Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Shakespearean Sonnet: Overview
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.
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.
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.
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."
wrote his sonnets in London in the 1590's during an outbreak of plague
that closed theaters and prevented playwrights from staging their dramas.
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
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
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.
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
Shall I compare thee to a summer's DAY?
I compared you to a summer day
Thou art more lovely and more temperATE:
have to say you are more beautiful and serene:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of MAY,
comparison, summer is rough on budding life,
And summer's lease hath all too short a DATE:
doesn't last long either:
In Shakespeare's time, May (Line 3) was considered a summer month.
Quatrain 2 (four-line
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven SHINES,
times the summer sun [heaven's eye] is too hot,
And often is his gold complexion DIMM'D;
at other times clouds dim its brilliance;
And every fair from fair sometime deCLINES,
fair in nature becomes less fair from time to time,
By chance or nature's changing course unTRIMM'D;
one can change [trim] nature or chance;
fair" may also refer to every fair woman, who "declines" because of aging
or bodily changes.
Quatrain 3 (four-line
But thy eternal summer shall not FADE
you yourself will not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou OWEST;
lose ownership of your fairness;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his SHADE,
even death will claim you,
When in eternal lines to time thou GROWEST:
these lines I write will immortalize you:
Couplet (two rhyming
So long as men can breathe or eyes can SEE,
beauty will last as long as men breathe and see,
So long lives this and this gives life to THEE.
Long as this sonnet lives and gives you life.
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 ending couplet.
and Development of the Sonnet
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.
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,
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.
Shakespeare, well known English sonneteers in the late 1500's included
Sir Philip Sydney, Samuel Daniel, and Michael Drayton.
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.
Shakespeare's Sonnets Suggest That He Was a Homosexual?
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:
be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
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.
art thought to be Achilles' male varlet. [varlet:
attendant, page, slave]
varlet, you rogue! what's that?
his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
o' gravel i' the back, lethargies, cold
raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
i' the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
such preposterous discoveries! (Lines 14-24)
those who believe that Shakespeare expresses homosexual love in his sonnets
is Norrie Epstein, author of The Friendly Shakespeare. She has written:
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).
Hallet Smith, writing in The Riverside Shakespeare, rejects the
view that the sonnets express homosexual desire, saying:
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).
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"
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).
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
thou be gone? Sweet Valentine, adieu!
on thy Proteus, when thou haply seest
rare note-worthy object in thy travel:
me partaker in thy happiness
thou dost meet good hap; and in thy danger,
ever danger do environ thee,
thy grievance to my holy prayers,
I will be thy beadsman, Valentine. [Beadsman: One who prays the rosary]
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."
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).
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::
fairest creatures we desire increase,
thereby beauty's rose might never die. (Lines 1-2)
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
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
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
how I faint when I of you do write,
a better spirit doth use your name,
in the praise thereof spends all his might,
make me tongue-tied, speaking of your fame!
the last two lines of "Sonnet 80" refer to a second poet:
lives more life in one of your fair eyes
both your poets can in praise devise.
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.
Study Guide in Book Form
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.
the many additional features of the book are essays, glossaries, explanations
of versification and iambic pentameter, and a section on the Globe Theatre.
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
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Young Man, Dark Lady,
Rival Poet, and W.H.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
A literary patron.
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.
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
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
in three of his plays: Othello, The Comedy of Errors, and
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.
Marie 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.
(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
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,
Faerie Queene. His wedding poem, "Epithalamion," is one of the finest
works of its type ever written.
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) .
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:
are two more lines from Romeo and Juliet that also demonstrate the
use of iambs:
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.
a More Detailed Discussion of Meter in Poetry and Verse, Click Here
Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. New York: Viking, 1993.
G. Blakemore, textual ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton: Boston,
Harrison, G.B., ed. Shakespeare:
The Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952.
Picard, Liza. Elizabeth's
London. New York: St. Martin's, 2003. ..
and Meaning of Selected Shakespeare Sonnets