Study Guide

Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Sonnets Summary



We do not know when Shakespeare composed his sonnets, though it is possible that he wrote them over a period of several years, beginning, perhaps, in 1592 or 1593. Some of them were being circulated in manuscript form among his friends as early as 1598, and in 1599 two of them—138 and 144—were published in The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of verses by several authors. The sonnets as we know them were certainly completed no later than 1609, the year they were published by Thomas Thorpe under the title Shake-speares Sonnets. Most scholars believe that Thorpe acquired the manuscript on which he based his edition from someone other than the author. Few believe that Shakespeare supervised the publication of this manuscript, for the text is riddled with errors. Nevertheless, 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, a different—though related—idea is expressed in each quatrain, and the argument or theme of the poem is summarized or generalized in the concluding couplet. It should be noted that many of Shakespeare's couplets do not have this conventional effect. Shakespeare did, however, employ the traditional English sonnet rhyme-scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

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 speaker's friendship with him, and Sonnets 127-52 focus on the speaker's relationship with a woman. However, in only a few of the poems in the first group is it clear that the person being addressed is a male. And most of the poems in the sequence as a whole are not direct addresses to another person. The two concluding sonnets, 153 and 154, are free translations or 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 perfunctory.

The English sonnet sequence reached the height of its popularity in the 1590s, when the posthumous publication of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (1591) was widely celebrated and led other English poets to create their own sonnet collections. All of these, 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, there was also an anti-Petrarchan convention, which satirized or exploited traditional motifs and styles. Commentators on Shakespeare's sonnets frequently compare them to those of his predecessors and contemporaries, including Sidney, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Samuel Daniel, and Edmund Spenser.

The principal topics of twentieth-century critical commentary on the sonnets, however, are their themes and poetic style. Analyses of formal elements in the poems include examinations of the rhetorical devices, syntax, and diction Shakespeare employed here. The multiple and indefinite associations of his words and phrases have proved especially intriguing—and problematic—for scholars as well as general readers. The complexity and ambiguity of Shakespeare's figurative language is also a central critical issue, as is the remarkable diversity of tone and mood in the sequence. Shakespeare's departures from or 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. But 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 instead to a young man; and by including a second subject of passion: a woman of questionable attractiveness and virtue. Critics have frequently called attention to Shakespeare's complex and paradoxical representation of love in the sonnets. They have also discussed at length the poet-speaker's claim that he will immortalize the young man's beauty in his verses, thereby defying the destructiveness of time. The themes of friendship and betrayal of friendship are also important critical issues, as is the nature of the relationship between the speaker and the youth. The ambiguous eroticism of the sonnets has elicited varying responses, with some commentators asserting that the relationship between the two men is asexual and others contending that it is sexual.

Because these lyrics are passionate, intense, and emotionally vivid, over the centuries many readers and commentators have been convinced that they must have an autobiographical basis. There is, however, no evidence that this is so. Nevertheless, there has been endless speculation about what these sonnets may tell us about their creator, and researchers have attempted to identify the persons who were the original or historical models for the persons the speaker refers to and addresses. The fact remains, however, that we do not know to what degree Shakespeare's personal experiences are reflected in his sonnets; nor do we know with any measure of certainty whether the persons depicted in these poems are based on specific individuals or are solely the product of Shakespeare's observation, imagination, and understanding of the human heart.

Contradictions and uncertainties are implicit in Shakespeare's sonnets. Both individually and as a collection, these poems resist generalities and summations. Their complex language and multiple perspectives have given rise to a number of different interpretations, all of which may at times seem valid—even when they contradict each other. Few critics today read the sonnets as personal allegory. Indeed, most commentators assert that speculation about what these verses may imply about Shakespeare's life, morals, and sexuality is a useless exercise. The speaker is as closely identified with each reader as he is with the writer who created him. His confused and ambiguous expressions of thought and emotion heighten our own ambivalent feelings about matters that concern us all: love, friendship, jealousy, hope, and despair.

Shakespeare's Sonnets Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

To appreciate Shakespeare’s accomplishments in creating his sonnets, it is important to understand the history of the genre. Both the form of the individual sonnet and the idea of the sonnet sequence were developed in the fourteenth century by Petrarch, who wrote a series of poems celebrating a beautiful but unattainable woman he called Laura. Petrarch’s formula became a model copied by poets throughout Europe during the next two hundred years. Generally the speaker in the poems is a man who explores his feelings for a particular woman and laments the fact that she will not reciprocate his feelings. These fourteen-line poems are divided into two major sections; usually a problem or argument is presented in the octet, and a resolution provided in the sextet. A tight rhyme scheme binds each section together, making the construction of a sonnet particularly challenging.

By the 1590’s, a number of English poets had tried their hands at composing sonnets; among the more notable sequences were those of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare took up the challenge of writing a sonnet sequence. Like his contemporaries, he initially circulated his poems in manuscript; the first publication in 1609 may have occurred without his consent. Unlike most other sonneteers, however, Shakespeare modifies the form of the Petrarchan sonnet, substituting for the octet-sextet pattern a format of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. Working with his new rhyme scheme, he takes greater liberties in constructing his arguments. Rather than posing a problem in the first eight lines and offering a resolution in the concluding six, he often uses the quatrains to develop a theme or examine a subject from three different perspectives before bringing his argument to a close in the couplet.

