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Shakespeare's Sonnets

Updated on March 22, 2013
The title page for the quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets published in 1609.
The title page for the quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets published in 1609. | Source
Portrait of William Shakespeare.
Portrait of William Shakespeare. | Source

William Shakespeare and his poetry

William Shakespeare, also famously known as The Bard, is famous for the 36 plays he wrote during his lifetime. We quote from his plays for many occasions, and we find many of his plays written in poetry form. Also, quoted as much as his plays are his various sonnets - his poems he wrote, and the sonnet form he invented as a vehicle for his poems. The Shakespearean Sonnetis as well known today as the Petrarchan sonnet and Spenserian sonnet are.

The genius of Shakespeare's writing shines through in his sonnets as much as the writing in his plays. Shakespeare's sonnets tell and show us he was a very complex man. He wrote 154 separate sonnets is all, with various themes. Some of the themes in his sonnets state the passage of time, love, beauty, and mortality. His sonnets were written throughout his lifetime at various times and were all published together in a quarto in 1609. The illustration above shows the title page of the quarto. Besides the 154 sonnets, the quarto ends with "A Lover's Complaint" a narrative poem of 47 seven-line stanzas written in rhyme royal.

Shakespeare constructed his sonnets with three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a final couplet (2 lines) and each line of the sonnet is composed in iambic pentameter (u`u`u`u`u` - an unstressed and then a stressed syllable following one another in the line.) The Shakespeare Sonnet has the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. This form has been forever known as the Shakespearean Sonnet. The only exceptions to this form are sonnets number 99, 126, and 145.

Usually the content of the first two quatrains in the sonnet set up the premise or explain to the reader what is going on. Then, the beginning of the third quatrain marks the volta, the turn, or the line in which the mood of the poem shifts and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany.

The three subjects of the sonnets are Fair Youth, Rival Poet, and Dark Lady.

  • Sonnets 1-126 are the Fair Youthsonnets. They are full of romantic, playful and loving language. They are about an unnamed man to whom the sonnets are addressed. Some critics and scholars have read them as a sexual relationship between Shakespeare and the mystery Fair Youth and some have read them as platonic love. The first seventeen poems are known as the procreation sonnets addressed to the young man urging him to mary and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it on to the next generation.
  • The Rival Poet sonnets exist within the Fair Youth sequence of sonnets (#1-126). The Rival Poet remains a mystery as to who it is and there is no hard evidence that the character had a real-life counterpart. Shakespeare sees the Rival Poet as competition of fame, coin an patronage.
  • Sonnets 127-152 are the Dark Lady sequence of sonnets. These sonnets are overtly sexual in their passion and the poems make clear the Dark Lady has black hair and dusky skin.

The publisher of the Quarto of Shakespeare's Sonnets was Thomas Thorpe, and it is unknown today if he used an authorized or unauthorized manuscript from Shakespeare. The quarto is dedicated to Mr. W.H. but as of today, no one knows who that is. Could he be the Fair Youth? No one knows.

Sonnet # 18

There are no official titles for each of Shakespeare's sonnets. They are just numbered 1-154 in Roman numerals in the quarto and are indexed by the first line of each sonnet. Sonnet #18 is the most famous of all the sonnets and the one most read and quoted today:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate;

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer's lease hath all too short a date;

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And evry fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou own'st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade.

When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,

So long as men can breathe, or eyes see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

This is one of the Fair Youth sonnets and compares the Fair Youth to a summer's day and states his beauty will not fade even in death. I think, like me, most people are surprised that this sonnet, usually associated with a male/female relationship, is written about a "fair youth." Was Shakespeare homosexual? No one knows for sure. He was married and did have three children, but no one knows exactly what ensued when he left Stratford upon Avon and went to live in London and to start his acting/writing career. Many critics and scholars believe this is a platonic love he is speaking about in this sonnet.

Sonnet #116

This is my personal favorite sonnet because it explains what true love is. It is an idealized love and is many times quoted at weddings. Is human love an allegory of divine love?

