In writing sonnets, Shakespeare was continuing a trend that had been established in Italy by Petrarch in the fourteenth century and which had become extremely popular in England in the sixteenth century, particularly among courtly circles. A particularly stylized form of poem, sonnets must adhere to a particular meter, rhythm, and rhyme scheme and comprise fourteen lines. The Petrarchan sonnet, however, diverges in its rhyme scheme from the English sonnet form used by Shakespeare. Contrary to what is often stated, this form was not developed by Shakespeare; he was simply imitating a sonnet form that had been popularized already by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey.
Where Shakespeare may have been following a trend in terms of his form, however, he was certainly setting a trend in other ways. Firstly, the sonnet form was mostly practiced by noblemen, such as Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard. Shakespeare was the son of a glovemaker and did not come from their class. Similarly, the content of his sonnets diverges from that of the traditional courtly love poem, normally rhapsodizing about an idealized love object.
For example, Wyatt praised Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII
's queen, by comparing her to a pure and elusive hind, which was typical. Shakespeare's sonnets do occupy themselves with many of the typical subjects, including love, death, and the passage of time. However, the love objects he chooses are remarkable in that one of them, the great and idealized beauty, is a man. The other is a woman whom Shakespeare addresses in ways that often turn sonnet convention on its head: "my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Far from being a snowy-white virgin, Shakespeare's sonnets to the so-called Dark Lady emphasize the earthiness and humanity of his mistress, whose identity has been much disputed. Shakespeare takes the elevated, courtly sonnet form and uses it to discuss earthy subjects, such as uncomplicated sex and the urgency he feels for his beloved young man to procreate and thus become, in that way, immortal.
Shakespeare's sonnets, unlike his poems, were deliberately grouped together and published by Shakespeare himself in 1609. They were dedicated to a Mr. W. H., who has sparked the imagination of generations of scholars who were all seeking his true identity. It is often believed that he was both the author's patron and the subject of the "fair youth" sonnets, but his identity has never been revealed as such.