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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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What is the autobiographical note in Shakespeare's sonnets?

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The autobiographical note in Shakespeare's sonnets can be found in the extremely personal nature of the poems themselves, which encompass themes of love, desire, life, death, and the transient nature of physical beauty.

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One-hundred-and-fifty-four of William Shakespeare's sonnets were published together in a single volume entitled Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609. The sonnets were likely written between 1592 and the early 1600s. Two of the sonnets (sonnets 138 and 144) were published in 1599 in an anthology of poetry from a number of different poets. Shakespeare also wrote six other sonnets, which appear in his plays Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and Love's Labors Lost.

From the time they were published, the sonnets raised the question of whether the sonnets are autobiographical. Poet William Wordsworth seems convinced that the sonnets are autobiographical. In his own sonnet entitled "Scorn Not The Sonnet," Wordsworth wrote "with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart," meaning that in writing his sonnets, Shakespeare expressed his own feelings.

Answering the question about the autobiographical nature of Shakespeare's sonnets is complicated by the fact that so little is actually known about Shakespeare himself, except for what can be found in the few existing public records.

Nevertheless, many scholars believe that keys to understanding whether or not the sonnets are autobiographical can be found in the subject matter of the poems, the poet's introspection, and the extremely personal nature of the sonnets themselves, which encompass themes of love, desire, the brevity of life, and the transience of physical beauty.

In sonnets 1 through 126, the poet expresses his love and desire for a young man, to which scholars refer to as the "Fair Youth." At the same time that he expresses his deep personal feelings for the young man, the poet urges him to marry and have children so his best qualities will be carried through coming generations.

In sonnets 127 through 152, the poet refers to the "Dark Lady," who at times is indifferent to him, rejects him, and compromises the poet's love for her. The poet expresses a range of emotions towards the lady, ranging from love and hate to bitter mockery and recrimination.

The mystery remains, however, as to the identity of the "Fair Youth" and the "Dark Lady" (to whom the poet addresses his sonnets) and their connection to Shakespeare's own life.

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