Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets
A sonnet is a 14-line poem that rhymes in a particular pattern. In Shakespeare’s sonnets, the rhyme pattern is abab cdcd efef gg, with the final couplet used to summarize the previous 12 lines or present a surprise ending. The rhythmic pattern of the sonnets is the iambic pentameter. An iamb is a metrical foot consisting of one stressed syllable and one unstressed syllable — as in dah-DUM, dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM. Shakespeare uses five of these in each line, which makes it a pentameter. The sonnet is a difficult art form for the poet because of its restrictions on length and meter.
Although the entirety of Shakespeare’s sonnets were not formally published until 1609 (and even then, they were published without the author’s knowledge), an allusion to their existence appeared eleven years earlier, in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia (1598), in which Meres commented that Shakespeare’s “sugred Sonnets” were circulating privately among the poet’s friends. Approximately a year later, William Jaggard’s miscellany, The Passionate Pilgrim, appeared, containing twenty poems, five of which are known to be Shakespeare’s — two of the Dark Lady sonnets (Sonnets 138 and 144) and three poems included in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost. Apparently these five poems were printed in Jaggard’s miscellany (a collection of writings on various subjects) without Shakespeare’s authorization.
Without question, Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his day, and his dramatic influence is still evident today, but the sonnet form, which was so very popular in Shakespeare’s era, quickly lost its appeal. Even before Shakespeare’s death in 1616 the sonnet was no longer fashionable, and for two hundred years after his death, there was little interest in either Shakespeare’s sonnets, or in the sonnet form itself.
The text of Shakespeare’s sonnets generally considered to be definitive is that of the 1609 edition, which was published by Thomas Thorpe, a publisher having less than a professional reputation. Thorpe’s edition, titled Shake-speare’s Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted, is referred to today as the “Quarto,” and is the basis for all modern texts of the sonnets.
The Quarto would have lapsed into obscurity for the remainder of the seventeenth century had it not been for the publication of a second edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, brought out by John Benson in 1640. A pirated edition of the sonnets, Benson’s version was not a carefully edited, duplicate copy of the Quarto. Because Benson took several liberties with Shakespeare’s text, his volume has been of interest chiefly as the beginning of a long campaign to sanitize Shakespeare. Among other things, Benson rearranged the sonnets into so-called “poems” — groups varying from one to five sonnets in length and to which he added descriptive and unusually inept titles. Still worse, he changed Shakespeare’s pronouns: “He’s” became “she’s” in some sonnets addressed to the young man so as to make the poet speak lovingly to a woman — not to a man.
Benson also interspersed Shakespeare’s sonnets with poems written by other people, as well as with other non-sonnet poems written by Shakespeare. This led to much of the subsequent confusion about Shakespeare’s order of preference for his sonnets, which appear to tell the story, first, of his adulation of a young man and, later, of his adoration of his “dark lady.”
The belief that the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a man and that the rest are addressed to a woman has become the prevailing contemporary view. In addition, a majority of modern critics remain sufficiently satisfied with Thorpe’s 1609 ordering of those sonnets addressed to the young man, but most of them have serious reservations about the second group addressed to the woman.
Another controversy surrounding the sonnets is the dedication at the beginning of Thorpe’s 1609 edition. Addressed to “Mr. W. H.,” the dedication has led to a series of conjectures as to the identity of this person. The two leading candidates are Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke.
Because Shakespeare dedicated his long poem “Venus and Adonis” to Southampton, and because the young earl loved poetry and drama and may well have sought out Shakespeare and offered himself as the poet’s patron, many critics consider Southampton to be “Mr. W. H.”
The other contender for the object of the dedication is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Shakespeare dedicated the First Folio of his works, published in 1623, to Pembroke and Pembroke’s brother Philip. Pembroke was wealthy, notorious for his sexual exploits but averse to marriage, and a patron of literary men. Critics who believe that Mary Fitton, one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honor, was the Dark Lady of Sonnets 12–54, are particularly convinced that Pembroke is “Mr. W. H.,” for Pembroke had an affair with Fitton, who bore him a child out of wedlock; this extramarital affair is considered to parallel too closely the sexual relationship in the sonnets to be mere coincidence.
