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By Michael J. Cummings © 2003
The Shakespearean Sonnet: Overview
........William Shakespeare wrote one hundred fifty-four sonnets. A sonnet is a form of lyric poetry with fourteen lines and a specific rhyme scheme. (Lyric poetry presents the deep feelings and emotions of the poet as opposed to poetry that tells a
story or presents a witty observation.) .The topic of most sonnets written in Shakespeare's time is love–or a theme related to love.
........Poets usually wrote their sonnets as part of a series, with each sonnet a sequel to the previous one, although many sonnets could stand alone as separate poems. Sonnets afforded their author an opportunity to show off his ability to write memorable lines. In other words, sonnets enabled a poet to demonstrate the power of his genius
in the same way that an art exhibition gave a painter a way to show off his special techniques.
.......Shakespeare addresses Sonnets 1 through 126 to an unidentified young man with outstanding physical and intellectual attributes. The first seventeen of these urge the young man to marry so that he can pass on his superior qualities to a child, thereby allowing
future generations to enjoy and appreciate these qualities when the child becomes a man. In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare alters his viewpoint, saying his own poetry may be all that is necessary to immortalize the young man and his qualities.
.......In Sonnets 127 through 154, Shakespeare devotes most of his attention to addressing a mysterious "dark lady"–a sensuous, irresistible woman of questionable morals who captivates the poet. References to the dark lady also appear in previous sonnets (35, 40, 41, 42), in which Shakespeare reproaches the young man for an apparent liaison with the dark
lady. The first two lines of Sonnet 41 chide the young man for "those petty wrongs that liberty commits / when I am sometime absent from thy heart," a reference to the young man's wrongful wooing of the dark lady. The last two lines, the rhyming couplet, further impugn the young man for using his good looks to attract the dark lady. In Sonnet 42, the poet charges, "thou dost love her, because
thou knowst I love her."
.......Shakespeare wrote his sonnets in London in the 1590's during an outbreak of plague that closed theaters and prevented playwrights from staging their dramas.
.......Generally, Shakespeare's sonnets receive high praise for their exquisite wording and imagery and for their refusal to stoop to sentimentality. Readers of his sonnets in his time got a taste of the greatness that Shakespeare exhibited later in such
plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, and The Tempest. Sonnets 138 and 144 were published in 1599 in a poetry collection entitled The Passionate Pilgrime [Pilgrim]. The other sonnets were published in 1609 in Shake-speares [Shakespeare's] Sonnets. It is possible that the 1609 sequence of sonnets is out of its original order
.......The Shakespearean sonnet (also called the English sonnet) has three four-line stanzas (quatrains) and a two-line unit called a couplet. A couplet is always indented; both lines rhyme at the end. The meter of Shakespeare's sonnets is iambic pentameter (except in Sonnet 145). The rhyming lines in each stanza are the first and third and the second and fourth. In the couplet ending the poem, both lines rhyme. All of Shakespeare's sonnets follow the same rhyming pattern.
.......The following presentation of Sonnet 18, one of Shakespeare's most famous, will help you visualize the rhyming pattern of the sonnets. I capitalized the last part of each line and typed a letter to the left of the line to indicate the pattern. The meaning of each line appears at
Sonnet XVIII (18)
Addressed to the Young Man
Quatrain 1 (four-line stanza)
|A Shall I compare thee to a summer's DAY?
||If I compared you to a summer day
|B Thou art more lovely and more temperATE:
||I'd have to say you are more beautiful and serene:
|A Rough winds do shake the darling buds of MAY,
||By comparison, summer is rough on budding life,
|B And summer's lease hath all too short a DATE:
||And doesn't last long either:
Comment: In Shakespeare's time, May (Line 3) was considered a summer month.
Quatrain 2 (four-line stanza)
|C Sometime too hot the eye of heaven SHINES,
||At times the summer sun [heaven's eye] is too hot,
|D And often is his gold complexion DIMM'D;
||And at other times clouds dim its brilliance;
|C And every fair from fair sometime deCLINES,
||Everything fair in nature becomes less fair from time to time,
|D By chance or nature's changing course unTRIMM'D;
||No one can change [trim] nature or chance;
Comment:."Every fair" may also refer to every fair woman, who "declines" because of aging or bodily changes.
