Critical Overview

(Shakespeare for Students)

The sonnets appear to have attracted little attention when first published in 1609, and they have not always enjoyed the high reputation they do today. Indeed, the sonnets were reprinted only once during the seventeenth century; and it is possible that the original edition was withdrawn by Thomas Thorpe, the publisher, perhaps after a complaint by members of the aristocracy about the intimate nature of the love portrayed in some of the sonnets. However, this cannot be known for certain.

In the eighteenth century most readers regarded the sonnets as inferior to the plays of Shakespeare, and editions of Shakespeare’s works sometimes omitted them. In the nineteenth century, the poet William Wordsworth dismissed the sonnets as “tedious and obscure,” although he later changed his mind.

During the nineteenth century scholars mainly occupied themselves with trying to identify the characters in the sequence with actual people that Shakespeare may have known. It was generally assumed that the sonnets were autobiographical. Opinion was sharply divided as to their merit.

Modern critics have been less willing to assume that the sonnets tell an autobiographical story and have been more inclined to analyze them simply as literature, assuming that whether they are truth or fiction can never be known for certain. Critics today have no doubt about the high quality of the sonnets, and not since John Crowe Ransom’s The World’s Body...

(The entire section is 535 words.)