While Shakespeare was pursuing a successful career in acting, writing plays, promoting other playwrights, and managing theatres he was also writing sonnets. He wrote most of them as a young man. A
mong Elizabethans, sonnets were regarded as personal poems not intended for publication. They were usually circulated among the poet’s friends and it was actually considered out of order to write them for publication.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were published in 1609, however – quite possibly without his knowledge – by a disreputable publisher who was notorious for stealing manuscripts. When he was forty-five, seven years before his death, a slim volume entitled ‘Shake-Speares Sonnets’ appeared in London’s two main bookshops. Although we now look back on the plays with a feeling that he said everything in them that a man might ever want to say about the world, they were not personal but written exclusively for public entertainment.
The first hundred and twenty-six sonnets in Shakespeare’s volume appear to be addressed to a beautiful young man. Although there is an erotic underlying theme running through them that doesn’t seem to be their main subject. They express a wide range of topics from poetry, painting, and music, to nobility, the breeding of children, sexual betrayal, and the ravages of Time.
The next batch, 127 to 152, moves away from the young man to a shady, mysterious, dark woman who is fascinating but treacherous. The poet’s passions become more personal and intense compared with the friendship displayed in the first batch – his adulterous obsession with her; his feelings of inadequacy; and the disgust and revulsion he feels when she proves false. Reading them through in sequence offers an awesome emotional experience. (Read a more in-depth analysis of William Shakespeare’s love sonnets.)
The last two sonnets seem inconsequential. They are imitations of Greek epigrams devoted to Cupid, a young votress of the goddess Diana, and a hot therapeutic spring. At first glance they seem separate from the dark lady sonnets but they form a poetic summing up of the poet’s relationship with her and the reflections on love that are dealt with in detail in the other sonnets.
Common questions about Shakespeare’s sonnets
What is a Shakespearean sonnet?
All sonnets have 14 lines and are written in iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean sonnet is divided into three four-line sections (called quatrains), followed by a two-line section (called a couplet). Each of Shakespeare’s sonnets expresses a single idea, but the division into three quatrains and one couplet allows the poet to switch the focus, dealing with a different aspect of the idea in each section.
How many sonnets did Shakespeare write?
Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets published in his ‘quarto’ in 1609, covering themes such as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, infidelity, and jealousy.
Who did Shakespeare dedicate his sonnets to?
The first 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man, and the last 28 addressed to a woman – a mysterious ‘dark lady’.
What is Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet?
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which starts “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is possibly the most famous sonnet ever, and certainly one that has entered deeply into the consciousness of our culture.
Why is Sonnet 18 so famous?
Sonnet 18 is so famous for 2 reasons: Firstly it generally considered to be the perfection of the sonnet form, with its use of eloquent use of language. Secondly, it deals with a universal human fear – that one day we will die and be forgotten.
What is the most important theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets?
Through his 154 sonnets Shakespeare covers themes as diverse as the passage of time, mortality, love, beauty, infidelity, and jealousy.
What is iambic pentameter?
Iambic pentameter is a line of writing that consists of ten syllables in a specific pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, or a short syllable followed by a long syllable.