Shakespeare and the Narrator of the Sonnets

Queen Elizabeth I

Whether or not the pronoun "I" is explicitly present in their individual texts, all of the 154 verse pieces that comprise Shakespeare's sonnets are presumably narrated by a single persona. The narrator of the sonnets has a distinctive character and appears to partake in an ongoing story that revolves around his Platonic relationship to a "fair youth" and is later complicated by his carnal relationship with a "dark lady." Although the pendulum has swung back and forth over centuries of interpretation, throughout the history of Shakespeare sonnet criticism we find a deep division between critics who presume that there is an autobiographical basis to these poems and those holding that the narrator is a fictional device. The former are encouraged in their identification of the narrator as the poet himself by the fact that the sonnets are the only work in which Shakespeare wrote in the first person singular. Beyond this, however, the collective evidence that it is Shakespeare himself speaking about his own actual life in the sonnets is purely circumstantial and internally inconsistent. The predominant (but not universal) opinion among modern Shakespeare scholars is that the sonnets are to be read apart from their creator's biography. Nevertheless, the issue here has not been conclusively settled, the autobiographical thesis is intriguing and a brief consideration of the "I" problem in the Sonnets furnishes us with insight as to how they have been presented and read over the ages.

While they were first published as Shakespeare's Sonnets in 1609, it is fairly well established that this set of 154 poems was written in its entirety by Shakespeare during an early period in his career, probably over a succession of years between 1592 and 1598. The Shakespeare who wrote the Sonnets would therefore be a relatively young man in his late twenties or early thirties, having already written and staged a few plays, but turning to verse for the private enjoyment of private patrons as a means of cashing in on the sonnet fad that swept through the Elizabethan court in the 1590s. It is the claim of those who identify Shakespeare as the narrator "I" of the sonnets that actual persons and events from this period in the Bard's life are represented in these poems. Working on that premise, many scholars have sought to identify the "fair youth" addressed in the first 126 sonnets, the "dark lady" addressed in the following 28 (or 26) sonnets, and the "rival poet" to whom periodic references are made in the "fair youth" poems. Shakespeare himself left but a single clue in a cryptic dedication of the 1609 collection to a "Mr. W. H." (although there is some doubt about the authenticity of even this slight inscription). On the basis of this fragment, ingenious efforts have been made to "find" the presumed patron of the Sonnets among Shakespeare's contemporaries, William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke) and Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton) being the prime candidates. Affirmations concerning a possible relationship between Shakespeare and one of these noblemen have been sought from biographies and other records of these men, particularly Southampton, but the correspondences are not clear enough or strong enough to justify equating any historical person with the young man of the Sonnets. On even thinner bases, similar labors have been devoted to discovering the respective real identities of the "dark lady" and the "rival poet." From a complementary angle, scholars have looked to the text of the Sonnets for allusions to current events of the 1590s, constructing elaborate arguments to sketch out historical parallels. These too have fallen well short of proof. When the early twentieth-century Shakespeare scholar Edmund K. Chambers stated, "more folly has been written about the Sonnets than about any other Shakespearean topic," he...

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Common Difficulties in Understanding the Sonnets

Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southhampton

Many modern readers are surprised by the difficulty that they encounter in trying to understand Shakespeare's sonnets. The sonnets are, of course, short poems composed in standard fourteen-line form with a uniform rhyme pattern and in a poetic meter (iambic pentameter) that mirrors conversational English. Granted, there are some archaic words and phrases embedded in Shakespeare's sonnets, but most editions include explanatory notes that provide definitions and synonyms. It would seem, then, that these brief pieces would be relatively easy to comprehend and explain. Nevertheless, those who come to these verses for the first time are likely to be perplexed; even after several readings, the sonnets may prove hard. This is not necessarily the result of any shortcoming on the reader's part. Rather, his or her sense of not getting what a Shakespeare sonnet is "about" often stems from approaching its text with certain preconceptions that must be modified or jettisoned altogether.

Shakespeare did not invent the sonnet form, and by the time that he took it up, the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet had evolved into an instrument of logic and rhetoric. The Italian sonnets present the reader with a cohesive argument: its first two quatrains (eight lines) pose a problem or issue, the third quatrain provides a solution to that issue, the closing couplet reiterates the solution in figurative language. This is not the case with Shakespeare's handling of the sonnet. One of the most common mistakes made by new readers of his sonnets is the presumption that they are logical vehicles through which Shakespeare presents a cogent expression of certain ideas. True, in some cases, the Shakespearean sonnet may seem to approximate an argument or debate. But not only does Shakespeare deliberately depart from the Italian model's rhetorical structure, modern critics maintain his purpose is not to convey thoughts but instead to evoke an emotional response, a mood, from the reader. In attempting to grasp a Shakespeare sonnet, the reader must be aware that there is no correct answer as to what it means, but rather a range of possible responses from the reader. The sonnets have musical qualities, with the tempo of the piece and the sounds of its words being as significant as the content they denote.

