Shakespeare's sonnets are a collection of 154 sonnets, dealing with themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty and mortality, first published in a 1609 quarto entitled SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before imprinted. (although sonnets 138 and 144 had previously been published in the 1599 miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim). The quarto ends with "A Lover's Complaint", a narrative poem of 47 seven-line stanzas written in rhyme royal.
The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to a young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation. Other sonnets express the speaker's love for a young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker's mistress; and pun on the poet's name. The final two sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the "little love-god" Cupid.
The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, entered the book in the Stationers' Register on 20 May 1609:
- Tho. Thorpe. Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes vjd.
Whether Thorpe used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy is unknown. George Eld printed the quarto, and the run was divided between the booksellers William Aspley and John Wright.
The sonnets include a dedication to one "Mr. W.H.". The identity of this person remains a mystery and, since the 19th century, has provoked a great deal of speculation.
The dedication reads:
Its oblique nature has led Colin Burrow to describe it as a "dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders".Don Foster concludes that the result of all the speculation has yielded only two "facts," which themselves have been the object of much debate: First, that the form of address (Mr.) suggests that W.H. was an untitled gentleman, and second, that W.H., whoever he was, is identified as "the only begetter" of Shakespeare's Sonnets (whatever the word "begetter" is taken to mean).
The initials 'T.T.' are taken to refer to the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, though Thorpe usually signed prefatory matter only if the author was out of the country or dead. Foster points out, however, that Thorpe's entire corpus of such consists of only four dedications and three stationer's prefaces. That Thorpe signed the dedication rather than the author is often read as evidence that he published the work without obtaining Shakespeare's permission.
The capital letters and periods following each word were probably intended to resemble an ancient Roman lapidary inscription or monumental brass, thereby accentuating Shakespeare's declaration in Sonnet 55 that the work will confer immortality to the subjects of the work:
- Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
- Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
126 of Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to a young man, often called the "Fair Youth." Broadly speaking, there are branches of theories concerning the identity of Mr. W.H.: those that take him to be identical to the youth, and those that assert him to be a separate person.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of contenders:
- William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke). Herbert is seen by many as the most likely candidate, since he was also the dedicatee of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works. However the "obsequious" Thorpe would be unlikely to have addressed a lord as "Mr".
- Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton). Many have argued that 'W.H.' is Southampton's initials reversed, and that he is a likely candidate as he was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks, and has often been argued to be the Fair Youth of the sonnets; however, the same reservations about "Mr." also apply here.
- A simple printing error for Shakespeare's initials, 'W.S.' or 'W. Sh'. This was suggested by Bertrand Russell in his memoirs, and also by Foster and by Jonathan Bate. Bate supports his point by reading 'onlie' as something like 'peerless', 'singular' and 'begetter' as 'maker', ie. 'writer'. Foster takes "onlie" to mean only one, which he argues eliminates any particular subject of the poems, since they are addressed to more than one person. The phrase 'Our Ever-Living Poet', according to Foster, refers to God, not Shakespeare. 'Poet' comes from the Greek 'poetes' which means 'maker', a fact remarked upon in various contemporary texts; also, in Elizabethan English the word 'maker' was used to mean 'poet'. These researchers believe the phrase 'our ever-living poet' might easily have been taken to mean 'our immortal maker' (God). The 'eternity' promised us by our immortal maker would then be the eternal life that is promised us by God, and the dedication would conform with the standard formula of the time, according to which one person wished another "happiness [in this life] and eternal bliss [in heaven]". Shakespeare himself, on this reading, is 'Mr. W. [S]H.' the 'onlie begetter', i.e., the sole author, of the sonnets, and the dedication is advertising the authenticity of the poems.
