human weakness to contemplation of the divine. Shakespeare records a strangely ambiguous, tortured affection for a young nobleman; the emotions he expresses in his sonnets have a depth and complexity, an intensity, that can be encountered elsewhere only in the speeches of some of his greatest dramatic creations.
The narrative of Shakespeare’s sequence is exceedingly sketchy. Scholars have, in fact, rearranged the poems many times in an attempt to produce a more coherent “plot” than appeared in the volume published, without the author’s supervision, in 1609. It seems likely that the work as it now stands contains at least a few poems that were written as independent pieces, sonnets on popular Renaissance themes that have no real bearing on the subject of the sequence itself.
Three shadowy figures move through the reflections of the poet as he speaks in his sonnets. The most important is the “fair youth,” the young nobleman. The fervor of the language with which Shakespeare speaks of his feelings for the youth has led to considerable discussion of the precise nature of the relationship. It must be remembered that the Renaissance regarded the friendship of man and man as the highest form of human affection, for within this relationship there could be complete spiritual and intellectual communication, unmarred by erotic entanglements.
The nobleman is initially idealized in much the same way that most poets envision their ladies, as the embodiment of beauty and virtue. Unlike the typical lady of more conventional sonnets, however, he proves to be false and deceptive, shifting his attention to a rival poet, whose identity has been the subject of much speculation. The sequence records the narrator-poet’s despair at this betrayal and at the nobleman’s affair with the “dark lady,” the poet’s mistress, who is, in a sense, his evil genius. It is not the loss of the lady he regrets, for he knows her character all too well, but that his friend has yielded to her corruption. Throughout the sonnets the reader feels the poet’s agonized sense that there is nothing lastingly beautiful or virtuous.
While it is customary to speak of the “I” of the sonnets as Shakespeare, it is dangerously misleading to overlook the possibility that these poems are dramatic, that “I” is as vividly conceived a creature of Shakespeare’s mind as Hamlet, and that the poet is projecting himself into an imagined situation rather than describing a personal experience. Whether the speaker of the sonnets is Shakespeare or not, it does not alter the essential value of the poems themselves.
The greatness of the sonnets lies in their intellectual and emotional power, in Shakespeare’s ability to find exactly the right images to convey a particular idea or feeling and in his magnificent gift for shaping the diction and rhythms of ordinary human speech into expressions of the subtlest and deepest human perceptions. He also developed his own sonnet form, the Shakespearean sonnet form, with which Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard Surrey experimented earlier in the century. Almost all of Shakespeare’s sonnets are divided into three quatrains, each with alternately rhyming lines, followed by a concluding couplet. This form is technically less complex than the Italian pattern, in which the first eight lines are built around two rhymes, rather than four. The technical requirements of the two forms determine to a degree their organization. The Italian sonnet generally breaks down into two sections, with the statement of a problem in the octave and its solution in the sestet, while the form used by Shakespeare lends itself to a tripartite exposition followed by a brief conclusion in the couplet. Shakespeare was, however, capable of varying his development of his subject in many different ways; a thought may run through twelve lines with a surprise conclusion or shift of emphasis in the couplet; it may break into the eight-line, six-line division of the Italian sonnet; or it may follow one of many other patterns.
The organization of the sequence seems somewhat haphazard. Within it are several groups of poems that clearly belong together, but they do not form an entirely satisfying narrative. Shakespeare uses his half-untold story as a basis for poems upon many familiar Renaissance themes: love, time, mutability, the conflict of body and soul, passion and reason. The first eighteen poems, all addressed to the nobleman, are variations on the theme of the transience of youth and beauty and the need for the youth to marry and beget children in order to preserve his virtues of face and mind in them. Shakespeare draws upon nature for images to convey his sense of the destruction that awaits all beauty, referring to “the violet past prime,” “winter’s ragged hand,” “summer’s green all girded up in sheaves.” Youth becomes more precious and the preservation of beauty more important still when the poet considers that “everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment.”