Even more importantly, he abandons the convention of having his speaker address his works to an unattainable lady. Instead, he creates a cast of characters whose story is told through the individual poems. His speaker is an older poet who has developed an affection for a younger man. That young man’s attentions are also courted by a rival poet and by a sensual woman who is the older poet’s mistress. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to the young man; in most of the remaining ones the older poet speaks to or about the woman. This complex dramatic situation allows Shakespeare to explore in his sequence of 154 poems three major themes: the nature of love, the vicissitudes of time, and the permanence of poetry.

While individual sonnets may be understood without reference to their place within the sequence, an appreciation for the tensions created by the overarching structure of the sequence gives added poignancy to particular poems. For example, Sonnet 18 opens with a question, asking “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The poem is an extended comparison of the young man to a natural phenomenon. In some ways this sonnet is Petrarchan, in that the first two couplets work together to present an argument, while the final six lines offer an answer to the dilemma posed in the first eight lines. In the first and second quatrains the speaker points out some of the unpleasant aspects of a time of the year often thought of as decidedly pleasurable. The “rough winds” often shake the newly sprung flower buds. The season itself is short. The sun, that “eye of heaven” thought to give gentle warmth and a golden hue to the day, is sometimes too hot, or its aura dimmed by the vagaries of climate. The stress is on the changeability of the natural world. By contrast, in the sextet the poet promises that the young man’s “eternal summer”—his beauty and youth—will not fade, because the speaker has the power to make these qualities permanent through his verse. The speaker personifies the concept of death in order to continue his argument, stating “Nor shall death brag” that the young man “wander’st in his shade”—that is, that the young man has died. Of course, the youth may die physically, but he will live on in the “eternal lines” of this poem, since as long as “men can breathe, or eyes can see,” this sonnet will keep the youth alive to readers.

The poet makes a similar argument in Sonnet 65, in which the ravages of time are compared to a number of tempestuous natural occurrences, asking in a series of four questions how can “beauty” compete against the inevitability of decay and change. The first two quatrains lay out a litany of destruction in which Time is personified as a ravaging, vengeful, and jealous enemy. “Sad mortality” is stronger than the strongest manmade objects (“brass”) or natural phenomena (“boundless sea”). There seems no way simple beauty (“summer’s honey breath”) can withstand the ravages of nature, when “Time decays” even “rocks impregnable” and “gates of steel.” In the third quatrain the poet asks how he might protect the young man from what seems to be his inevitable fate. Comparing him to a jewel, the poet wonders how he might lock away this treasure to keep Time from gathering him up. He ponders further how he might keep back the “swift foot” of Time from running off with the young man—that is, stealing away his beauty and eventually his life. Again, the solution presented in the couplet suggests that the “miracle” of immortality lies in the “black ink” of poetry. Because the poet has written about the young man, the youth will be forever present and forever young in the lines of the sonnet.

Just how far Shakespeare was willing to go in flaunting conventions of the sonnet sequence can be seen in Sonnet 130, in which the older poet describes the woman with whom he is in love. This is the same woman who is angling to seduce the young man who has captured the older poet’s affections. Whereas the traditional lady addressed in sonnets is blond, fair-skinned, and ethereal, the “mistress” spoken of in this poem is dark and earthy. Shakespeare uses a series of contrasts to emphasize her qualities, beginning by noting her eyes “are nothing like the sun”—not bright and dazzling. “Coral” is more red than her lips; her breasts are not white like snow, but “dun.” He calls her hairs “black wires,” and finds her cheeks lack the soft pallor of roses. In one of the more stunning comparisons, he says there is much more delight in perfumes than in his mistress’ breath, which “reeks.” Nevertheless, although her voice is raspy and unmusical, he loves to hear her speak. Unlike the women praised by other sonneteers who are supposedly akin to goddesses, his mistress “treads on the ground”—that is, she is a real woman whose attractions are likewise commonplace yet substantial. As a result, the poet says his beloved is as “rare” as any woman who has been compared—somewhat ridiculously, in his view—to heavenly objects. This anti-Petrarchan comparison not only gives a touch of humor to Shakespeare’s sequence but also suggests that his ideas of sexuality and human relationships are grounded in reality rather than clouded with some form of Platonic idealization.

Since their publication in 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets have generated considerable interest from both critics and biographers. Many attempts have been made to determine the identities of the people whom Shakespeare immortalizes in his sonnet sequence. For centuries critics attempted to explain away the hints of homosexuality suggested by the older poet’s fascination with the young man; more recently those tendencies have been addressed more dispassionately, or even celebrated. The technical mastery of individual poems has been the subject of thousands of commentaries, most noting Shakespeare’s exceptional ability to use metaphor both as a means of description and as a vehicle for offering insights into the perennial issues of human love, the nature of mutability, and the function of poetry.

Shakespeare's Sonnets Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.