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.