To appreciate Shakespeare’s accomplishments in creating his sonnets, it is important to understand the history of the genre. Both the form of the individual sonnet and the idea of the sonnet sequence were developed in the fourteenth century by Petrarch, who wrote a series of poems celebrating a beautiful but unattainable woman he called Laura. Petrarch’s formula became a model copied by poets throughout Europe during the next two hundred years. Generally the speaker in the poems is a man who explores his feelings for a particular woman and laments the fact that she will not reciprocate his feelings. These fourteen-line poems are divided into two major sections; usually a problem or argument is presented in the octet, and a resolution provided in the sextet. A tight rhyme scheme binds each section together, making the construction of a sonnet particularly challenging.
By the 1590’s, a number of English poets had tried their hands at composing sonnets; among the more notable sequences were those of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. It is not surprising, then, that Shakespeare took up the challenge of writing a sonnet sequence. Like his contemporaries, he initially circulated his poems in manuscript; the first publication in 1609 may have occurred without his consent. Unlike most other sonneteers, however, Shakespeare modifies the form of the Petrarchan sonnet, substituting for the octet-sextet pattern a format of three quatrains followed by a concluding couplet. Working with his new rhyme scheme, he takes greater liberties in constructing his arguments. Rather than posing a problem in the first eight lines and offering a resolution in the concluding six, he often uses the quatrains to develop a theme or examine a subject from three different perspectives before bringing his argument to a close in the couplet.
Even more importantly, he abandons the convention of having his speaker address his works to an unattainable lady. Instead, he creates a cast of characters whose story is told through the individual poems. His speaker is an older poet who has developed an affection for a younger man. That young man’s attentions are also courted by a rival poet and by a sensual woman who is the older poet’s mistress. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to the young man; in most of the remaining ones the older poet speaks to or about the woman. This complex dramatic situation allows Shakespeare to explore in his sequence of 154 poems three major themes: the nature of love, the vicissitudes of time, and the permanence of poetry.
While individual sonnets may be understood without reference to their place within the sequence, an appreciation for the tensions created by the overarching structure of the sequence gives added poignancy to particular poems. For example, Sonnet 18 opens with a question, asking “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” The poem is an extended comparison of the young man to a natural phenomenon. In some ways this sonnet is Petrarchan, in that the first two couplets work together to present an argument, while the final six lines offer an answer to the dilemma posed in the first eight lines. In the first and second quatrains the speaker points out some of the unpleasant aspects of...
(The entire section is 1324 words.)