Since the date of publication in 1609, Shakespeare's sonnets have generated a fair amount of controversy. Critics and readers have wondered whether the characters in the poems—the fair young man (also referred to as the friend), the dark lady, and the rival poet—correspond to individuals with whom Shakespeare may have been involved. The extent to which Shakespeare himself may be identified with the poet-persona of the sonnets has also been explored. Modern criticism has focused less on the historical identities and relationships of the people who populate the poems and more on the themes, structure, language, and imagery of the sonnets.
Much discussion of the sonnets has focused on the ways in which Shakespeare deviated from contemporary sonneteering practices. Rosalie L. Colie (1974) states that while Shakespeare's sonnets are firmly rooted in tradition, his arrangement of the characters into two triangles (poet-friend-mistress and poet-friend-rival poet) was a feature unique to Renaissance sonneteering. Russell Fraser (1999) also studies Shakespeare's deviations from standard sonnet form and structure, commenting that the qualities some critics have labeled as “defective workmanship” are both intentional and beneficial to the work. Other critics explore the language and imagery of the sonnet sequence. Neal L. Goldstien (1969) argues that a reading of the money imagery in the sonnets must be balanced by an understanding of man's ambiguous attitude toward wealth. Such an understanding, Goldstien maintains, is encouraged through Shakespeare's use of monetary terms to both wound and praise. Sara van den Berg (see Further Reading) investigates Shakespeare's development of the mother-child motif and examines the way Shakespeare used this motif to outline the boundaries of both self and language. The critic also maintains that Shakespeare exploited this motif in ways that unexpectedly challenged gender roles. David Schalkwyk (1998) asserts that Shakespeare used language in the sonnets neither as epistemology nor as description, but rather as a type of social action. Schalkwyk states that Shakespeare employed a series of performatives (statements that perform an act simply by being uttered) to negotiate power relationships.
A number of the critics who center their analyses on the sonnets written to the fair young man (sonnets 1-126) also incorporate examinations of Shakespeare's language. Jane Hedley (1994), for example, argues that Shakespeare's sonnets to the fair young man are narcissistic in their distinctive use of language and form. In particular, Hedley observes a “semantic instability” in the language of the first 126 sonnets—due to their reliance on various types of repetition, for example—and contends that such characteristics are related to the thematic narcissism of the sequence. George T. Wright (1996) investigates the “inner language” of the sonnets written to the young man. Wright observes that all of these sonnets...
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