- William Hall, a printer who had worked with Thorpe on other publications. According to this theory, the dedication is simply Thorpe's tribute to his colleague and has nothing to do with Shakespeare. This theory, originated by Sir Sidney Lee in his A Life of William Shakespeare (1898), was continued by Bernard Rowland Ward in his The Mystery of Mr. W.H. (1923), and has been endorsed recently by Brian Vickers, who notes Thorpe uses such 'visual puns' elsewhere. Supporters of this theory point out that "ALL" following "MR. W. H." spells "MR. W. HALL" with the deletion of a period. Using his initials W.H., Hall had edited a collection of the poems of Robert Southwell that was printed by George Eld, the same printer for the 1609 Sonnets. There is also documentary evidence of one William Hall of Hackney who signed himself 'WH' three years earlier, but it is uncertain if this was the printer.
- Sir William Harvey, Southampton's stepfather. This theory assumes that the Fair Youth and Mr. W.H. are separate people, and that Southampton is the Fair Youth. Harvey would be the "begetter" of the sonnets in the sense that it would be he who provided them to the publisher, after the death of Southampton's mother removed an obstacle to publication. The reservations about the use of "Mr." do not apply in the case of a knight.
- William Himself (i.e., Shakespeare). This theory was proposed by the German scholar D. Barnstorff, but has found no support.
- William Haughton, a contemporary dramatist.
- William Hart, Shakespeare's nephew and male heir. Proposed by Richard Farmer, but Hart was nine years of age at the time of publication, and this suggestion is regarded as unlikely.
- William Hatcliffe of Lincolnshire, proposed by Leslie Hotson in 1964.
- Who He. In his 2002 Oxford Shakespeare edition of the sonnets, Colin Burrow argues that the dedication is deliberately mysterious and ambiguous, possibly standing for "Who He", a conceit also used in a contemporary pamphlet. He suggests that it might have been created by Thorpe simply to encourage speculation and discussion (and hence, sales of the text).
- Willie Hughes. The 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt first proposed the theory that Mr. W.H. and the Fair Youth were one "William Hughes," based on presumed puns on the name in the sonnets. The argument was repeated in Edmund Malone's 1790 edition of the sonnets. The most famous exposition of the theory is in Oscar Wilde's short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," in which Wilde, or rather the story's narrator, describes the puns on "will" and "hues" in the sonnets, (notably Sonnet 20 among others), and argues that they were written to a seductive young actor named Willie Hughes who played female roles in Shakespeare's plays. There is no evidence for the existence of any such person. However, several scholars in the early 20th century identified other persons with that name as possible candidates.
The sonnets are almost all constructed from three quatrains, which are four-line stanzas, and a final couplet composed in iambic pentameter. This is also the meter used extensively in Shakespeare's plays.
The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. Sonnets using this scheme are known as Shakespearean sonnets. Often, the beginning of the third quatrain marks the volta ("turn"), or the line in which the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany.
There are a few exceptions: Sonnets 99, 126, and 145. Number 99 has fifteen lines. Number 126 consists of six couplets, and two blank lines marked with italic brackets; 145 is in iambic tetrameters, not pentameters. There is one other variation on the standard structure, found for example in sonnet 29. The normal rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the b of quatrain one in quatrain three, where the f should be.
When analysed as characters, the subjects of the sonnets are usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. The speaker expresses admiration for the Fair Youth's beauty, and later has an affair with the Dark Lady. It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fiction or autobiographical; scholars who find the sonnets to be autobiographical, notably A. L. Rowse, have attempted to identify the characters with historical individuals.
The "Fair Youth" is the unnamed young man to whom sonnets 1–126 are addressed. Some commentators, noting the romantic and loving language used in this sequence of sonnets, have suggested a sexual relationship between them; others have read the relationship as platonic love.
The earliest poems in the sequence recommend the benefits of marriage and children. With the famous sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") the tone changes dramatically towards romantic intimacy. Sonnet 20 explicitly laments that the young man is not a woman. Most of the subsequent sonnets describe the ups and downs of the relationship, culminating with an affair between the poet and the Dark Lady. The relationship seems to end when the Fair Youth succumbs to the Lady's charms.(Sonnet 144).
