Shakespeare's sonnets have been studied for possible biographical elements and for their placement within the sonnet-writing tradition in Europe. Scholars have examined Shakespeare's frequent use of paradox and punning in his sonnets and have debated over his employment of natural, and sometimes ambiguous, imagery to convey his themes. Ultimately, much of the interest for general readers as well as for critics revolves around the sonnets's conventional theme of love with its focus on the poet-lover himself and the objects of his affection.
After observing that Shakespeare's sonnets "regularly outsell everything else he wrote," Anthony Hecht (1996) explains why they are so appealing. The sonnets, Hecht remarks, successfully communicate in fourteen brief lines not only a lover's feelings "of perfect happiness, but also submission, self-abnegation, jealousy, fear, desperation, and self-hatred." The object of love in the sonnets is "the Friend," or fair young man, who appears in the early poems of the sonnet sequence. The poet's love for the Friend has been described by some critics as homosexual and by others as asexual and idyllic. John Dover Wilson (1964) characterizes it as the "affectionate admiration .. . of a man of mature years for another man much younger than himself." Wilson asserts that the older man's affection includes an altruistic concern for the younger man's well-being. According to Wilson, this romantic, idealized love turns into tragedy when the younger man steals the poet's mistress (the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets), thereby revealing himself to be shallow and unworthy of the poet's admiration.
An assessment of the Dark Lady and her role in Shakespeare's theme of love and romance can be found in Robert W. Witt's 1979 discussion of sonnets 127-52. The Dark Lady, Witt observes, is the focus of the poet's lust rather than of his love and is characterized in terms of her sexual attractions. Witt notes that the Dark Lady "disdains" the poet and that, therefore, any love he might feel for her "can lead only to despair." Witt contrasts this negative, false love of the poet's with his "reasonable" and therefore genuine love for the young Friend. According to Witt, the Friend's sexual liaison with the Dark Lady represents a "test" of the poet's devotion to his friend; ultimately, the poet passes this test of love by forgiving the "truly repentant" young man.
David K. Weiser (1987) shares Wilson's opinion that the young Friend does not live up to the poet's idealized view of him. However, Weiser argues that the Dark Lady's behavior proves even more disappointing to the poet and that his sonnets to her reveal a "single, nearly obsessive train of thought" aimed not simply at her but at his own needs and the faultiness of his perceptions.
The poet's self-absorption is an issue for several other commentators, who describe it in terms of narcissism, or self-love. Jane Hedley (1994) and Elizabeth Harris Sagaser (1994) both suggest that the poet's love for the Friend folds back onto itself until the poet's own thoughts and words become the source of his preoccupation. Hedley notes that the poet manipulates words and indulges in puns and double meaning expressly to fulfill his desire to turn the object of his affection into an idealized, mirror image of himself. Sagaser puts a positive light on the poet's self-absorption. She remarks that while "the celebration of cerebral experience" was a common practice in Renaissance poetry, most of the love lyrics of the period concentrated on the tormenting effect of love on the mind. Sagaser asserts that by contrast, Shakespeare's sonnets—despite their focus on the brevity of life and the fleeting nature of love—convey a degree of pleasure or melancholy joy. Sagaser contends that this joyful meditation on death is positive because it prepares the poet in advance for the day when he will lose the object of his affection.
Like Sagaser, Philip Martin (1972) believes that there are positive aspects to the poet's narcissism. Martin rejects a commonly held assessment of the poet as submissive and self-abnegating and argues instead that the poet's apparently negative self-image is in fact "an unusual mingling of irony with acknowledgement of limitations." Martin concludes that, far from idealizing the Friend, the poet shows his awareness of the young man's imperfections and finally, an acceptance of himself
Hallett Smith (1981) and John Klause (1983) look at the ways in which the poet is characterized in the sonnets. Smith discusses the self-absorbed or "meditative" quality of the poet's voice. Klause describes the poet as a "protagonist" who demonstrates his humanity through his contradictory assertions about love. Like Martin, Klause does not regard the poet as humble or submissive; Klause suggests that the poet is too inconsistent in his behavior to be considered humble. Instead, Klause asserts, the poet saves face by pretending to be something other than he is when confronted with the Friend's betrayal and the Dark Lady's cruelty.