Quatrain 3 (four-line stanza)
|E But thy eternal summer shall not FADE
||However, you yourself will not fade
|F Nor lose possession of that fair thou OWEST;
||Nor lose ownership of your fairness;
|E Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his SHADE,
||Not even death will claim you,
|F When in eternal lines to time thou GROWEST:
||Because these lines I write will immortalize you:
Couplet (two rhyming lines)
|G So long as men can breathe or eyes can SEE,
||Your beauty will last as long as men breathe and see,
|G So long lives this and this gives life to THEE.
||As Long as this sonnet lives and gives you life.
As you can see, the rhyme scheme of the sonnet is as follows: First stanza, ABAB; second stanza, CDCD; third stanza, EFEF; and the couplet, GG.
that Shakespeare introduces the main point of the sonnet in the first two lines of Stanza 1: that the young man's radiance is greater than the sun's. He then devotes the second two lines of Stanza 1 and all of Stanza 2 to the inferior qualities of the sun. In Stanza 3, he says the young man's brilliance will never fade because Sonnet XVIII will keep it alive. He then sums up his thoughts in the
Origin and Development of the Sonnet
.......The sonnet originated in Sicily in the 13th Century with Giacomo da Lentino (1188-1240), a lawyer. The poetic traditions of the Provençal region of France apparently influenced him, but he wrote his poems in the Sicilian dialect of Italian. Some authorities credit another Italian, Guittone d'Arezzo (1230-1294), with originating the
sonnet. The English word "sonnet" comes from the Italian word "sonetto," meaning "little song." Some early sonnets were set to music, with accompaniment provided by a lute.
.......The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), a Roman Catholic
priest, popularized the sonnet more than two centuries before Shakespeare was born. Other popular Italian sonneteers were Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italy's most famous and most accomplished writer, and Guido Cavalcante (1255-1300). The format of Petrarch's sonnets differs from that of Shakespeare. Petrarch's sonnets each consist of an eight-line stanza (octave) and a
six-line stanza (sestet). The first stanza presents a theme, and the second stanza develops it. The rhyme scheme is as follows: (1) first stanza (octave): ABBA, ABBA; (2) second stanza (sestet): CDE, CDE (or CDC, CDC; or CDE, DCE).
.......The sonnet form was introduced in England by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547). They translated Italian sonnets into English and wrote sonnets of their own. Surrey introduced blank verse into the English language in his translation of the Aeneid of Vergil. Wyatt and Surrey sometimes replaced
Petrarch's scheme of an eight-line stanza and a six-line stanza with three four-line stanzas and a two-line conclusion known as a couplet. Shakespeare adopted the latter scheme in his sonnets.
.......Besides Shakespeare, well known
English sonneteers in the late 1500's included Sir Philip Sydney, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton.
.......In Italy, England, and elsewhere between the 13th and early 16th Centuries, the most common theme of sonnets was love. Sonnets
in later times also focused on religion, politics, and other concerns of the reading public.
Do Shakespeare's Sonnets Suggest That He Was a Homosexual?
.......Some Shakespeare interpreters maintain that his sonnets to the young man are expressions of homosexual love. They make this assertion even though no evidence exists in the record of Shakespeare's life or in reports on his friendships, his marriage, and his social activities to indicate that he was anything but heterosexual. Only one reference to
homosexuality occurs in his plays. This reference–which begins at Line 14 in Act V, Scene I, of Troilus and Cressida–condemns homosexuality in strong, insulting terms. The speaker is Thersites, a Greek with a scurrilous tongue. He addresses Patroclus, famous in Greek mythology as the male paramour of Achilles, the greatest warrior on either side in the Trojan War. Here is the exchange
between Thersites and Patroclus:
THERSITES....Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk: It can be argued, of course, that Thersites is not speaking for Shakespeare but instead is expressing a view that existed since the time when Homer wrote of Achilles in The Iliad, completed between 800 and 700 B.C.
thou art thought to be Achilles' male
varlet. [varlet: attendant, page, slave]
PATROCLUS....Male varlet, you rogue! what's that?
