The Sonnet
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Shakespeare Videos..|..Shakespeare Books
The Shakespearean Sonnet
Origin of the Sonnet
Sonnets and Shakespeare's Sexuality
Young Man, Dark Lady, Rival Poet, W.H.
Meter: Iambic Pentameter
Analysis of Selected Sonnets
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. 

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 right. 

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. 
.......Notice 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 ending couplet.

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:
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, wheezing
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)
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. 
.......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 rosary]
..............(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 li