There have been many attempts to identify the young man. Shakespeare's one-time patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton is commonly suggested, although Shakespeare's later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, has recently become popular. Both claims begin with the dedication of the sonnets to 'Mr. W.H.', "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets"; the initials could apply to either earl. However, while Shakespeare's language often seems to imply that the subject is of higher social status than himself, the apparent references to the poet's inferiority may simply be part of the rhetoric of romantic submission. An alternative theory, most famously espoused by Oscar Wilde's short story 'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.' notes a series of puns that may suggest the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, Wilde's story acknowledges that there is no evidence for such a person's existence. Samuel Butler believed that the friend was a seaman. Joseph Pequigney argued in his book Such Is My Love that the Fair Youth was an unknown commoner.
The Dark Lady
The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–152), distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion. Among these, Sonnet 151 has been characterised as "bawdy" and is used to illustrate the difference between the spiritual love for the Fair Youth and the sexual love for the Dark Lady. The distinction is commonly made in the introduction to modern editions of the sonnets. The Dark Lady is so called because the poems make it clear that she has black hair and dun coloured skin. As with the Fair Youth, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual. Lucy Negro,Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier, and others have been suggested.
The Rival Poet
The Rival Poet's identity remains a mystery; among the varied candidates are Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, or, an amalgamation of several contemporaries. However, there is no hard evidence that the character had a real-life counterpart. The speaker sees the Rival as competition for fame, coin and patronage. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 78–86.
One interpretation is that Shakespeare's sonnets are a pastiche or parody of the 300 year-old tradition of Petrarchan love sonnets; Shakespeare consciously inverts conventional gender roles as delineated in Petrarchan sonnets to create a more complex depiction of human love. He plays with gender roles (20), comments on political events (124), makes fun of love (128), speaks openly about sexual desire (129), parodies beauty (130) and even references pornography (151).
Shakespeare's sonnets can be seen as a prototype, or even the beginning, of a new kind of "modern" love poetry. During the eighteenth century, the sonnets' reputation in England was relatively low; as late as 1805, The Critical Review could still credit John Milton with the perfection of the English sonnet. As part of the renewed interest in Shakespeare's original work that accompanied Romanticism, the sonnets rose steadily in reputation during the nineteenth century.
The sonnets have great cross-cultural importance and influence. There is no major written language into which the sonnets have not been translated, including German, French, Japanese, Turkish, Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew, Welsh, Yiddish, Esperanto and most other languages.
Like all Shakespeare's works, the sonnets have been reprinted in many editions.
- Martin Seymour-Smith (1963) Shakespeare's Sonnets (Oxford, Heinemann Educational)
- Oscar James Campbell (1964) The Sonnets, Songs and Poems of Shakespeare (Bantam Books)
- A.L. Rowse (1973) Shakespeare's Sonnets - the Problems Solved: A Modern Edition with Prose Versions, Introduction and Notes (Macmillan)
- Stephen Booth (1977) Shakespeare's Sonnets (Yale)
- W G Ingram and Theodore Redpath (1978) Shakespeare's Sonnets, 2nd Edition
- John Kerrigan (1986) The Sonnets and a Lover's Complaint (Penguin)
- G. Blakemore Evans (1996) The Sonnets (Cambridge UP)
- Katherine Duncan-Jones (1997) Shakespeare's Sonnets (Arden Edition, Third Series)
- Helen Vendler (1997) The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets,
- Colin Burrow (2002) The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford, Oxford University Press)
- George Bernard Shaw's The Dark Lady of the Sonnets
- Sonnet 1 to Sonnet 154
- – Compare two sonnets side-by-side, see all of them together on one page, or view a range of sonnets (from Open Source Shakespeare)
- at Project Gutenberg
- from LibriVox
- – Listed by number and first line.
- Quick reference facts about the sonnets
- Bowley, Roger. . Numberphile. Brady Haran.