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. Among 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 – almost certainly 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 widerange 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.