Shakespeare’s sense of the ravages of time leads him to a second important theme: Poetry, as well as heirs, can confer immortality. Sonnet 18 is one of the most beautiful and clearest expressions of this idea:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?Thou are more lovely and more temperate:Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;And every fair from fair sometime declines,By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d:But thy eternal summer shall not fadeNor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The same idea forms the basis for another well-known sonnet, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments of princes,” in which Shakespeare affirms the power of his verse to withstand the assaults of war, fire, and death. The sonnets making up the middle of the sequence deal with many aspects of the poet’s feeling for the nobleman. Their tone is almost universally melancholy; the haunting language and clear visual images of Sonnet 73 make it perhaps the finest expression of this dominant mood:
That time of year thou mayst in me beholdWhen yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hangUpon those boughs which shake against the cold,Bare [ruin’d] choirs where late the sweet birds sang.In me thou see’st the twilight of such dayAs after sunset fadeth in the west,Which by and by black night doth take away,Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.In me thou see’st the glowing of such fireThat on the ashes of his youth doth lie,As the death-bed whereon it must expire,Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
The speaker pictures himself as a man aging, unworthy, despairing. Initially his friendship with the young nobleman provides his one comfort against the frustrations of his worldly state. At those moments, as in Sonnet 29, when he is most wretched,
Haply I think on thee; and then my state,Like to the lark at break of day arisingFrom sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth bringsThat then I scorn to change my state with kings.
A brilliantly conceived image, in Sonnet 33, communicates the impact of the poet’s loss of confidence in the youth when the youth turns to the rival poet.
Full many a glorious morning have I seenFlatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,Kissing with golden face the meadows green,Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;Anon permit the basest clouds to rideWith ugly rack on his celestial face,And from the forlorn world his visage hide,Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my son one early morn did shineWith all triumphant splendour on my brow;But out, alack! he was but one hour mine,The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
Many of the poems show the poet’s attempts to accept the faithlessness, the fall from virtue, of the youth. While his betrayal cannot destroy the poet’s affection (“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds”), it represents the decay of all good, leaving the speaker filled with despair.
There are, toward the end of the sequence, approximately thirty poems addressed to or speaking of the “dark lady.” The lighter of these lyrics are witty commentaries on her brunette beauty—in the sonnet tradition, the lady is fair: “Thine eyes I love, and they as pitying me,/ Knowing thy heart torment me with disdain,/ Have put on black, and loving mourners be,/ Looking with pretty ruth upon my pain.”
The overworked Petrarchan metaphors about the charms of the sonneteer’s mistress are parodied in another well-known poem.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
Surrounding these relatively happy pieces are verses revealing the pain and conflict in the relationship between the poet and the lady. He knows that his feeling for her is primarily lustful and destructive; yet, as he says in Sonnet 129, he cannot free himself from her: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/ To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”
Irony pervades the sonnets in which Shakespeare declares his full knowledge of her vices and her deceptions both of her husband and of him: “When my love swears that she is made of truth,/ I do believe her, though I know she lies.” The poet’s conflict is intensified by the lady’s affair with the nobleman, and he tries to explain his reaction in the little morality play of Sonnet 144.
Two loves I have of comfort and despair,Which like two spirits do suggest me still:The better angel is a man right fair,The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.To win me soon to hell, my female evilTempteth my better angel from my [side],And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,Wooing his purity with her foul pride.And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend,Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;But being both from me, both to each friend,I guess one angel in another’s hell.Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,Till my bad angel fire my good one out.
The tremendous appeal of Shakespeare’s sonnets through the centuries rests essentially on the same qualities that have made his plays immortal, his phenomenal understanding of the workings of the mind and his incredible ability to distill many aspects of human experience into a few lines. The sonnets are, in many ways, dramatic poetry; the reader is constantly aware of the presence of the poet, the “I” of the sequence, who addresses the nobleman and the dark lady forcefully and directly, not as if he were musing in his study. A brief perusal of the opening lines of the sonnets shows a remarkable number of questions and commands that heighten the reader’s sense of a dramatic situation:
That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,And yet it may be said I lov’d her dearly . . .Being your slave, what should I do but tendUpon the hours and times of your desire?Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
The compression of language; the vivid images drawn from nature, commerce, the theater, and many other aspects of life; the wordplay; and the flexibility of rhythms of speech that characterize Shakespeare’s blank verse—all contribute to the greatness of the sonnets as well. In these poems, as in his plays, he was able to transform traditional forms and raise them to new heights.