The sonnets were published under conditions that have become unclear to history. For example, there is a mysterious dedication at the beginning of the text wherein a certain "Mr. W. H." is mentioned as "the begetter" of the poems by the publisher Thomas Thorpe, but it is not known who this man was. It is also not known if the publisher used an authorized manuscript from Shakespeare, or an unauthorized copy. However, it is beyond doubt that the poems themselves were written by Shakespeare, probably over a period of several years.
Table of contents
The sonnets comprise four stanzas of three quatrains and a final couplet composed in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg (see Shakespearean sonnet). Shakespeare uses the iambic pentameter in most of his plays, where they are called blank verse, as they do not usually rhyme. But in Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene V) the lovers speak to each in other in lines that (apparently unknown to the speakers) make up a regular sonnet, which symbolises their immediate love and understanding.
Most of the sonnets deal with a beautiful "Young Man" (the Fair Lord), a rival poet, and a Dark Lady whose identities have been the subject of much debate. Some have suggested that the young man is the same as the "Mr. W. H." referred to in the publisher's dedication, possibly William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, a patron of the stage. The rival poet is sometimes identified with Christopher Marlowe or George Chapman. However, there is no hard evidence whatsoever that any of the sonnets' characters have real-life counterparts. The narrator himself could even be a fictional device and not a reflection of Shakespeare's own feelings.
Shakespeare's repeated declarations of love for the "Young Man" are charged with passion. Some commentators see sonnet 20 as clear evidence against physical desire. However, other sonnets addressed to the youth, such as 52, where the friend is compared to a 'sweet up-locked treasure' are drenched in sexual punning and undertones. Nevertheless, much of the language used to address the "Young Man" differs from the explicitly physical language used in sonnets addressed to the so-called Dark Lady. It is possible to interpret this as a deliberate contrast between ideal Platonic love, and 'dark' carnal lust. However this depends to a considerable extent on whether you believe the affair with the "Young Man" remained unconsummated, and therefore interpret the sonnets as records of real events and feelings, or, at the other extreme, as fictional literary constructions.
On the other hand, we may also suppose that Shakespeare pastiched and parodied the three centuries-long tradition of Petrarchan 'sonneteering' on love, and brought this practice to an end, by exchanging the "madonna angelicata" for a "young man", or the "fair lady" against a "black lady". Shakespeare also violated many sonnet rules which had been strictly obeyed by his fellow poets: he speaks on human evils that do not have to do with love (66), he comments on political events (124), he makes fun of love (128), he parodies beauty (130), he plays with gender roles (20), he speaks clearly about sex (129) and even introduces witty pornography (151).
However, there is no other work of poetry from his time that equals his lyrical standards and his deep insight into the character of love — or rather the expert love-discourse, or passion's discipline of his time, as it has been recently called. Following the end of conventional Petrarachan sonneteering, Shakespeare's sonnets can also be seen as a prototype, or even the beginning, of a new kind of 'modern' love poetry. When Shakespeare was re-discovered during the 18th century — and not only in England — the sonnets, even more than the plays, became particularly important. the outstanding cross-cultural importance and influence of the sonnets is demonstrated by the large number of translations that have been made of them. To date in the German-speaking countries alone, there have been 65 complete translations since 1784. There is no major written language which the sonnets have not been translated into, including Esperanto, Japanese, Kiswahili, Klingon, Latin, and Turkish.
Specific sonnets of note
This is the origin of the phrase "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
This is the origin of the phrase "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", which served as the source for the Sting album Nothing Like the Sun.
- The Sonnets – full text and commentary.
- The Sonnets – HTML version of this title.
- Shakespeare Sonnets with search capabilities
- The Sonnets – plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
- ^ A metre in poetry with five iambic metrical feet, which stems from the Italian word endecasillabo, for a line composed of five beats with an anacrusis, an upbeat or unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line which is no part of the first foot.
- ^ Shakespeare: La sonetoj (sonnets in Esperanto), Translated by William Auld, Edistudio, ISBN unknown, online advert, verified 2005/02/27
- ^ Selection of Shakespearean Sonnets, Translated by Nick Nicholas, verified 2005/02/27
- ^ Shakespeare's Sonnets in Latin, translated by Alfred Thomas Barton, verified 2005/02/27