Sonnets 1-126 tell the story of the narrator's unrelenting affection for a young and beautiful man, a "fair lord," to whom these sonnets are addressed. The absence of explicit identifying characteristics has given way to much controversy over the fair lord's real-world analogue - if any. Assuming that the sonnets are indeed autobiographical (an assumption not given credence by some) and that the characters described therein do in fact have mundane counterparts, two prime contenders have been put forth for the role of the sonnets' fair lord. The first is Mr. William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, a patron of the arts. Herbert and his brother were the dedicatees of Shakespeare's First Folio of works; Herbert was also born in 1580, and he therefore would have been a young man around the time the sonnets were likely composed. The second candidate is Mr. Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his Venus and Adonis and Lucrece. Wriothesley was also a patron of the arts and an admirer of Shakespeare's work. In his 1594 dedication of Lucrece, Shakespeare wrote, "The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end ... What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours." Note that both of these men have names that could correspond to the sonnets' dedicatee, Mr. W. H. (Henry Wriothesley with initials reversed); many critics do associate the fair lord with this Mr. W. H., as the fair lord appears in the sonnets not only as the object of the narrator's adoration but also as the financial benefactor of his work.
Perhaps the most intriguing facet of the relationship between the narrator and his fair lord is the plethora of homoerotic undertones in the sonnets. Scholars are divided as to whether the narrator's love for his fair lord was purely Platonic in nature or whether it was in fact something more - something romantic, perhaps even something lustful. It is well known that homosexuality was a matter of taboo in Shakespeare's society, which may account for the poet's unwillingness to publish his sonnets for the public. Meanwhile, some scholars, quite notably A. L. Rowse, deny the existence of homoerotic undertones in the sonnets, arguing in part that the culture of the time permitted language between friends that strikes the modern ear as implicitly sexual. There is a kernel of truth in this statement, though it falls far short of rationalizing the idolatry and explicit infatuation many readers find in the poet's words.
The next character to whom we are introduced is that of the rival poet, who makes his first appearance in sonnet 21 ("Stirr'd by a painted beauty to his verse") but does not become definitively present until sonnets 79-86, where he emerges as the poet's competitor in the pursuit of his fair lord's affection. Scholars have also pondered the identity of this rival poet, the debate again ricocheting between two likely candidates: Christopher Marlowe and George Chapman. Marlowe was Shakespeare's immediate predecessor as the foremost dramatist of the Elizabethan era, and it is reasonable to assume a measure of professional rivalry between the two. Marlowe is also frequently described as having been a homosexual, which fits conveniently with the rival poet's attraction to the fair lord as an inspiration for his work. As for Chapman, alleged references in the sonnets to various of Chapman's writings lead many to believe that he is indeed the rival poet who vies for the fair lord's attention. In any case, the figure of the rival poet is haunting for the sonnets' narrator, who feels disdain for his inability to keep the fair lord as his own.
The final persona in Shakespeare's sonnets is that of the dark lady, featured in sonnets 127-154. The dark lady's adjective appears to carry both a literal (as in dark features) and a figurative (as in a dark personality) significance, the latter being exemplified in her less than scrupulous sexual escapades. The sonnets allude to her promiscuity: "If eyes corrupt by over-partial looks / Be anchor'd in the bay where all men ride" (sonnet 137). It has been suggested that the dark lady is a married woman who engages in adulterous relationships, both with the narrator and with other men, among whom the fair lord may be included (see sonnet 133). It has also been suggested that the dark lady is a prostitute of African descent.
Unlike the cases of the fair lord and the rival poet, the question of the true identity of the dark lady - if there be one - has spawned a very wide cast of candidates. One historical figure commonly put forth as the dark lady is Mary Fitton, a maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth, who is known to have had an extramarital affair with William Herbert; not surprisingly, it is particularly those who believe William Herbert to be the sonnets' fair lord who also argue the case for Mary Fitton as their dark lady. Another possibility is the poet Emilia Lanier, who was the mistress of one of Shakespeare's patrons. Lanier, of Italian descent, was described as having dark features; her father having been a musician, it is also conceivable that she had some musical talent, which would align her well with the instrument-playing dark lady of sonnet 128. Meanwhile, Ian Wilson, a modern-day author, puts forth Penelope Rich as the one, citing her as "the most famous adulteress of her day." Numerous other candidates have been named, each with her own particular allure - and incongruity. Needless to say, the identity of the dark lady, as with those of the fair lord and the rival poet, will likely remain unresolved.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Shakespeare’s Sonnets is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.