THERSITES....Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the
guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers,
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries! (Lines 14-24)
.......Among those who believe that Shakespeare expresses homosexual love in his sonnets is Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Shakespeare. She has written:
There is profound resistance to accepting Shakespeare, the icon of Western civilization, as gay. High school teachers introduce Shakespeare's Sonnets as passionate love lyrics, neglecting to mention that they were written to a man. . . . But there's no getting around it: the Sonnets are clearly addressed to a young
man, and even allowing for what professors call the "Renaissance cult of male friendship," many of the poems are quite ardent (267).However, Hallet Smith, writing in The Riverside Shakespeare, rejects the view that the sonnets express homosexual desire, saying:
The attitude of the poet toward the friend [the handsome young man] is one of love and admiration, deference and possessiveness, but it is not at all a sexual passion. Sonnet 20 makes quite clear the difference between the platonic love of a man for a man, more often expressed in the sixteenth century than the
twentieth, and any kind of homosexual attachment" (1746)........Shakespeare scholar G.B. Harrison observes: "It was a common belief in Shakespeare's time that the love of a man for his friend, especially his 'sworn brother,' was stronger and nobler than the love of man for woman" (366).
.......In fact, Shakespeare's plays contain many passages in which heterosexual males express non-sexual love for one another in solicitous and doting language. For example, in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Arcite addesses his friend this way: "Dear Palamon, dearer in love than
blood" (Act I, Scene II, Line 1). In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Rosencrantz says to Hamlet, "My Lord, you once did love me." Hamlet replies, "So do I still . . . . (Act III, Scene II, Line 348).
.......In Act III, Scene II, of Antony and
Cleopatra, Agrippa says of Lepidus: "How dearly he adores Mark Antony!" (Line 9). Adore is a word a 21st Century American male heterosexual typically would use only in reference to a female. However, Shakespeare uses it here to signify political love and friendship, not sexual love. In Cymbeline, Iachimo speaks of Posthumus Leonatus as "such a holy witch / that he enchants
societies into him; / Half all men's hearts are his" (Act I, Scene VI, Lines 166-168). Iachimo and Posthumus are both heterosexuals. When Proteus bids good-bye to his best friend, Valentine, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, he says:
..............Wilt thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu!
..............Think on thy Proteus, when thou haply seest
..............Some rare note-worthy object in thy travel:
..............Wish me partaker in thy happiness
..............When thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,
..............If ever danger do environ thee,
..............Commend thy grievance to my holy prayers,
..............For I will be thy beadsman, Valentine. [Beadsman: One who prays the
..............(Act I, Scene I, Lines 11-18)
Proteus and Valentine have eyes only for females, yet Proteus calls Valentine "sweet" and speaks of himself as "thy Proteus."
.......It is true, of course, that the London of Shakespeare's time had a homosexual culture which included writers and actors, as well as theatre patrons who paid their pennies to see boy actors playing the parts of women. But it is also true that society in general condemned homosexuality.
Liza Picard writes: "Homosexuality was viewed as an abhorrent divergence from the natural order, a crime punishable by death" (172).
.......My view is that Shakespeare was not a
homosexual–or, for that matter, a bisexual. There is no credible evidence in his plays and the record of his life in Stratford and London to suggest otherwise. Nor is there any real evidence in the sonnets–other than expressions of admiration and agape (a Greek term for altruistic love)–to support the notion of a homosexual Shakespeare. In fact, in the first 17 sonnets, Shakespeare urges
the handsome man he addresses to have children so that he may pass his excellent qualities on to a new generation. In Sonnet 1, he writes::
............From fairest creatures we desire increase,
............That thereby beauty's rose might never die. (Lines 1-2)
.......Increase here means reproduction. The rose is the young man, who will "never die" if he lives on
in his children. If Shakespeare had been homosexual, he would hardly have recommended that the object of his affection seek the arms of a woman. What's more, in Shakespeare's time, public discussion of love was limited to conventional, biblical-approved love. As a practical man concerned about the public's perception of him, Shakespeare would never have jeopardized his reputation by owning up to
homosexual love. His expressions of affection in the sonnets were well within the bounds of propriety in a day when males could freely voice their love for one another with terms of endearment.
.......Keep in mind, too, that in early
sonnets referring to the "dark lady" Shakespeare actually rebukes the young man for attempting to "steal" the dark lady from him.