In addition to their date of composition, their correct ordering, and the object of the dedication, the other controversial issue surrounding the sonnets is the question of whether or not they are autobiographical. While contemporary criticism remains interested in the question of whether or not the sonnets are autobiographical, the sonnets, taken either wholly or individually, are first and foremost a work of literature, to be read and discussed both for their poetic quality and their narrative tale. Their appeal rests not so much in the fact that they may shed some light on Shakespeare’s life, nor even that they were written by him; rather, their greatness lies in the richness and the range of subjects found in them.
Overview of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Although Shakespeare’s sonnets can be divided into different sections numerous ways, the most apparent division involves Sonnets 1–126, in which the poet strikes up a relationship with a young man, and Sonnets 127–154, which are concerned with the poet’s relationship with a woman, variously referred to as the Dark Lady, or as his mistress.
In the first large division, Sonnets 1–126, the poet addresses an alluring young man with whom he has struck up a relationship. In Sonnets 1–17, he tries to convince the handsome young man to marry and beget children so that the youth’s incredible beauty will not die when the youth dies. Starting in Sonnet 18, when the youth appears to reject this argument for procreation, the poet glories in the young man’s beauty and takes consolation in the fact that his sonnets will preserve the youth’s beauty, much like the youth’s children would.
By Sonnet 26, perhaps becoming more attached to the young man than he originally intended, the poet feels isolated and alone when the youth is absent. He cannot sleep. Emotionally exhausted, he becomes frustrated by what he sees as the youth’s inadequate response to his affection. The estrangement between the poet and the young man continues at least through Sonnet 58 and is marked by the poet’s fluctuating emotions for the youth: One moment he is completely dependent on the youth’s affections, the next moment he angrily lashes out because his love for the young man is unrequited.
Despondent over the youth’s treatment of him, desperately the poet views with pain and sorrow the ultimate corrosion of time, especially in relation to the young man’s beauty. He seeks answers to the question of how time can be defeated and youth and beauty preserved. Philosophizing about time preoccupies the poet, who tells the young man that time and immortality cannot be conquered; however, the youth ignores the poet and seeks other friendships, including one with the poet’s mistress (Sonnets 40–42) and another with a rival poet (Sonnets 79–87). Expectedly, the relationship between the youth and this new poet greatly upsets the sonnets’ poet, who lashes out at the young man and then retreats into despondency, in part because he feels his poetry is lackluster and cannot compete with the new forms of poetry being written about the youth. Again, the poet fluctuates between confidence in his poetic abilities and resignation about losing the youth’s friendship.
Philosophically examining what love for another person entails, the poet urges his friend not to postpone his desertion of the poet — if that is what the youth is ultimately planning. Break off the relationship now, begs the poet, who is prepared to accept whatever fate holds. Ironically, the more the youth rejects the poet, the greater is the poet’s affection for and devotion to him. No matter how vicious the young man is to the poet, the poet does not — emotionally can not — sever the relationship. He masochistically accepts the youth’s physical and emotional absence.
Finally, after enduring what he feels is much emotional abuse by the youth, the poet stops begging for his friend’s affection. But then, almost unbelievably, the poet begins to think that his newfound silence toward the youth is the reason for the youth’s treating him as poorly as he does. The poet blames himself for any wrong the young man has done him and apologizes for his own treatment of his friend. This first major division of sonnets ends with the poet pitiably lamenting his own role in the dissolution of his relationship with the youth.
The second, shorter grouping of Sonnets 127–154 involves the poet’s sexual relationship with the Dark Lady, a married woman with whom he becomes infatuated. Similar to his friendship with the young man, this relationship fluctuates between feelings of love, hate, jealousy, and contempt. Also similar is the poet’s unhealthy dependency on the woman’s affections. When, after the poet and the woman begin their affair, she accepts additional lovers, at first the poet is outraged. However, as he did with the youth, the poet ultimately blames himself for the Dark Lady’s abandoning him. The sonnets end with the poet admitting that he is a slave to his passion for the woman and can do nothing to curb his lust. Shakespeare turns the traditional idea of a romantic sonnet on its head in this series, however, as his Dark Lady is not an alluring beauty and does not exhibit the perfection that lovers typically ascribe to their beloved.
Quotes are taken from the Pelican Shakespeare edition of The Sonnets, published by Penguin books.