William Shakespeare, Sonnets, ?1593-1609? MS / 1609 ed. prin.

Genre: Sonnet collection, perhaps a cycle with dramatic coherence, but no one interpretation of a single "plot" has won general acceptance.

Form: Fourteen-line iambic pentameter poems, with lines set in three quatrains and a couplet.  (The exception is #126, set in seven rhyming couplets, perhaps as an "envoy" to the group addressing the young man [1-126].) However, the astute reader will discover that many of these sonnets (e.g., 12, 151, 18, 19, etc.) also contain an octave/sestet rhetorical structure that contests harmoniously with the quatrain/couplet rhyme scheme.  So is a stanza a unit of rhyme or a unit of the poem's "argument"?  He also was unafraid to creatively challenge the sonnet's meter.  In this, Shakespeare was like Sidney, who has a clear predeliction for beginning with troches instead of iambs ("Lov-ing in truth" from A&S #1) and a willingness to dramatize surplus with hypermetrical lines (again, A&S #1 plus #6, both all in hexameters).  Compare Shakespeare's sonnet 33, counting carefully its lines meter.  Click here for some comparisons among evolving genres: the sonnet, the blues, "R&B," and rock and roll.

Characters:  Shakespeare's speaking persona, a young male he admires/loves, a "dark lady" who is the persona's beloved but who also competes for the love of the young man, a rival poet (86) who threatens to steal the young man's affections, and a host of personified abstractions (Time, Death, Beauty, Fame, etc.).

Summary:  The poet's persona first (1-126) praises the young male friend/lover's beauty, urges him to procreate, and chides him for disappointing his friends and family.  The persona also articulates the doctrine (perhaps influenced by du Bellay and Spenser, as well as classical sources) of poetry's enduring power against the force of "devouring Time." 
For a note explaining this motif or common poetic expression and relating it to Shakespeare's use of it, click here.

The "dark lady" sonnets (127-52) demonstrate considerably more of the poet's struggle with the passion that inspires the poem (see Sidney).  Desire can destroy or rejuvenate the persona's capacity to make poems.  The sonnets of this section often describe the relationship in terms of disease, deception, and mortal weakness.  Because even the "dark lady" group may be an illusory artifact created by the printer's pagination decisions, which Shakespeare may not have consented to, we might also look for other patterns in the sonnets' transmission and transformation of the sonnet tradition Shakespeare inherited from Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney and Spenser.  One might find it interesting that a supremely ambitious poet like Shakespeare did not specifically write a "sonnet cycle" with a coherent plot like Sidney and Spenser, nor did he accept Spenser's increasingly complicated sonnet form, with its concatenated rhyme and archaic spelling.

Issues and Research Sources:

