Shakespeare's Sonnets


The primary source of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a quarto published in 1609 titled Shake-speare’s Sonnets. It contains 154 sonnets, which are followed by the long poem "A Lover's Complaint". Thirteen copies of the quarto have survived in fairly good shape from the 1609 edition, which is the only edition; there were no other printings. There is evidence in a note on the title page of one of the extant copies that the great Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn bought a copy in June 1609 for one shilling.[4][5]

The sonnets cover such themes as the passage of time, love, infidelity, jealousy, beauty and mortality. The first 126 are addressed to a young man; the last 28 are either addressed to, or refer to a woman. (Sonnets 138 and 144 had previously been published in the 1599 miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim).

The title of the quarto, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is consistent with the entry in the Stationer Register. The title appears in upper case lettering on the title page, where it is followed by the phrase “Neuer before Imprinted”. The title also appears every time the quarto is opened. That the author’s name in a possessive form is part of the title sets it apart from all other sonnet collections of the time, except for one — Sir Philip Sidney’s posthumous 1591 publication that is titled, Syr. P.S. his Astrophel and Stella, which is considered one of Shakespeare’s most important models. Sidney’s title may have inspired Shakespeare, particularly if the “W.H.” of Shakespeare’s dedication is Sidney’s nephew and heir, William Herbert. The idea that the persona referred to as the speaker of the Shakespeare’s sonnets might be Shakespeare himself, is aggressively repudiated by scholars, however, the title of the quarto does seem to encourage that kind of speculation.[6]

The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to the young man – urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation.[7] Other sonnets express the speaker's love for the 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:[8]

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.


Shakespeare's Sonnets include a dedication to "Mr. W.H.":

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The upper case letters and the stops that follow each word of the dedication were probably intended to resemble an ancient Roman lapidary inscription or monumental brass, perhaps accentuating the declaration in Sonnet 55 that the work would confer immortality to the subjects of the work:[9]

"Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme"

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.[10] However, Thorpe's entire corpus of such consists of only four dedications and three prefaces.[11] It has been suggested that Thorpe signing the dedication, rather than the author, might indicate that Thorpe published the work without obtaining Shakespeare's permission.[12] Though Thorpe's taking on the dedication may be explained by the great demands of business and travel that Shakespeare was facing at this time, which may have caused him to deal with the printing production in haste before rushing out of town.[13] After all, May 1609 was an extraordinary time: That month saw a serious outbreak of the plague, which shut down the theatres, and also caused many to flee London. Plus Shakespeare’s theatre company was on tour from Ipswich to Oxford. In addition, Shakespeare had been away from Stratford and in the same month, May, was being called on to tend to family and business there,[14] and deal with the litigation of a lawsuit in Warwickshire that involved a substantial amount of money.[15]

Mr. W. H., the dedicatee

The identity of Mr. W.H., "the only begetter of Shakespeare's Sonnets", is not known for certain. His identity has been the subject of a great amount of speculation: That he was the author’s patron, that he was both patron and the "faire youth" who is addressed in the sonnets, that the "faire youth" is based on Mr. W.H. in some sonnets but not others, and a number of other ideas.[16][17][18]

William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, is seen as perhaps the most likely identity of Mr. W.H. and the "young man". He was the dedicatee of the First Folio. Thorpe would have been unlikely to have addressed a lord as "Mr",[19] but there may be an explanation, perhaps that form of address came from the author, who wanted to refer to Herbert at an earlier time – when Herbert was a "younger man".[20] There is a later dedication to Herbert in another quarto of verse, Ben Jonson’s Epigrammes (1616), in which the text of Jonson’s dedication begins, "MY LORD, While you cannot change your merit, I dare not change your title … " Jonson's emphasis on Pembroke's title, and his comment, seem to be chiding someone else who had the audacity to use the wrong title, as perhaps is the case in Shakespeare's dedication.[21]

Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton), with initials reversed, has received a great deal of consideration as a likely possibility. He was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks.

The following is a list of other possibilities that have been suggested:

  • A simple printing error for Shakespeare's initials, "W.S." or "W. Sh". This was suggested by Bertrand Russell and by Jonathan Bate.[22]
  • William Hall, a printer who had worked with Thorpe.[23][24] It is noted that "ALL" following "MR. W. H." spells "MR. W. HALL". Using his initials W.H., Hall had edited a collection of the poems of Robert Southwell that was printed by George Eld, the printer of the 1609 Sonnets.[25]
  • Sir William Harvey, Southampton's stepfather.[19][26]
  • William Haughton, a contemporary dramatist.[27][28]
  • William Hart, Shakespeare's nephew and male heir.[29]
  • Who He. It has been argued that the dedication is deliberately ambiguous, possibly standing for "Who He", a conceit also used in a contemporary pamphlet. It might have been created by Thorpe to encourage speculation and discussion (and hence, sales).[30]
  • Willie Hughes. The 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt proposed "William Hughes", based on puns on the name in the sonnets. (notably Sonnet 20) This idea is expressed in Oscar Wilde's short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.", and that the sonnets were written to a young actor who played female roles in Shakespeare's plays.[31]


The sonnets are almost all constructed of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a final couplet. The sonnets are composed in iambic pentameter, the meter used in Shakespeare's plays.

