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Shakespeare's Sonnets

by William Shakespeare

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

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 with a woman—perhaps the one who is the Poet's mistress. (See The Friend in the Character Analysis section).

The Dark Lady: She is specifically called "dark" only once, but it seems she has dark hair and eyes. Her social rank or status in society is not specified. She may be a married woman, though the Poet refers to her as his "mistress." He alternately describes her as ill-favored and attractive and characterizes her as sensual, tyrannical, and playful. He further alleges that she has betrayed him by seducing his young friend. (See The Dark Lady in the Character Analysis section)

The Rival Poet(s): Sonnets 21, 78-80, and 82-86 refer to a competitor or competitors for the Friend's favor and patronage. The Poet describes his rival(s)' verses as more ornate and artificial than his own, and he represents them as a threat to his relationship with the Friend.

Character Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1085

The Poet
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 accurate. Indeed, his descriptions of the other figures in the sequence may reveal as much about himself as about those he describes.

The Friend
Commentary on the Friend is a mixture of biographical speculation and literary analysis. For hundreds of years, researchers have attempted to determine whether there was a specific person on whom Shakespeare modeled the young man of the sonnets. Many searches have begun with the enigmatic dedication of the 1609 edition of the poems to "Mr. W. H.," described as "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets." Some scholars have contended that "begetter" means that "Mr. W. H." provided the publisher with the text of Shakespeare's sonnets. Others believe that "Mr. W. H." alludes to the youth who inspired the poems, and over the centuries, an impressive array of possible candidates has been proposed. At the top of the list are Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630). Most late twentieth-century commentators believe that the issue of who "begat" the sonnets will never be resolved and is, moreover, irrelevant. Instead they focus on the picture of the Friend that the Poet provides us. And it is important to remember, they point out, that the only perspective we have on this young man is the Poet's constantly changing point of view.

Critics have variously viewed the Friend as aloof, sensitive, vulnerable, impulsive, and inscrutable. Many have emphasized his essential egotism. The opening sonnets celebrate his physical beauty, but subsequent ones question his integrity and faithfulness, and increasingly he is portrayed as arrogant and self-important. Commentators have remarked that the treatment of the Friend throughout the sonnets is characterized by a remarkable lack of specificity: His beauty is generalized rather than particularized, and all we hear or see of his speech and actions is through second-hand reports. The Poet accuses him of a grave fault—seemingly of a sensual nature—but this fault is never particularized. Some critics stress the Friend's accomplishments, his grace, and his beauty. Others focus on his pride, his susceptibility to flattery, and his apparent rejection of the Poet.

The Dark Lady
Commentary on the Dark Lady often deals more with the speaker's frame of mind in Sonnets 127-152 than with the woman herself. And as with the Friend, much of what has been written about her is principally concerned with whether she has a historical antecedent. Mary Fitton, a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, is high on the list of candidates. Others include Luce Morgan, a London brothel-keeper, and Emilia Lanier, a woman whose virtue was apparently regularly compromised. Again, as with the Friend, most critics doubt that we will ever know if there was a "real-life" prototype of the Dark Lady. However, few believe that if we did, this would affect our responses to the poems that allude to her.

The Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets is even more shadowy than the Friend. There is general agreement that she is lusty and seductive and that the Poet is irresistibly drawn to her. Commentators suggest that although the Poet loves her—or has loved her in the past—he also despises her. She has apparently seduced the Friend while carrying on an affair with the Poet, but the extent of her promiscuity—indeed, whether she is married and therefore an adulteress—is not evident to all readers. Several critics have evaluated the Dark Lady sonnets in the context of literary conventions, arguing that these verses represent a parody of Petrarchan lovers by depicting a mistress who has neither virtue nor beauty. Over the centuries, many commentators have identified the Dark Lady with a debased form of love. However, late twentieth-century studies, especially those written from a feminist perspective, have been more sympathetic, challenging the accuracy or reliability of the Poet's account of her and calling for an appraisal that takes into account his obvious bias.

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