Shakespeare's Sonnets Summary
by William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare's Sonnets Summary

Shakespeare's Sonnets are a collection of 154 Petrarchan sonnets by William Shakespeare. The sonnets reflect on the relationship between the speaker, a beautiful young man, and a dark lady.

  • The first 126 sonnets primarily concern the speaker's infatuation and frustration with an attractive young man. He also reflects on the nature of time and death as relates to love.
  • The speaker describes the youth's relationship with a rival poet, whom the speaker envies.
  • The speaker engages in a passionate, sexual relationship with a woman. He is torn between disgust and desire for her, and he ruminates on the natures of love and attraction.

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We do not know when Shakespeare composed his sonnets, though it is possible that he wrote them over a period of several years, beginning, perhaps, in 1592 or 1593. Some of them were being circulated in manuscript form among his friends as early as 1598, and in 1599 two of them—138 and 144—were published in The Passionate Pilgrim, a collection of verses by several authors. The sonnets as we know them were certainly completed no later than 1609, the year they were published by Thomas Thorpe under the title Shake-speares Sonnets. Most scholars believe that Thorpe acquired the manuscript on which he based his edition from someone other than the author. Few believe that Shakespeare supervised the publication of this manuscript, for the text is riddled with errors. Nevertheless, Thorpe's 1609 edition is the basis for all modern texts of the sonnets.

With only a few exceptions—Sonnets 99, 126, and 145—Shakespeare's verses follow the established English form of the sonnet. Each is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter, comprising four sections: three quatrains, or groups of four lines, followed by a couplet of two lines. Traditionally, a different—though related—idea is expressed in each quatrain, and the argument or theme of the poem is summarized or generalized in the concluding couplet. It should be noted that many of Shakespeare's couplets do not have this conventional effect. Shakespeare did, however, employ the traditional English sonnet rhyme-scheme: abab, cdcd, efef, gg.

Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, taken together, are frequently described as a sequence, and this is generally divided into two sections. Sonnets 1-126 focus on a young man and the speaker's friendship with him, and Sonnets 127-52 focus on the speaker's relationship with a woman. However, in only a few of the poems in the first group is it clear that the person being addressed is a male. And most of the poems in the sequence as a whole are not direct addresses to another person. The two concluding sonnets, 153 and 154, are free translations or adaptations of classical verses about Cupid; some critics believe they serve a specific purpose—though they disagree about what this may be—but many others view them as perfunctory.

The English sonnet sequence reached the height of its popularity in the 1590s, when the posthumous publication of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella (1591) was widely celebrated and led other English poets to create their own sonnet collections. All of these, including Shakespeare's, are indebted to some degree to the literary conventions established by the Canzoniere, a sonnet sequence composed by the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. By the time Shakespeare wrote his sonnets, there was also an anti-Petrarchan convention, which satirized or exploited traditional motifs and styles. Commentators on Shakespeare's sonnets frequently compare them to those of his predecessors and contemporaries, including Sidney, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Samuel Daniel, and Edmund Spenser.

The principal topics of twentieth-century critical commentary on the sonnets, however, are their themes and poetic style. Analyses of formal elements in the poems include examinations of the rhetorical devices, syntax, and diction Shakespeare employed here. The multiple and indefinite associations...

(The entire section is 996 words.)