Read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets below, along with a modern English interpretation of each one. These are intended to offer an easy read-through to aid understanding of the sonnets. There’s no attempt to ‘translate’ Shakespeare’s sonnets word for word, as Shakespeare’s poetry is intense and heavily layered with multiple meanings and use of rhyme, metre, and metaphors – all in iambic pentameter.
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets published in his ‘quarto’ in 1609, covering themes such as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, infidelity and jealousy. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man, with the last 28 are either addressed to a woman.
These 154 sonnet translations offer only the argument of each sonnet and a general impression of the main sense, whilst following each line and image as a modern version. Take your pick from the list of Shakespeare sonnets below (or learn how to write a sonnet of your own!):
A widely held belief contends that the sonnets were published without Shakespeare’s consent. Had Shakespeare endorsed their publication, many believe he would have provided their printer with an authoritative text and a dedication. However, “Shakes-peares Sonnets” contains no dedication from the author and the text has many errors. Some critics also maintain that some sonnets are unfinished and that the sequence is too incoherent to have been intended for publication.
Exponents of this view have argued that someone whom Shakespeare trusted betrayed him by giving the poems to their first publisher, Thomas Thope, or that a thief, perhaps motivated by animosity or personal profit, seized the poets manuscript and sold it on. Some hold that the publication of the sonnets surely upset Shakespeare, whose poems dealt with scandalous forms of love; homoerotic and adulterous. Others variously insist that these subjects are more shocking to post-Victorian readers than to Jacobean ones; that, whilst the sonnets voice strong feelings, these were entirely appropriate to the form; and that emotions expressed in his sonnets do not mirror Shakespeare’s own any more than those of dramatic characters in his plays.
Certain features of the sonnet form – not least the first-person narrative and themes of love – do give the impression of offering direct access to their author’s inner world. Since there has long been intense curiosity about the ‘youth’ addressed in the sonnets, clues to his identity have also been extracted with no little strain from the frontispiece of the first edition. The author of this dedication, T.T, was Thomas Thorpe, the publisher. But the identity of the “begetter” of the sonnets, “Mr W. H.” remains a mystery. Some think this is a misprint for “Mr W. S.” or “Mr W. Sh.”, as in William Shakespeare. Others suspect that the “begetter” refers to the scoundrel who may have conveyed the poems to Thorpe against Shakespeare’s wishes. But the most widely held assumption is that the “beggetter” must be the person who inspired the “ensuing sonnets”, the majority of which address a young man.
Working from the scant evidence offered by the initials W. H., literary detectives have proposed many candidates. One is Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece in the mid-1590s. Another is William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose name figures among those to whom the First Folio was dedicated in 1623. A third candidate is Sir William Hervey, stepfather of the Earl of Southampton, who may have commissioned lyrics urging the young man to marry and produce an heir – the first 17 sonnets of the sequence treat this theme. Of these candidates, however, two were earls and one was a gentleman, referred to as “Sir”. None would have been called “Mr” save by error or to suggest intimacy. In the end, these probing enigmas of Shakespeare’s sonnets are forced to speculate; information is poor, scarce and inconclusive.
As well as his 154 sonnets, Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays and many poems, in which he gave the world inumerable memorable quotes, remarkable characters such as Lady Macbeth and Desdemona and brought many new words and phrases into being. But as a body of work Shakespeare’s sonnets are an incredible collection, and are themselves almost a synonym for “love poem”. What’s your take on the Shakespeare sonnets listed above? Let us know by joining in the conversation in the comments section below.
Who knew that Shakespeare’s sonnets and mathematics were so linked?
In the super-interesting video below, Professor Roger Bowley talks about the tight constraints – and shape – that numbers gave to Shakespeare’s sonnets.