From the eighteenth century until about 1950, speculation about possible autobiographical elements in Shakespeare's sonnets was the dominant feature of commentary on these poems. There were heated debates about what the sonnets may imply about Shakespeare's morals and his sexuality. But over the past forty years, critics have increasingly avoided such conjecture, asserting that there is no basis for reading the poems as personal allegory. These scholars have emphasized the paradoxical, even enigmatic, nature of the sonnets and the multiple perspectives on human experience embedded in the sequence.
Many recent commentators have examined the effect of the contradictions and uncertainties that are implicit in Shakespeare's sonnets. A number of critics have pointed out that these poems—individually and as a sequence—are unusually resistant to general conclusions. Gerald Hammond (1981), for example, has argued that a majority of the sonnets present simultaneous oppositions, which produce unexpected meanings but also create improbabilities that baffle a reader or critic trying to assess the mood of the poem. Similarly, Gregory W. Bredbeck (1991) has contended that in many of the sonnets there is virtually an infinite number of meanings that yield contradictory, not merely different, readings and thus frustrate interpretation.
In the judgment of numerous critics over the past two decades, these lyrics formulate paradoxes but leave them unresolved. It is therefore impossible, they claim, to make definitive statements about the poems or establish a single perspective on the sequence. Richard A. Lanham (1976) has linked the paradoxical nature of these lyrics to Shakespeare's unusual combination of fanciful and serious modes; he asserts that the logical uncertainties, even absurdities, of the sonnets make us doubt our initial responses and ultimately call into question the validity of any effort to generalize about them. Carol Thomas Neely (1977) has contended that throughout the sequence, every attempt to resolve contradiction or determine a fixed perspective is inevitably thwarted as an individual poem shifts to a different point of view or is succeeded by other poems which shatter that perspective. In her study of the indeterminacy of the sonnets, Heather Dubrow (1996) has argued that the poems simultaneously encourage and undermine a reader's search for unity or consistency in narrative, characterization, or values. She further remarks that because many of the poems are not explicit with regard to the gender of the person being addressed, the notion of a sustained plot line throughout the sequence is highly questionable.
The ambiguous eroticism of the sonnets is presently a major critical issue, as many scholars who have written about Shakespeare's sonnets have noted that in only a few of these poems is it clear whether the addressee is a male or a female. Rosalie Colie (1974) has contended that Shakespeare's inversion of the Petrarchan convention of addressing love poems to a young woman represents only one aspect of his unique approach to the traditional sonnet. Yet, she asserts, the poet maintains the conventional role of an unselfish, detached admirer of an idealized youth, never suggesting that he harbors a carnal desire for the young man. Lanham has similarly regarded the substitution of an ideal male as part of Shakespeare's attempt to reinvigorate the worn-out clichés of the Petrarchan sonnet; the critic further points out that the youth is not individualized either in feature or in character. This last point was amplified by Bredbeck, who has maintained that the sonnets do not particularize expressions of desire but rather set out to frustrate a reader's ability to determine erotic significance. He asserts that there is nothing in Sonnet 1 or Sonnet 20, for example, that imparts a single meaning or dictates a single gender.
Several commentators have examined the issues of gender identity and sexuality in the sonnets in the context of early modern views of society. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) has contended that these poems reveal a misogynist attitude toward women, presenting them as a threat to the bonds between men that uphold patriarchal supremacy. In her judgment, the sequence demonstrates that lust for a woman deprives a man of his self-identity. Margreta de Grazia (1994) has also argued that in these sonnets the female gender represents a disruptive force. She maintains that beginning with Sonnet 126 and through the remainder of the sequence, the poet's lust for a woman who has other lovers is depicted as a menace to the orderly succession of power and property, for it would be impossible to determine the paternity of any child she bore. Analyzing the ambiguously addressed sonnets, Dubrow has challenged assumptions that the negative ones necessarily refer to the Dark Lady. However, she concludes that throughout the sequence—and particularly in the lyrics where there can be no dispute about the gender of the addressee—the poet is harsher on women than on men. Bruce R. Smith (1991) has pointed out, in his discussion of homoerotic images in the sonnets, that this imagery introduces sexual emotions in the context of the bonds that men routinely made with one another in late sixteenth-century England. He also notes that erotic images in the sonnets are used randomly, whether the object of affection is a man or a woman.
Virtually every essay on Shakespeare's sonnets includes a discussion of the poems' language and imagery. In Murray Krieger's judgment (1967), the dreamlike, associational linkage of imagery in many of the lyrics masks a conscious strategy to create a logical movement—from metaphor to substance—within each sonnet. Anne Ferry (1975) has assessed Shakespeare's manipulation of language as a self-conscious demonstration of the poet's artistry and power to create verbal patterns that modify the laws of nature. Conversely, Sandra L. Bermann (1988) has asserted that although Shakespeare's metaphors provide new ways of looking at human experience, they do not attempt to alter reality. Nevertheless, she concludes, the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in his paradoxical linking of things and persons represent an extraordinarily original application of poetic figures.
Shakespeare's unique synthesis of traditional and original forms and themes has also drawn the attention of several recent commentators. In her examination of the sonnets' representation of the nature of love, Neely has contended that Sonnet 116 depicts the fallibility of love and Sonnet 129 shows lust as a corruption of love. Similarly, Smith has asserted that throughout the sequence, the emphasis is on love after sexual consummation—a love that is devoid of spiritual elements. Ferry has identified time, in its role of destroyer, as a principal thematic issue; in her assessment, the sonnets delineate poetry as an agent of immortality and the only means of defeating time. Ferry's position may be compared with Hammond's, who has remarked that Sonnets 1-19 emphasize the inevitability of death and renounce human qualities for poetic immortality. Several commentators have evaluated the concept of idealization in the sonnets, particularly with regard to the tradition of idealizing the beloved. For instance, Smith has compared Shakespeare's lyrics with the classical poet Horace's Carmina, discovering in both a lack of idealism, a matter-of-fact description of sexual desire between men, and a tone that is unusually intense and intimate. Bermann, on the other hand, has focused on the Petrarchan tradition, arguing that Shakespeare subverted the conventions of the courtly love poem—especially its central mode of idealization—even as he employed them as essential bases for his poems. Critics have frequently pointed out the importance of understanding the poetic tradition as it was developed by Shakespeare's predecessors in order to appreciate his incomparable adaptation and transformation of that tradition.