.......However, there can be no gainsaying that Shakespeare had competition in his admiration for
the young man, for he refers in several sonnets to a rival poet who also praises the young man. The first four lines of "Sonnet 80" make such a reference:
............O, how I faint when I of you do write,
............Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
............And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
............To make me
tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
Likewise, the last two lines of "Sonnet 80" refer to a second
............There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
............Than both your poets can in praise devise.
.......No one has successfully pinned down the identity of this rival poet. Nor has anyone identified the young man or the mysterious dark lady addressed in Sonnets 126 to 152.
Shakespeare Study Guide in Book Form
........Shakespeare: a Guide to the Complete Works is now available in hardback and paperback. It incorporates virtually all of the information on this web site, including plot summaries of all the plays. It also gives dates and sources of each play, describes the setting and characters, discusses
imagery, identifies themes, points out the climax, and provides historical background wherever necessary. In addition, it discusses and analyzes the sonnets, as well as other poems written by Shakespeare.
........Among the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
........Your purchase of this book will help maintain this web site as a free resource for teachers and students. You can order the book directly from the publisher's web site or from Amazon.com.
Young Man, Dark Lady, Rival Poet, and W.H.
.......For centuries, literary sleuths throughout the English-speaking world have pored over old texts and dusty Shakespeare-era records to discover the identity of the person to whom Shakespeare's sonnets were dedicated, the mysterious "W.H.," and the identities of the three principal personas addressed or referred to
in the sonnets: the young man, the dark lady, and the rival poet. So far, no one has produced enough undisputed evidence to identify any of these mysterious individuals by name.
.......The 1609 edition of the sonnets was dedicated to a person identified only
with the initials W.H. and signed by a person identified only with the initials T.T. The latter initials were probably those of the known publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorne. He might have (1) written the dedication to express his own wishes or (2) written or copied it to express the wishes of Shakespeare at the time that he was writing the sonnets.
.......If Thorne was expressing his own wishes, the W.H. to whom the sonnets were
dedicated was not necessarily the young man to whom Shakespeare addressed the first 126 sonnets. Instead, W.H. might have been William Hall, an unimportant London printer known to have furnished manuscripts to other printers for publication; William Harvey, the husband of the mother of Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton (widely thought to have been the young man addressed in the
sonnets); William Hathaway, Shakespeare's brother-in-law, or some other person. Thorne's dedication may have simply been an expression of gratitude to Hall, Harvey, Hathaway, or the other person for bringing the sonnets to Thorne's attention.
if Thorne was expressing Shakespeare's wishes, the initials W.H. in the dedication might in fact refer to the young man addressed in the sonnets.
.......As to the identities of the young man, the dark lady, and the rival poet, educated speculation has
suggested the following names as those of the mystifying trio.
The Young Man
Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624): Patron of writers and favorite at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Wriothesley. Wriothesley married Elizabeth Vernon, one of the queen's attendants, in 1598. Supporters of Wriothesley as the young man of the
sonnets note that his initials, H.W., are the reverse of the W.H. to whom the sonnets are dedicated.
William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630): Nephew of the writer Sir Philip Sidney and student of poet Samuel Daniel. He became a privy councilor of England in 1611 and served
as chancellor of Oxford University from 1617 until the time of his death. When Shakespeare's friends compiled the First Folio of his plays in 1623, they dedicated it to Herbert and his brother.
William Hughes: A boy actor. The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) championed a
theory that Hughes was the young man. However, no records are available to establish that Hughes was an actor in Shakespeare's time.
William Harte: Nephew of Shakespeare.
William Hatcliffe: A Lord of Misrule. The Lord of Misrule managed Christmas celebrations at the court of the monarch, at the homes of favored nobles, and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
William Hammond: A literary patron.
William Holgate: A little-known poet.
The Dark Lady
Mary Fitton (1578-1647): Woman of dark complexion who enjoyed a place in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and was married and widowed twice. She gave birth to three illegitimate children fathered by three men.
Anne Whateley (or
Whiteley): Resident of Temple Grafton, near Stratford, who may have been a girlfriend of Shakespeare. Evidence suggests that Shakespeare at one time intended to marry her but broke off his relationship to marry Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant with Shakespeare's child.
