Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is a collection of poems in sonnet form written by William Shakespeare that deal with such themes as love, beauty, politics, and mortality. They were probably written over a period of several years.

The form consists of three quatrains and a couplet. The couplet generally introduced an unexpected sharp thematic or imagistic “turn” called a volta. The usual rhyme scheme was a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g. In addition, sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, meaning that there are 10 syllables per line, and that every other syllable is naturally accented.

All 154 poems appeared in a1609 collection, comprising 152 previously unpublished sonnets and two poems, numbers 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”) and 144 (“Two loves have I, of comfort and despair”), that had previously been published in a 1599 miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim.

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 described as “the onlie begetter” of the poems by the publisher Thomas Thorpe, but it is not known who this man was. The dedication refers to the poet as “Ever-Living”, a phrase which has fueled the Shakespearean authorship debate due to its use as an epithet for the deceased. Also, although the works were written by William Shakespeare, it is not known if the publisher used an authorized manuscript from him, or an unauthorized copy. Interestingly, the author’s name is hyphenated on the title page and on the top of every other page in the book.

The first 17 sonnets are written to a young man, urging him to marry and have children, thereby passing down his beauty to the next generation. These are called the procreation sonnets. Most of them, however, 18-126, are addressed to a young man expressing the poet’s love for him. Sonnets 127-152 are written to the poet’s mistress expressing his love for her. The final two sonnets, 153-154, are allegorical. The final thirty or so sonnets are written about a number of issues, such as the young man’s infidelity with the poet’s mistress, self-resolution to control his own lust, beleaguered criticism of the world, etc.

Most of the sonnets are addressed to a beautiful young man, a rival poet, and a dark-haired lady. Readers of the sonnets today commonly refer to these characters as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. The narrator expresses admiration for the Fair Youth’ s beauty, and later has an affair with the Dark Lady. It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fictional or autobiographical.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Summary

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