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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,476 words.)