The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Sonnets using this scheme are known as Shakespearean sonnets, or English sonnets, or Elizabethan sonnets. Often, at the beginning of the third quatrain occurs the volta ("turn"), where of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a turn of thought.[32]

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. In one other variation on the standard structure, found for example in sonnet 29, the rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the second (B) rhyme of quatrain one as the second (F) rhyme of quatrain three.

Apart from rhyme, and considering only the arrangement of ideas, and the placement of the volta, a number of sonnets maintain the two-part organization of the Italian sonnet. In that case the term "octave" and "sestet" are commonly used to refer to the sonnet’s first eight lines followed by the remaining six lines. There are other line-groupings as well, as Shakespeare finds inventive ways with the content of the fourteen line poems.[33]

Characters of the sonnets

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—if reading the sonnets in chronological order as published—later has an affair with the Dark Lady, then so does the Fair Youth. Current linguistic analysis and historical evidence suggests, however, that the sonnets to the Dark Lady were composed first (around 1591–95), the procreation sonnets next, and the later sonnets to the Fair Youth last (1597–1603). It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fiction or autobiographical; scholars who find the sonnets to be autobiographical have attempted to identify the characters with historical individuals.[34]

Fair Youth

The "Fair Youth" is the unnamed young man addressed by the devoted poet in the greatest sequence of the sonnets (1–126). The young man is handsome, self-centered, universally admired and much sought after. The sequence begins with the poet urging the young man to marry and father children (sonnets 1–17). It continues with the friendship developing with the poet’s loving admiration, which at times is homoerotic in nature. Then comes a set of betrayals by the young man, as he is seduced by the Dark Lady, and they maintain a liaison (sonnets 133, 134 & 144), all of which the poet struggles to abide. It concludes with the poet’s own act of betrayal, resulting in his independence from the fair youth (sonnet 152).[35][36][37]

The identity of the Fair Youth has been the subject of speculation among scholars. One popular theory is that he was Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, this is based in part on the idea that his physical features, age, and personality might fairly match the young man in the sonnets.[38] He was both an admirer and patron of Shakespeare and was considered one of the most prominent nobles of the period.[39] It is also noted that Shakespeare’s 1593 poem Venus and Adonis is dedicated to Southampton, and in that poem a young man, Adonis, is encouraged by the goddess of love, Venus, to beget a child, which is a theme in the sonnets. Here are the verses from Venus and Adonis:[40]

Torches are made to light, jewels to wear, Dainties to taste, fresh beauty for the use, Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear; Things growing to themselves are growth’s abuse,   Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty;   Thou wast begot; to get it is thy duty. Upon the earth’s increase why shouldst thou feed, Unless the earth with thy increase be fed? By law of nature thou art bound to breed, That thine may live when thou thyself art dead;   And so in spite of death thou dost survive,   In that thy likeness still is left alive.[41]

A problem with identifying the fair youth with Southampton is that the most certainly datable events referred to in the Sonnets are the fall of Essex and then the gunpowder plotters’ executions in 1606, which puts Southampton at the age of 33, and then 39 when the sonnets were published, when he would be past the age when he would be referred to as a "lovely boy" or "fair youth".[42]

Authors like Thomas Tyrwhitt[43] and Oscar Wilde proposed that the Fair Youth was William Hughes, a seductive young actor who played female roles in Shakespeare's plays. Particularly, Wilde claimed that he was the Mr. W.H.[44] referred to in the dedication attached to the manuscript of the Sonnets.[38]

The Dark Lady

The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–154) Shakespeare is the most defiant of the sonnet tradition. The sequence distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence with its overt sexuality (Sonnet 151).[45] The Dark Lady is so called because she has black hair and dun coloured skin. The Dark Lady suddenly appears (Sonnet 127), and she and the speaker of the sonnets, the poet, are in a sexual relationship. She is not aristocratic, young, beautiful, intelligent or chaste. Her complexion is muddy, her breath “reeks”, and she is ungainly when she walks. The relationship has a strong parallel with Touchstone’s pursuit of Audrey in As You Like It.[46] The Dark Lady presents an adequate receptor for male desire. She is celebrated in cocky terms that would be offensive to her, not that she would be able to read or understand what's said. Soon the speaker rebukes her for enslaving his fair friend (sonnet 130). He can't abide the triangular relationship, and it ends with him rejecting her.[47][48] As with the Fair Youth, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual. Lucy Negro,[49][50] Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier, Elizabeth Wriothesley, and others have been suggested.

The Rival Poet

The Rival Poet's identity remains a mystery. If Shakespeare’s patron and friend was Pembroke, Shakespeare was not the only poet that praised his beauty; Francis Davison did in a sonnet that is the preface to Davison's quarto A Poetical Rhapsody (1608), which was published just before Shakespeare’s Sonnets.[51] John Davies of Hereford, Samuel Daniel, George Chapman, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson are also candidates that find support among clues in the sonnets.[52][53]

It may be that the Rival Poet is a composite of several poets through which Shakespeare explores his sense of being threatened by competing poets.[54] The speaker sees the Rival Poet as competition for fame and patronage. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 78–86.[54]

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