Part and parcel with their lack of logical specificity, in virtually all of the Sonnets the reader finds what Stephen Booth terms "constructive vagueness." Along with straightforward, even conversational statements, the sonnets include generalized epithets, indeterminate signifiers and floating referents, with an adjective in one portion of the verse naturally modifying a noun in another quatrain of that poem. The sonnets contain an inordinately high incidence of demonstrative pronouns ("this" and "that"), which appear to refer to some "thing" (the narrator's love, for example, or the sonnet itself), but that "thing" may well have gone through poetic transformations before and/or after the appearance of the pronoun. Thus, in the sonnets about the power of poetry to overcome human mortality when the narrator says that "this" will ensure that his lover's memory will transcend the grave, the "this" in question is the sonnet before us and, at the same time, the thought which follows. Impersonal pronouns are used in the sonnets in a similar manner. As Booth observes, in Sonnet 124, Shakespeare uses the word "It" five times. While the...

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Shakespeare's Career as a "Sonneteer"

Eminent by-gone performers of Shakespeare's characters

In all likelihood, Shakespeare wrote the 154 verse pieces that constitute his Sonnets at an early juncture in his career, and after 1598 or so, he abandoned both the sonnet form and the composition of non-dramatic poetry. Shakespeare's motives in engaging in this genre at a time when he had already written several plays was undoubtedly related to a short-lived fad in the court of Queen Elizabeth. In 1591, a year or two before Shakespeare began to write sonnets, Sir Philip Sydney's Astrophel and Stella sonnet cycle was first published, and its immediate popularity among Elizabethan aristocrats inaugurated a vogue that many other poets tried to exploit. In short order, Samuel Daniel (Delia, 1592), Michael Drayton (Ideas Mirrour, 1594) and Edmund Spenser (Amoretti, 1595) authored sonnet cycles.

By the time that Shakespeare's Sonnets was published in 1609, however, and probably years before, the enthusiasm of courtly patrons for sonnet cycles had evaporated. By then, Shakespeare had established his renown as a dramatist and dedicated his artistic labor exclusively to the theater. Modern readers may find it surprising that Shakespeare's Sonnets were not popular during the seventeenth or the early eighteenth centuries. The sonnets were not included in the authoritative First Folio of 1623 published after Shakespeare's death. There are very few allusions to Shakespeare having every written sonnets during the century after his death. In fact, the sonnets were not incorporated into Shakespeare's official canon until 1790.

In 1640, a spurious edition of Shakespeare's sonnets was published by John Burton under the title of Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent. For the next 140 years, it was Burton's version of the sonnets that was in circulation and treated as the official text. But Burton made some key changes to Shakespeare's original. Rather than 154...

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Sonnets 74 and 64: A Comparitive Analysis

Shakespeare performance before Queen Elizabeth and her court

The purpose of this brief essay is to compare two Shakespearean sonnets after Number 36. The two that have been chosen for examination here have been found to be similar in some respects—these similarities will be discussed in detail in the content of the essay. Before discussing the similarities, however, it is necessary to briefly describe what each sonnet is basically about.

All of Shakespeare's sonnets were love poems of some sort, whether they were addressed to men or to women. They were sonnets of unrequited love, by and large; and it was through this particular form of poetry that Shakespeare chose to express his yearning for time that passed too rapidly and for love that did the same. The form was as...

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Analysis of Sonnet #29

Shakespeare's contemporaries

The purpose of this essay is to analyze Sonnet #29 by William Shakespeare. The theme of this sonnet is the curative power of love for the man who wallow in miserably destructive self-disdain.

A Shakespearean (or English) sonnet, #29 being no exception, is made up of fourteen, lines arranged in two quatrains and one couplet. The older Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, divided into one octave and one sextet was altered by the English and is named after Shakespeare who used it with such infinite skill. The rhyme scheme of most of Shakespeare's sonnets, #29 included, is abab, odod, efef, and gg, underlining the four sections of the poem.

The meter of the sonnet is by definition iambic pentameter, although as with...

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A Comparitive Interpretation of Three Shakespearean Sonnets and the Wife of Bath's Tale

In Sonnet 18, Sonnet 19, and Sonnet 20, Shakespeare explores a common theme. While the stances which his narrator assumes toward it vary, in each of these verses there is an acknowledgement of the corrosive effects of time, age, and change upon women addressed as lovers; but there is also the recognition of a more constant value, an "inner beauty," lovers addressed, one that outweighs the physical ravages of experience. In the Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale as in the Wife's Tale itself Geoffrey Chaucer works at a similar theme, for while the Wife displays a sensibility considerably different from that of the narrators in Shakespeare's sonnets, she too arrives at a balanced valorization of...

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