Davenant: Wife of the owner of The Crown Inn on Cornmarket Street in at Oxford. (The inn still exists.) Supposedly, Shakespeare stopped at the inn on trips between Stratford and London. Shakespeare was the godfather of her child, William Davenant (1606-1668), a playwright and poet of some renown in his day. In 1638, Davenant became poet laureate of England after the death of Ben Jonson.
Rumors abounded that Davenant was not only Shakespeare's godson but also his biological son. According to some accounts, Davenant once owned the famous Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare.
Emilia Bassano Lanier (1570-1640s): Daughter of Baptista Bassano of Venice. After she
moved to England, she was the mistress of Henry Carey, a patron known to Shakespeare. She married Alphonse Lanier, a court musician. Shakespeare created characters named Emilia in three of his plays: Othello, The Comedy of Errors, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603): Queen of England from 1558 to 1603 and a supporter of stage plays.
Lucy Morgan: A black woman said to be a prostitute.
Mountjoy: A London landlord who rented lodging to Shakespeare.
The Rival Poet
Michael Drayton (1563-1631): poet of considerable talent who wrote sonnets, odes (after the manner of the Roman poet Horace), and heroic poems. .
Samuel Daniel (1562-1619): poet, playwright, writer of masques, sonneteer
(Delia, 1592), author of a verse history of the War of the Roses and a prose history of England.
George Chapman (1559-1634): playwright and translator of ancient literature, including highly praised translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593): Elizabethan playwright of the first rank who helped popularize the strengths of blank verse. Marlowe's most famous plays are The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1588), The Jew of Malta (1589), and Tamburlaine the Great (1587). Marlowe also
wrote distinguished poetry and, like Chapman, translated ancient literary works.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637): Poet and playwright of the first rank who advocated adherence to the drama rules (unity of time, place, and action) established by the ancient Greeks . Shakespeare acted in
Jonson's first play, Every Man in His Humour, in 1598. Among Jonson's best plays are Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610). Jonson also wrote masques and excellent poetry. He was a friend of Shakespeare who met frequently with him and other writers at the Mermaid Tavern in London.
Edmund Spenser (1552-1599): Poet of the first rank. He is most famous for his monumental epic poem, The Faerie Queene. His wedding poem, "Epithalamion," is one of the finest works of its type ever written.
.......Shakespeare wrote his sonnets (and many of the lines in his plays) in iambic pentameter, a technical term for a poetry pattern in which each line has 10 syllables, beginning with an unstressed syllable and a stressed syllable, followed by another pair of unstressed and stressed syllables, and
so on–until there are five pairs of syllables (or ten syllables in all) .
.......To understand iambic pentameter, you first need to understand the term ''iamb.'' An iamb is a unit of rhythm consisting of an unstressed syllable
followed by a stressed syllable. The words ''annoy,'' ''fulfill,'' ''pretend,'' ''regard,'' and ''serene'' are all iambs because the first syllable of each word is unstressed (or unaccented) and the second syllable is stressed (or accented). Iambs may consist of a final unstressed syllable of one word followed by an initial stressed syllable of the next word. The following line from Romeo and
Juliet demonstrates the use of iambs. The unstressed syllables are green and the stressed syllables are underlined in red:
...............But, soft! what lightthrough yonder window breaks?
Here are two more lines from Romeo and Juliet that also demonstrate the use of iambs:
...............I willnot fail: 'tis twenty yearstill then.
Idid callthee back.
When a line has five iambs, it is in iambic pentameter. The prefix ''pent'' means ''five.'' (A figure with five sides is called a ''pentagon''; an athletic competition with five track-and-field events is called a ''pentathlon.'') The suffix ''meter'' (in ''pentameter'') refers to the
recurrence of a rhythmic unit (also called a ''foot''). Thus, because the above lines contain iambs, they are ''iambic.'' Because they contain five iambs (five feet) they are said to be in iambic pentameter.
For a More Detailed Discussion of Meter in Poetry and Verse, Click Here
Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. New York: Viking, 1993.
Evans, G. Blakemore, textual ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton: Boston, 1974.
Harrison, G.B., ed. Shakespeare: The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952.
Picard, Liza. Elizabeth's London. New York: St. Martin's, 2003. ..
Analysis and Meaning of Selected Shakespeare Sonnets