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 share a related motive: either the mourning of the absence of the young man, or the process of keeping his image alive. Emphasizing this focus on absence, Wright views the poems as unspoken meditations, or inward speech, and identifies this continuous silent thinking as a new mode of discourse. Robert Crosman (1990) analyzes the first seventeen sonnets (the procreation sonnets, in which the poet-persona encourages the young man to father a child in order to ensure the continuance of his beauty) and contends that there is a discernible narrative in the sonnets. Crosman maintains that Shakespeare used the power of language to induce the love of two people. Taking another approach, A. D. Cousins (see Further Reading) reviews the influence of Petrarchan and non-Petrarchan sources on the first seventeen of Shakespeare's sonnets. Cousins finds that the Narcissus myth informs the first four sonnets and implies that the young man's self-love prevents him from experiencing personal renewal. The critic contends that in the remaining sonnets in the procreation series, as well as in the next two sonnets (18 and 19), Shakespeare suggested that youth is by necessity overcome by the economy of nature. According to Cousins, everyday economics provided the language and metaphors by which Shakespeare could explore the more complex economy of the world.
SOURCE: “Criticism and the Analysis of Craft: The Sonnets,” in Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1987, pp. 29-45.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Colie explores Shakespeare's sonnets, and contends that Shakespeare made significant deviations from contemporary sonneteering practices.]
By the Sonnets we are also invited to become critics, urged to experience something about the writing of poetry, the making of fictions, and the meanings of poetry to a poet and to any literate man. Where Love's Labour's Lost played with the literary stock conventions and devices, imposed a literary-critical...
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SOURCE: Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1997, pp. 1-106.
[In the following excerpt, Duncan-Jones reviews the publication history of Shakespeare's sonnets, focusing on several aspects of critical debate related to the 1609 publication.]
THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE 1609 QUARTO
As published in 1609, Shakespeare's Sonnets was by no means so aberrant and mistimed as those who attempt to pigeon-hole the entire sequence as early work have often maintained. It is true that the great Elizabethan vogue for sonneteering, in the wake of...
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SOURCE: “Shakespeare at Sonnets,” in Singing Masters: Poets in English 1500 to the Present, University of Michigan Press, 1999, pp. 3-19.
[In the following essay, Fraser analyzes Shakespeare's departures from standard sonnet form and argues that such deviations were intentional and serve to enhance the quality of the poetry.]
I take my title from an essay of John Crowe Ransom's, collected in The World's Body (1938). “Shakespeare at Sonnets,” Ransom decided, wasn't up to the job, “not fit for amateurs.” This distinguished critic shied at “incoherence” and thought poetry should make as consistent sense as prose. Some poets, he said (in an essay on...
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SOURCE: “Money and Love in Shakespeare's Sonnets,” in Bucknell Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, December, 1969, pp. 91-106.
[In the following essay, Goldstien explores the way in which Shakespeare associates money, love, and art in his sonnets. The critic advocates a balanced interpretation of Shakespeare's money imagery, noting that the poet uses monetary terms to both wound and to praise, and that this underscores society's ambiguous attitude toward wealth.]
This essay concerns the conjoining of money and love, and, peripherally, the conjoining of money and art in the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Nearly one-quarter of the sonnets touch in one way or another on the...
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SOURCE: “What May Words Do? The Performative of Praise in Shakespeare's Sonnets,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 251-68.
[In the following essay, Schalkwyk maintains that in the sonnets Shakespeare used language as a method of social action.]
In a previous essay on Shakespeare's sonnets and their relation to performance, I have suggested that it may not be especially fruitful to approach these sonnets in particular, and early modern Petrarchan poetry in general, by assuming that their linguistic aims are primarily epistemological.1 I argue in that essay that commentators' mistaken assumptions about what the language of the...
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SOURCE: “Making Love Out of Nothing at All: The Issue of Story in Shakespeare's Procreation Sonnets,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 470-88.
[In the following essay, Crosman studies the first seventeen sonnets and contends that a distinct narrative may be discerned.]
My thesis is that there is a discernible story in Shakespeare's sonnets, and I will support that thesis with a reading of sonnets 1-17, the so-called procreation sonnets. Because there is widespread distrust of finding narrative in the sonnets, I will begin by discussing the nature of that distrust, and will then argue in favor of permitting Shakespeare's sonnets to tell a...
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SOURCE: “Since First Your Eye I Eyed: Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Poetics of Narcissism,” in Style, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 1-30.
[In the essay below, Hedley argues that Shakespeare's sonnets to the fair young man are narcissistic in their distinctive use of language and form.]
The love that is celebrated in the first one hundred and twenty-six of Shakespeare's Sonnets is narcissistic, as several commentators have noticed1: “it is love by identification,” as C. L. Barber explains (662).2 Writing about the Sonnets in 1960, Barber preferred to try to understand the lover's posture in these poems...
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SOURCE: “The Silent Speech of Shakespeare's Sonnets,” in Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Los Angeles, 1996, edited by Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl, University of Delaware Press, 1998, pp. 314-35.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1996, Wright maintains that Shakespeare’s sonnets to the young main introduced a new mode of poetic discourse.]
Then others for the breath of words respect, Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.
—Shakespeare, Sonnet 85
O learn to read what silent love hath writ....
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Allen, Michael J. B. “Shakespeare's Man Descending a Staircase: Sonnets 126 to 154.” Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 127-38.
Examines the contexts of several of the “weaker” sonnets in this later sequence, finding that some of these poems may be vindicated through closer examination.
Barber, C. L. “An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets.” In Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 5-27. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Maintains that even though the sonnets offer virtually nothing in the way of biographical evidence about Shakespeare's life, they still may be read with an eye toward...
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