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...
(The entire section is 1324 words.)
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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 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...
(The entire section is 2324 words.)