Shakespeare's Sonnets Themes
by William Shakespeare

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The first 126 sonnets in Shakespeare's sonnets are said to constitute a cycle, having controlling themes and a narrative progression that implies a dramatic plot of sorts. We do not know for certain that the order in which the first 126 sonnets were first printed (and are still printed) is the order that Shakespeare himself conceived. Yet there is indirect evidence to indicate that Shakespeare was consciously following the sonnet cycle model of earlier poets (including Sidney), so that certain themes and implied dramatic situations unite sections of the Sonnets and then give way to other motifs and narrative circumstances.

The first seventeen poems of Shakespeare's sonnets express the speaker's unqualified love for a young man whose youthful beauty is praised in exquisite lyrics. In these opening pieces, the speaker (or poet) entreats his friend to marry and to have children so that his extraordinary beauty will be perpetuated. Starting with the famous Sonnet 18, the poet begins to speak of the corrosive effects of time upon youthful beauty and of his beloved's need to have his beauty immortalized in the poet's own verse. At this juncture in the cycle, several of the sonnets imply that the poet's beloved has either left him for another or that the poet's affection has not been returned by the young man. It is of (possible) significance that in Sonnet 40 et seq. the young man is accused of having stolen the poet's own (and presumably female) lover, who may be the Dark Lady of Sonnets 127 through 154.

As the bonds of affection between the poet and his love object undergo dramatic and thematic qualifications, so too does the poet's initial assurance that his poetry can immortalize the beauty of his beloved. Thus, in Sonnet 65 ("Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea") the speaker concludes that his words (written in black ink) might endure and keep his feelings toward his beloved from evaporating under the grinding power of time. In several of these middle sonnets, the poet acknowledges the problems of his love for the young man but also suggests that the understandable cooling of his beloved's ardor can be rekindled. In Sonnet 73 ("That time of year thou mayst in me behold"), for example, the poet anticipates that his beloved will notice that he is growing older and that he is now in the autumnal stage of life. Rather than assume that the young man will be repulsed by ongoing decay and the sense that the speaker's death is drawing nearer, the poet proclaims that this should spur his lover to embrace him more fully and urgently.

The complications of rival lovers and of time in several of the sonnets of the 18 to 77 number range yield to another concern in Sonnets 78 through 86. In this sub-group, the poet waxes jealous over his speculation that his beloved young man has found another poet (a George Chapman, for example) to render his beauty into words for the ages. Literary historians have interpreted this group of sonnets to be an expression of the poet's (i.e., Shakespeare's) disturbance at a shift in the largesse of one of his patrons toward another writer. Another theme with an autobiographical resonance surfaces in Sonnets 110, 111, and 112. In these three poems, the speaker speaks of his worry that the young man has turned from him because of public display, the poet allowing that he has gone to the theater, appeared as a "motley" on the stage, and this "sold cheap" to the theater-going masses that which is "most dear."

But in the last dozen sonnets of the young man group, the spirit of love without qualification and of a reconciliation between the poet and his beloved is reasserted. Thus, the the final piece in this set, Sonnet 126, returns to the theme of the first seventeen poems—the young man's physical beauty and its immortalization through the verses penned by the poet/speaker.

The second and far smaller group of poems (Sonnets 127 through 154) are addressed to a different listener, a woman of dark complexion...

(The entire section is 2,261 words.)