There are no "characters" in Shakespeare's sonnets as the term is usually understood in literary analysis. None of the figures who appear or are referred to in the sequence is given a proper name. Specific details about physical features or demeanor 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.
The Poet: This phrase denotes the speaker of the sonnets 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 his friend and mistress, but he gives few indications of what his age may be. Furthermore, he calls himself a liar, which raises doubts about his reliability as a reporter. This is important because it is only through the Poet that we know anything about the other figures in the sonnets. (See The Poet in the Character Analysis section)
The Friend: He is characterized as younger than the Poet, of superior or aristocratic rank, and not married. 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, even morally corrupt. Sometimes he returns the Poet's love, yet he is also accused of having a sexual relationship...
(The entire section is 391 words.)
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Most late twentieth-century critics maintain that the Poet is the principal focus of the sonnets as well as the most significant figure. In their judgment, the sequence depicts a mind torn between conflicting thoughts and emotions as the speaker deals with the central issues of human existence: love and friendship, birth and death, self-knowledge and self-delusion, sin and virtue, the vagaries of fortune, and the ravages of time. Many commentators view the Poet as prone to misjudge both himself and the Friend. Others contend that he willfully avoids facing the truth about the young man's nature and conduct—either because he continues to love the youth or because he doesn't want to acknowledge the malignant effect of this 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.
Many critics have explored what they see as the Poet's moral, ethical, or intellectual confusion. They emphasize the dilemma he faces in remaining constant to a beloved who has proved inconstant. They note that he appears to be both generous and self-interested. They highlight the contrast between the occasions on which he proudly affirms the power of his poetry and the instances when he expresses grave doubts about both the value of art and the worth of his own verses. Such inconsistencies 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 Friend. Still others see it as a realistic portrayal of the quandary facing a man whose beloved is simultaneously attractive and loathsome.
Many critics disparage what they regard as the Poet's servile attitude toward the Friend. Others condemn his relationship with the Dark Lady, remarking that the Poet seems unable to break away from a relationship that he finds degrading. The Poet's passivity or hesitancy to take action is frequently noted. To some critics, he seems trapped in a state of reflection, beset by fears and anxieties. Several commentators point out that the Poet repeatedly says he is a liar—though some maintain that he is himself the principal victim of his dishonesty. In connection with this, many critics caution that since the Poet represents himself as an unreliable witness, we should not assume that what he says about the Friend and the Dark Lady is necessarily true or...
(The entire section is 1085 words.)