Skip to content

Shakespeare's sonnets

Updated Thursday 27th October 2005

Katherine Duncan-Jones outlines the mystery behind Shakespeare's sonnets.

This page has been archived and no longer updated. Please be aware that the information provided on this page may be out of date, or otherwise inaccurate due to the passage of time. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy

Sonnets - that is, rhymed, fourteen-line poems iniambic pentameters - were popular all over Europe during the sixteenth century. Following the model set by the late medieval Italian writer Francesco Petrarca (‘Petrarch’) (1304-74) in his sonnets to Madonna Laura, many poets arranged sonnets in coherent collections, or ‘sonnet sequences’, which explored a male speaker’s adoration of an unattainable lady.

Sonnet sequences reached England rather late. But they became extremely fashionable in the late Elizabethan period, especially following the posthumous publication of Sir Philip Sidney’s brilliant Astrophil and Stella in 1591.

In the next eight years several dozen English sonnet sequences appeared in print. Many were named after the (partly or wholly imaginary) lady to whom they were addressed - Phillis, Delia, Idea and the like. A cultural reason for the sudden popularity of this form in England may have been the presence on the throne of the unmarried Queen Elizabeth I, whom all of her subjects (supposedly) adored, but whom no-one could ever hope to possess.

Elizabeth I [Image: Jupiter] Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images
The unobtainable ideal: Elizabeth I

By the time Shakespeare’s sequence, entitled Shakespeare’s Sonnets, was published in the plague year 1609, the form was no longer popular, and James I had succeeded Elizabeth. The title, naming the author, not the love-object, is unusual and unprecedented. Shakespeare’s sequence is unusual in other ways, too.

At 154 sonnets, it is longer than almost all of the Elizabethan sequences, which range from fifty to just over a hundred sonnets in all. While some of them had carried preliminary dedications to aristocratic ladies - as well as a female name in the title - Shakespeare’s Sonnets is heralded by a mysterious dedication, set out in capital letters, to a ‘Master W.H.’, supposedly the ‘begetter’, or inspirer, of what follows. His identity is open to debate, but it is certain, at least, that he was male.

The first 126 sonnets all appear to be addressed to a young man. In 1-17 the speaker tries to persuade this beautiful and well-born youth to marry and to beget sons as beautiful as himself. In later sonnets, he promises him immortality through verse - see, for instance, 54, 55, 60, 63. Sometimes the speaker comments on his own ageing, and even writes as if he will die soon - ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’ (71; see also 22, 73). The relationship between the older and younger man seems to be complex and uncomfortable.

Sometimes it appears that the young man has been unreliable or even treacherous (33, 34, 35); and sometimes he has been sexually uncontrolled (40, 41). Presumably as a result, he has gained a bad reputation, having become ‘common’ (69, 70). It is hard to reconcile these sonnets of reproach with many others in which the young man is praised as virtuous as well as beautiful.

The so-called ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, 127 - 152, were probably written earlier, even though they are positioned later in the printed sequence. Rather than being designed as elaborate celebrations of an unattainable lady, as in the ‘Petrarchan’ tradition, most of these sonnets express anger, even disgust, with a woman who is – also contrary to the European literary tradition – dark in complexion, and also, even more extraordinarily, sexually promiscuous.

Her lovers appear to include a young man loved by the speaker (133, 144). If we read the sequence in the order in which it is printed - as I think we should – it is natural to assume that this is the same young man so much praised by the speaker in the long preceding section. Sonnet 129, which begins ‘Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame’, may be seen as striking the keynote to the ‘Dark Lady’ section in expressing disgust with the ‘hell’ of sexual desire combined with an acknowledgement of its extraordinary attraction:

All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare’s Sonnets have provoked mixed reactions. They were largely ignored in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when, in any case, the sonnet form had fallen out of fashion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they were often mentioned with strong disapproval. At the end of the nineteenth century the fact that Oscar Wilde admired them, and cited them in his trial, served to make such disapproval even stronger, for this was a period in which homosexual acts were punishable by law.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Washington Allston Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: WashingtonAllston via Wikimedia Skipping the difficult parts: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Earlier in the century many Romantic critics, such as Coleridge, had been so embarrassed by the male-on-male relationship explored in Sonnets 19 -126 that they largely ignored and sidelined these.

Critics focussed, instead, on the ‘Dark Lady’ sonnets, and suggested that the chief biographical question – for such passionate and emotional poems were bound to invite biographical approaches - was not the real-life identity of ‘Master W.H’ and/or the fair young man, but the real-life identity of the ‘Dark Lady’.

The historian A. L. Rowse carried this ‘Romantic’ approach so far that he called his book devoted to identifying the woman addressed in these sonnets with a real-life original Shakespeare’s Sonnets: The problems solved (1973) .

In the title and in the book itself he claimed that his identification of the ‘Dark Lady’ with a musical and gifted woman called Emilia Lanier, nee Bassano, made everything that mattered about the Sonnets crystal clear. His specific identification was immediately refuted by other scholars, who showed that his claim that Emilia Lanier was ‘brown’ in complexion was based on a misreading of a manuscript.

In any case, for most scholars from the mid-twentieth century onwards, other ‘problems’ have seemed more important. How authentic is the text of the Sonnets as printed in 1609? Are they arranged in the order intended by Shakespeare? And perhaps most pressing of all, what do many individual sonnets ‘mean’?

Some are very difficult. The appearance of many detailed commentaries on the Sonnets in the later twentieth century suggests that simply understanding the Sonnets, word by word, line by line, and sonnet by sonnet, has seemed to most critics and scholars to present more important ‘problems’ than the question of the identity of the ‘Dark Lady’.

Many scholars have also tried to identify the original of the fair young man. Given the dedication of the volume to ‘Master W.H.’, this seems a more promising line of enquiry, since we at least have those two initials to go on, and sonnets punning on the name ‘Will’ (135,136) also suggest that the young man may, like the speaker, have been called William.

The two main contenders are Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his long early poems Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594); and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who was to be joint dedicatee of the posthumous ‘First Folio’ edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623.

Venus And Adonis: A wooden sculpture from southern Germany c1750 in the Victoria And Albert Museum [Image byVeronika Brazdova under CC-BY licence] Creative commons image Icon VeronikaBrazdova via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Venus And Adonis depicted in a southern German Carving [In the Victoria & Albert collection; image by Veronika Brazdova under CC-BY licence]

William Boyd’s A Waste of Shame , which takes its title from Sonnet 129, is a work of fiction, but it works powerfully and convincingly as a reconstruction of real-life factors that could plausibly provide the background to Shakespeare’s composition of the Sonnets, probably over a period of some years: an unhappy and reluctant marriage; a strong sex-drive; an affair with a dark-complexioned prostitute; a fascination with a shallow but charming young nobleman (William Herbert); and a painful three-cornered entanglement.

Along the way, Boyd weaves in Shakespeare’s sometimes uneasily competitive relationship with other poet-playwrights, especially Ben Jonson (cf. Sonnets 80, 82-6). We do not know whether Shakespeare was infected with syphilis, enduring painful and probably damaging treatment for it, as he does in A Waste of Shame.

But the last two sonnets in his collection, 153 and 154, are epigrams on the topic of venereal infection, sexual compulsion, and ineffective treatment, which makes such a scenario entirely plausible.

You can find a list of Shakespeare's Sonnets at http://www.bartleby.com/70/index1.html

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?