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove;

O, no! it is an ever fixed mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle's compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But, bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

True love is not altered nor bends to other distractions. It stands firm and is never shaken during the stormy bad times. True love is like the north star, forever constant. True love also withstands the test of time, stays forever and bears out even the hours and the weeks. And it even withstands when times are tough and doom looms ahead. Does true love really exist? Each couple must decide for themselves.

Again, this sonnet is part of the "Fair Youth" group of sonnets. Is this a romantic love or a platonic love? Many critics and scholars believe it is an idealized, platonic love that Shakespeare writes about, but it is still, many times, read at weddings. I think the words are beautiful and can be thought of as idealized love in any situation.


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  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    5 years ago from Taos, NM

    I am glad you enjoyed reading this. He was certainly the master when it came to writing sonnets. True. We will never know his sexuality that is for sure. And, there are many out there that don't think it was really Shakespeare who did all the writing of the plays and sonnets he has been given credit for.

  • Sparrowlet profile image

    Katharine L Sparrow 

    5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

    Love the Bard! Sonnets are my favorite form to write in, the English/Shakespearean sonnet in particular. I like the examples you chose for this hub. I think that Shakespeare was probably heterosexual, but I guess we will never know for sure!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    5 years ago from Taos, NM

    FatBoyThin: Thanks so much for stopping by to read this. I think everyone has a favorite Shakespeare sonnet. His sonnets are so beautiful and a testament to love that it is not hard to find one as a favorite. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this and thank you for your comments.

  • FatBoyThin profile image

    Colin Garrow 

    5 years ago from Inverbervie, Scotland

    Very interesting and well thought out. My own favourite is: When my love swears she is made of truth... I learned it years ago and still recite it to myself sometimes when driving. Great Hub. Voted up.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    carolp: Thank you so much and I am glad you enjoyed reading this. I love his sonnets also. Just beautiful and exquisite poetry.

  • carolp profile image


    6 years ago from Switzerland Shakespeare's Sonnets. Thanks.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    sharonchristy: I was a literature major and teacher. If I can help a student to understand Shakespeare that makes me happy. I hope it has helped you. Shakespeare's plays are classic, timeless, and universal. He looks at what really motivates his characters and hence each of us in similar situations. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this.

  • sharonchristy profile image


    6 years ago from India

    Another lovely hub. You are really a literature student's treasure, Suzettenaples. I should introduce my friends to your hubs. There are often times when we are pining for information, most often, right before the exams and you never get it. If I had read your critique of Jane Eyre in my second year of undergraduation, I would have loved it. But better late than never. I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said, "Shakespeare is not of an age, but for all ages". Thank you for writing about the man for all seasons. And reading your hub made me read his sonnets again. Loved it. Have a great day!

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    Just a comment,

    I have the distinct feeling that many, if not all of the sonnets are written about his writings, poetry and his abilities to do so. If you substitute this while reading them you'll see what I mean! Also, the fair Lord or youth is him or his work early on, the dark lady is his works as he ages and/or his attitudes and critical reviews and the rival poet could be the one who shot him down or his own battles internally. Thoughts?

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    8 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you so much for reading this Trish and for your lovely comments. I apprecite them very much. I think Shakespeare was quite special and it does come out in his poetry and plays.

  • Trish_M profile image

    Tricia Mason 

    8 years ago from The English Midlands

    Hi :)

    I really like Shakespeare's poetry ~ in the sonnets and the plays.

    There is something quite special about it, I think.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    9 years ago from Taos, NM

    I used to teach this stuff, Hyphen. I think I miss the subject matter but not being in classroom now. LOL. I am getting reacquainted with some of this literature myself. We have similar interests, I think, so you like this literature, too. I have to keep my mind working!LOL Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Hyphenbird profile image

    Brenda Barnes 

    9 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

    Suzette, you certainly have a knack for writing about people and subjects I love. The Sonnets of Mr. Shakespeare have always been beloved by me. Thank you for renewing my interest and giving me something to obsess about tonight, lol


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