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.