Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were first published in 1609. These love poems are split into two groups—those addressed to the young man (Sonnets 1-126) and those addressed to the woman, or dark lady (Sonnets 127-54). Shakespeare's sonnets have fascinated critics and the general reading public for centuries due to the suspicion that the characters and relationships depicted in the poems reveal hidden aspects of Shakespeare's life. While many modern critics assert that such conjecture is unfounded, others suggest that the sonnets may reflect aspects of Shakespeare's life and career, at least to a limited degree. Other scholars center their studies instead on the language, themes, and structure of the individual poems and the sequence as a whole.
There has been much critical discussion concerning the order of composition of the sonnets. Colin Burrow (see Further Reading) observes that while there is little external evidence regarding the dates the sonnets were composed, the sequence has fixed points, which suggest that the order in which the sonnets appear in the 1609 Quarto edition was carefully determined. Burrow points out that stylistically, individual poems are linked to neighboring poems through moods, sounds, and “rhythms of thought.” Despite such connections, however, Burrow asserts that the sonnets are a miscellaneous collection of themes and thoughts rather than an ordered sequence about particular relationships, and that they are not organized according to numerological or biographical principles. Arguing to the contrary, Alvin Kernan (1995) contends that while there are gaps in the narrative sequence, each of the sonnets is a compact, enigmatic incident in a larger framing story. Kernan suggests that although the sonnets should not be viewed as autobiographical, they do reflect Shakespeare's experience as a writer closely involved with his patron, and as such they reveal the poet's attitudes toward the patronage system and art in general. Like Kernan, Michael Cameron Andrews (1982) cautions that whether or not the sonnets have any autobiographical basis, the persona adopted by Shakespeare in the sonnets should be understood as a dramatic character separate from his creator.
While Andrews focuses on the character of the speaker, James Joseph Davey (1986) investigates the role of the dark lady in the sonnets. Davey finds that she signals a change in the tone, intensity, and scope of the sonnets, and that she negates the movement toward idealization found in first group of sonnets—those addressed to the young man—by emphasizing the worldly, physical, and even vulgar. In his study of the language and structure of the sonnets, Joel Fineman (1984) examines how the falsity of language found in the dark lady sonnets is able to capture the truth of the poet's vision. Fineman also examines the language, imagery and rhetorical structure of the sonnets composed to the young man. Like Fineman, Jonathan Hart (2002) explores the language and imagery of the sonnets, concentrating on the themes of time and death. Hart examines the ways in which Shakespeare's analysis of these themes highlights the limitations of language, the sonnet, and poetry in general. Heather Dubrow (1997) finds that thievery, as it was understood in Elizabethan terms, is used as trope by Shakespeare in the sonnets to emphasize the personal loss of regenerative ability and idealism.