Sonnet Commentary

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The sonnet, which developed in medieval Italy, first became known to English poets in the love poems of Dante (1265-1321) and Petrarch. Thomas Wyatt introduced the form to England, but it was the Earl of Surrey who popularized the English quatrains and-couplet arrangement. Spenser's rhyme scheme compromises between the stricter Italian and the looser English. In Elizabethan England, sonnets were a fashionable pastime and sonneteers flourished (they are amiably satirized in Love's Labour's Lost). In Elizabethan poetry the sonnet was conventionally associated with love poetry; John Donne, in the early 17th century, expanded its range to encompass religious themes, and John Milton continued this development, composing sonnets on various personal and public matters. In the 18th century, the form fell into disuse. Revived with the rise of romanticism, the sonnet has adapted well to the less formal modern world.  Today it is often used with less rigorously prescribed rhyme and metre, for every imaginable subject. Sonnets Body of 154 poems, each a Sonnet, written by Shakespeare over an unknown period of time,  probably around 1592 to 1598. The Sonnets are love poems. They describe aspects of two different loves experienced by the poet, one for a young man and the other for a woman. Some of the Sonnets are great poems (Sonnets 18, 29, 55, 116, and 138 are among the most praised), while a few are poor, but it is as a sonnet sequence—a new genre at the time—that they are particularly fascinating, offering an extraordinary range of love poems. They encompass several distinct points of view on love, unified by a series of delightful observations on the power of poetry to record them. 

The Sonnets comprise two groups of poems: the larger group (Sonnets 1-126) is addressed to the young man, the other (127-154) to the woman. (Although the sex of the addressee is unspecified in most of the Sonnets, all those that do address a man precede Sonnet 126, which as the only 12-line variation on sonnet form seems to close the initial group. Similarly, all of the Sonnets that explicitly address a woman fall in the second group.) In the first group, the poet manifests his love for the young man in a variety of ways. In Sonnets 1-17 he speaks of his friend's beauty and insists that he should marry and have children in order to perpetuate that beauty beyond his eventual death. In the next group of poems (and in many of the others) the poet describes his love in brilliant variations on traditional love poetry, often referring to the poetry love stimulates. However, as the sequence progresses, the poet speaks of his disappointment that his friend has left him, or at least does not love him in return. In 40-42 it appears that the friend has even stolen the poet's (female) lover. In 78-86 the poet fears that his place in his friend's affections (and perhaps in his literary patronage) has been taken by another, superior poet. In 110-111 the poet worries that his friend resents his public displays (probably a reference to Shakespeare's career as an actor). Gradually, however, over the course of the last several dozen poems of this group, the spirit of love returns, apparently reflecting a reconciliation between the friends. Sonnet 126 closes the series with a return to the subject of the young man's beauty and mortality. 

Sonnets 127-154 address a woman of dark complexion and metaphorically dark morals (often referred to as Shakespeare's 'dark lady'), who has betrayed the poet's love by loving other men. She may be married, in which case the love she has given the poet also constituted betrayal. In 133-134 the poet complains that not only has she been unfaithful to him, she has done so with his friend, thereby leaving him abandoned by both of his loves. Apparently the situation in Sonnets 40-42 is seen here from another angle. The 'dark lady' Sonnets bemoan the poet's plight as an unrequited lover, and they often rail against the woman and against love in general. These poems are sometimes called the 'vituperative sonnets'.

In these two sets of poems, a love triangle is compellingly, if only implicitly, portrayed. There is no actual evidence that the situation was not simply a literary creation, but many of the poems are so convincingly delighted or aggrieved with love that most readers find themselves assuming that the Sonnets are autobiographical, or at least based on personal experience, and that the young man, the 'dark lady', and the 'rival poet' are representations of real people. Despite the lack of evidence, a wide range of suppositions about Shakespeare's life have been engendered by the Sonnets. 

The most contentious conclusion that has been drawn from the Sonnets is that Shakespeare was homosexual. However, the poems offer no unambiguous evidence on the subject. The poet refers to and ad- dresses his friend as his 'lover', but in Shakespeare's day the word had many non-sexual connotations, and its meaning varied greatly with context. It could mean sexual partner, but it could also be used in the formal close of a letter—'Thy lover' was as common and as sexually neutral as 'Sincerely yours' (it is so used in Julius Caesar 2.3.7). Moreover, in the context of friendship, the word lover was synonymous with the word friend. Shakespeare often used it as such in the plays (e.g., in The Merchant of Venice 3.4.7; 2 Henry IV 4.3.13; Coriolanus 3.3.213). Sexual puns and innuendos of all sorts, indiscriminate in their references to male and female genitals, are common throughout the Sonnets—as they are throughout Elizabethan secular literature in general—but they serve chiefly to promote an atmosphere of licentiousness rather than to suggest particular acts or attitudes. Sonnet 20 is frequently cited as evidence of Shakespeare's homosexuality, because in it the poet ascribes many feminine attributes to his friend, plays with clever references to his penis, and calls him 'the master mistress of my passion' (20.2). However, in this poem the poet actually disclaims a sexual relation with his friend—whose penis is 'to my purpose nothing' (20.12)—and willingly surrenders sex with him to women. While scholarly opinion remains varied, it is safe to say that the Sonnets do not clearly demonstrate homosexuality in its lovers, quite apart from the likelihood that Shakespeare, like other sonneteers of the day, wrote of an invented relationship. 

