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.
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised 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...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
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