  1. You will find some critics' whole careers based on the patterns found in Shakespeare's sonnets.  This is not because (pace you cynics out there) we are nit-pickers who have nothing better to do, but because Shakespeare stood at a cultural crossroads in European history with powers of linguistic usage, formal knowledge, human sensitivity, and insight which enabled him to combine the rich resources thrown at him by the culture and to reinvent them in extraordinary works.  You should be able, by now, to follow his handling of traditional poetic forms like the sonnet, and to see his indebtedness to Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and Spenser.  You also should be able to see his innovations, not so much in the physical form of the poem, which he tended to leave in the three-quatrain/couplet form Surrey founded (with the "octave/sestet" exception types noted above), which also connects him to the tradition of Sidney and Spenser.  However, he makes maximum use of word choice (diction, usage) which stand out in particularly vivid coinages (like Wyatt's "heart's forest") and of syntactic complexity which deceives and then reveals sudden depths or surprising discoveries (e.g., #29 which, like Surrey's "Soote Season," loads the poem with information trending in one logical direction before snapping the reader into a complete reversal of the expected conclusion).
  2. The sonnets often have been mined for evidence of a dramatic structure, and you will find many critical studies which purport to explain "what Shakespeare had in mind" if he wrote the sonnets as a sequence.  But the poems were published (perhaps like Sidney's Astrophil and Stella) without any sign of authorial sanction, though the prologue appears to suggest that the poet was known to the publisher and the relationship was not hostile.   This is a long way from evidence that the poet had a plan for all 154 sonnets, and that that plan was executed in the published volumes which issued from the printer's press.  (As a former printer, I can guarantee the latter process is likely to mix up the order of pages, alter emphases, or even delete works intended to be included--see note 4, 1032.)
  3. Continuing this attempt to put Shakespeare's lyric poetry into the larger picture of the English lyric's development, we could think about the cultural changes which accompanied the end of Elizabeth's reign and the early years of James I's reign.  See the Norton (495-6 and 1209-10) for some idea of how it seemed to the English at the time.   Petrarchanism was now nearly 100 years old, and the sonnet was to them no more of a novelty than electricity is now to Americans.  Can you detect where Shakespeare stands with respect to the Petrarchan sonneteers (Wyatt and Surrey) who used the Italian poet's similes and metaphors (ship, fever, storm, etc.) when they still were new in English, and the anti-Petrarchan sonneteers (Sidney, Donne, Milton) who make a point of denying that such comparisons make good verse?   In the next half of the semester, we'll encounter the "metaphysical poets," (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, etc.).  They might be said to "supercharge" the Petrarchan comparisons by choosing a "vehicle" (commonplace comparator) that will shock when connected with the "tenor" (abstract or new referent).  For instance, Donne famously uses the mingling of his blood with his lover's blood in a flea that has bitten them both as a metaphor for the getting of children in the marriage bed (Norton 1236)!  Do you see any examples in Shakespeare's use of comparison that might approach this degree of novelty?  Think about the sonnet as the rock-and-roll song of Elizabethan culture--where do you suppose we're headed in the later 1600s, and is Shakespeare looking backward to Wyatt & Co. or forward to this new trend?
  4. Shakespeare's sonnets suffer from overexposure, or at least some of them do.  When we have read or heard a poem many times, especially if its meaning has not been explored when its text was "performed," the poem can become aurally or visually fossilized in our minds.  Its parts no longer stand out as working elements of meaning.  To fight against this tendency, we have two choices.  We can choose sonnets that only rarely are noticed, and read them carefully as they deserve to be read.  Or, we can choose one of the fossilized sonnets and read it even more carefully, word by word, phrase by phrase, stanza by stanza, looking for its joints and sinews, paying attention to its meter's distribution of rhythmic stress and its rhyme scheme's associations of rhyming words in thematic patterns.  We want to be able to observe and explain how its meaning unfolds like a flower blossoming in time-lapse photography

         Our goal is to understand a Shakespearian sonnet with such feeling and sympathy for its construction that we could use it as a tool to detect other Shakespearian sonnets, or to detect Shakespeare's influence on later sonnet writers who borrow his techniques (e.g., Donne, Herbert, Milton, Wordsworth).  In short, we want to learn the sonnet to construct a memory device.  The more personally you relate to the sonnet you have chosen, the better your device will work.

  5. Though we would do well to treat skeptically any claims that any sonnet's order among the entire 154 published in 1609 was Shakespeare's deliberate intention, the printer and "friends" who made the manuscript poems available may well have encountered them circulating in clustered groups of individual leaves.  For instance, the "young man's marriage" poems (1-17), the "love for a young man" poems (18-126), and the "Dark Lady" poems (127-54) might have been placed together by Shakespeare, or smaller groups within those clusters might bear the author's ordering intention.  If you are reading an individual sonnet you like and hope to interpret, I cannot imagine how you could resist the desire to see what sonnets precede or follow it.  You can see the complete 1609 text in the library's copy ( 826.31 1953 for the Arden edition or  826.31 1871 for the Variorum which lists all variant readings for each word or line).  You also can use several online sites which meet scholarly standards for textual accuracy, including Richard Bear's "Renascence Editions" text based on U. Adelaide's edition edition , the U. Toronto edition, or if you want to see a facsimile of the actual pages from the 1609 edition, they have been digitized.  For a scholarly discussion of the sonnet-order problem, see Brents Stirling, The Shakespeare Sonnet Order; Poems and Groups (Berkeley: U. California P., 1968) which the library has in its collection (826.31 HsSs).  If you discover more recent scholarly work on this problem, please send me the bibliographic information so that I can update this page.
  6. Helen Vendler's study of all these sonnets would be worth consulting for anyone completing a paper on a Shakespeare sonnet, just to take advantage of her seasoned wisdom: The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge, MA: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1997) 826.31 Sv452a .

Back to English 211, Syllabus View.