In any case, the identity of the young man intrigues those who read the Sonnets as autobiographical. The assumption is generally drawn that he is identical with the mysterious 'Mr W. H'. described as the 'onlie begetter' of the Sonnets in the dedication to the first edition (see below). The two models most frequently suggested have been Henry Wriothesley (W. H. reversed), Earl of Southhampton, and William Herbert, Earl of PEMBROKE (3). Each was a literary patron connected with Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis and The Rape ofLucrece are dedicated to Southampton and the First Folio to Pembroke, who was also a son of the patron of Pembroke’s Men, a theatrical company with which Shakespeare may have acted. Thus, they suit the implied references to patronage in several of the Sonnets. Also, each declined to marry a proposed bride—Southampton in 1590, Pembroke in 1595—making him suitable for the pleas of Sonnets 1-17. However, various commentators point to disqualifying attributes of each. In any case, the point cannot be proved, and so there have been many more nominees. Almost any near-contemporary of Shakespeare with the initials W. H. or H. W. has been proposed. A William Hughes—supposedly the object of a pun in Sonnet 20 but otherwise unrecorded—has been hypothesized (that he should be named William is suggested by the 'Will Sonnets' [135-136], where the word will appears 19 times, possibly echoing the names of the poet and his rival for the dark lady's love—the young man). Other possibilities emerge if the young man of the Sonnets is not considered identical with Mr W. H.; among the nominees have been the poet's son Hamnet Shakespeare, the Earl of Essex, and Queen Elizabeth (heavily disguised). 

Many proposals have been also made for the identity of the 'dark lady'. However, none has even the superficial credibility of Southampton and Pembroke, and scholars often simply ignore the question. The most frequently named dark ladies are Mary Fitton and Emilia Lanier. Others include Lucy Morgan (active 1579-1600), a one-time lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth who became a brothel keeper; Penelope Rich (1563-1607), the sister of the Earl of Essex; and William Davenant;s mother (chiefly because Davenant claimed to be Shakespeare's illegitimate son). 

Speculation has similarly surrounded the 'rival poet' of Sonnets 78-86. Most poets of the period have been named, George Chapman and Christopher Marlow most often, with honorable mention to Barnabe Barnes and Gervase Markham. However, none of these questions can be profitably pursued: not only is evidence entirely lacking, it is not even clear that Shakespeare had any real people in mind. All three figures function well as literary constructs—characters placed in a quasi-narrative, such as appear in many other sonnet sequences of the day. 

The dates of the Sonnets are undetermined and are the subject of continuing scholarly debate. Though the only certainty is their existence before 1609, when they were published, a generally accepted view holds that they were probably all written between 1592 and 1598. These years saw a vogue for sonnet sequences—at least 20 were published—stimulated by Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), and Shakespeare's poems were apparently part of this trend. In 1598 Francis Meres mentioned the Sonnets, and versions of two of them (138 and 144) were published in 1599 as part of The Passionate Pilgrim. Of course, it is not known that all of them had been written by then. Nevertheless, parallels to the Sonnets in Shakespeare's other works are most frequent in Venus and Adonis (1592-1593), The Rape of Lucrece (1593-1594), Love's Labour's Lost (c. 1593), Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595), and Richard II (1595), so the years of the sonnet craze seem the likeliest period of composition for the entire group of poems. 

Commentators occasionally doubt the authorship of a few of the Sonnets, especially 145, which is a poor poem and the only Sonnet written in tetrameter, as well as 153 and 154, which seemingly have little to do with the others and are the only ones that derive from a specific source (see below). However, each of these poems bears some relationship to its neighbors, and most scholars accept them as genuine. 

The collected Sonnets were first published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, in a Quarto edition (printed by George ELD) known as Q; They were printed in the order described above, which has subsequently been considered standard (though various editors have altered it), and followed by A Lover's Complaint. An introductory page reads: 'TO THE ONLIE BEGETTER OF THESE INSVING SONNETS MR. W.H. ALL HAPPINESSE AND THAT ETERNITIE PROMISED BY OUR EVER-LIVING POET WISHETH THE WELL-WISHING ADVENTVRER IN SETTING FORTH.' This enigmatic message, signed 'T.T.', is unpunctuated (in that there is a period after every word), ungrammatical, and generally difficult to interpret. The term 'onlie begetter' may signify the inspirer of the Sonnets (presumably the young man of 1-126, as discussed above), or it may simply refer to the procurer of the manuscripts from which they were printed; some commentators find other, more arcane possibilities. In any case, the dedication has been subjected to great scholarly scrutiny, but in the absence of further evidence, it must remain intractably obscure. 

As noted above, only Sonnets 153 and 154 have a clear source: they are variations on a well-known classical epigram dating to at least the 1st century A.D. (this epigram was variously rendered in several languages and Shakespeare's immediate source is not known). Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a favorite Shakespearean source, is echoed in wordings and conceits here and there throughout the Sonnets, but the overall scheme of the group as a whole—the accounts of the poet's two loves—has no literary source. However, that Shakespeare wrote a sequence of sonnets can be attributed to the influence of Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. Also, an earlier convention required that sonnets be devoted to love, and Shakespeare followed this tradition, though he approaches the subject in an unconventional manner. The love relationships of the Sonnets are reconfigurations of the courtly love usually depicted in love sonnets: the object of the poet's love is addressed in the formal terms of the tradition and is beautiful and virtuous, as expected, but he is, unconventionally, a man; the expected woman is present, but she is neither beautiful nor virtuous. Each Sonnet is concerned with love, as is the collection as a whole, but the points of view taken and the aspects of love dealt with vary greatly, sometimes even within an individual poem. Shakespeare's characteristic recognition that life is complicated and that contradictory ideas and impulses often coexist is very well demonstrated in these works. The Sonnets, like the best of Shakespeare's dramas, offer an experience that transcends both scholarly disputes and the differences between the poet's world and our own.


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Sonnet Main Page     Fair Youth Sonnets      Dark Lady Sonnets     Rival Poet Sonnets     Sonnet Commentary  


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