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Shakespeare's sonnets is the title of a collection of 154 sonnets by William Shakespeare, which covers themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty and mortality. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a young man; the last 28 to a woman.
The sonnets were first published in a 1609 quarto with the full stylised title: SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Never before Imprinted. (although sonnets 138 and 144 had previously been published in the 1599 miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim). The quarto ends with "A Lover's Complaint", a narrative poem of 47 seven-line stanzas written in rhyme royal. There has been critical debate regarding its authorship.
The sonnets to the young man express overwhelming, obsessional love. The main issue of debate has always been whether it remained platonic or became physical. The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to the young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation. Other sonnets express the speaker's love for the young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker's mistress; and pun on the poet's name. The final two sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the "little love-god" Cupid.
- Tho. Thorpe. Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes vjd.
Whether Thorpe used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy is unknown. George Eld printed the quarto, and the run was divided between the booksellers William Aspley and John Wright.
The Sonnets include a dedication to one "Mr. W.H.". The identity of this person remains a mystery and, since the 19th century, has provoked a great deal of speculation.
The dedication reads:
Its oblique nature has led Colin Burrow to describe it as a "dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders". Don Foster concludes that the result of all the speculation has yielded only two "facts", which themselves have been the object of much debate: First, that the form of address (Mr.) suggests that W.H. was an untitled gentleman, and second, that W.H., whoever he was, is identified as "the only begetter" of Shakespeare's Sonnets (whatever the word "begetter" is taken to mean).
The initials "T.T." are taken to refer to the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, though Thorpe usually signed prefatory matter only if the author was out of the country or dead. Foster points out, however, that Thorpe's entire corpus of such consists of only four dedications and three stationer's prefaces. That Thorpe signed the dedication rather than the author is often read as evidence that he published the work without obtaining Shakespeare's permission.
The capital letters and periods following each word were probably intended to resemble an ancient Roman lapidary inscription or monumental brass, thereby accentuating Shakespeare's declaration in Sonnet 55 that the work will confer immortality to the subjects of the work:
- Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
- Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,
126 of Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to a young man, often called the "Fair Youth." Some theories concerning the identity of Mr. W.H. take him to be that youth, while others assert him to be a separate person.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of contenders:
- William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke). Herbert is seen by many as the most likely candidate, since he was also the dedicatee of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works. However the "obsequious" Thorpe would be unlikely to have addressed a lord as "Mr".
- Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton). Many have argued that "W.H." is Southampton's initials reversed, and that he is a likely candidate as he was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks, and has often been argued to be the Fair Youth of the sonnets; however, the same reservations about "Mr." also apply here.
- A simple printing error for Shakespeare's initials, "W.S." or "W. Sh". This was suggested by Bertrand Russell in his memoirs, and also by Foster and by Jonathan Bate. Bate supports his point by reading "onlie" as something like "peerless", "singular" and "begetter" as "maker", i.e. "'writer". Foster takes "onlie" to mean only one, which he argues eliminates any particular subject of the poems, since they are addressed to more than one person. The phrase "Our Ever-Living Poet", according to Foster, refers to God, not Shakespeare. "Poet" comes from the Greek "poetes" which means "maker", a fact remarked upon in various contemporary texts; also, in Elizabethan English the word "maker" was used to mean "poet". These researchers believe the phrase "our ever-living poet" might easily have been taken to mean "our immortal maker" (God). The "eternity" promised us by our immortal maker would then be the eternal life that is promised us by God, and the dedication would conform with the standard formula of the time, according to which one person wished another "happiness [in this life] and eternal bliss [in heaven]". Shakespeare himself, on this reading, is "Mr. W. [S]H." the "onlie begetter", i.e., the sole author, of the sonnets, and the dedication is advertising the authenticity of the poems.
- William Hall, a printer who had worked with Thorpe on other publications. According to this theory, the dedication is simply Thorpe's tribute to his colleague and has nothing to do with Shakespeare. This theory, originated by Sir Sidney Lee in his A Life of William Shakespeare (1898), was continued by Bernard Rowland Ward in his The Mystery of Mr. W.H. (1923), and has been endorsed recently by Brian Vickers, who notes Thorpe uses such "visual puns" elsewhere. Supporters of this theory point out that "ALL" following "MR. W. H." spells "MR. W. HALL" with the deletion of a period. Using his initials W.H., Hall had edited a collection of the poems of Robert Southwell that was printed by George Eld, the same printer for the 1609 Sonnets. There is also documentary evidence of one William Hall of Hackney who signed himself "WH" three years earlier, but it is uncertain if this was the printer.
- Sir William Harvey, Southampton's stepfather. This theory assumes that the Fair Youth and Mr. W.H. are separate people, and that Southampton is the Fair Youth. Harvey would be the "begetter" of the sonnets in the sense that it would be he who provided them to the publisher, after the death of Southampton's mother removed an obstacle to publication. The reservations about the use of "Mr." do not apply in the case of a knight.
- William Himself (i.e., Shakespeare). This theory was proposed by the German scholar D. Barnstorff, but has found no support.
- William Haughton, a contemporary dramatist.
- William Hart, Shakespeare's nephew and male heir. Proposed by Richard Farmer, but Hart was nine years of age at the time of publication, and this suggestion is regarded as unlikely.
- William Hatcliffe of Lincolnshire, proposed by Leslie Hotson in 1964.
- Who He. In his 2002 Oxford Shakespeare edition of the sonnets, Colin Burrow argues that the dedication is deliberately mysterious and ambiguous, possibly standing for "Who He", a conceit also used in a contemporary pamphlet. He suggests that it might have been created by Thorpe simply to encourage speculation and discussion (and hence, sales of the text).
- Willie Hughes. The 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt first proposed the theory that Mr. W.H. and the Fair Youth were one "William Hughes", based on presumed puns on the name in the sonnets. The argument was repeated in Edmond Malone's 1790 edition of the sonnets. The most famous exposition of the theory is in Oscar Wilde's short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," in which Wilde, or rather the story's narrator, describes the puns on "will" and "hues" in the sonnets, (notably Sonnet 20 among others), and argues that they were written to a seductive young actor named Willie Hughes who played female roles in Shakespeare's plays. There is no evidence for the existence of any such person. However, several scholars in the early 20th century identified other persons with that name as possible candidates.
The sonnets are almost all constructed from three quatrains, which are four-line stanzas, and a final couplet composed in iambic pentameter. This is also the meter used extensively in Shakespeare's plays.
The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. Sonnets using this scheme are known as Shakespearean sonnets. Often, either the beginning of the third quatrain or of the last couplet mark the volta ("turn"), or the line in which the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany.
There are a few exceptions: Sonnets 99, 126, and 145. Number 99 has fifteen lines. Number 126 consists of six couplets, and two blank lines marked with italic brackets; 145 is in iambic tetrameters, not pentameters. In one other variation on the standard structure, found for example in sonnet 29, the rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the second (b) rhyme of quatrain one as the second (f) rhyme of quatrain three.
When analysed as characters, the subjects of the sonnets are usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. The speaker expresses admiration for the Fair Youth's beauty, and—if reading the sonnets in chronological order as published—later has an affair with the Dark Lady. Current linguistic analysis and historical evidence suggests, however, that the sonnets to the Dark Lady were composed first (around 1591-95), the procreation sonnets next, and the later sonnets to the Fair Youth last (1597-1603). It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fiction or autobiographical; scholars who find the sonnets to be autobiographical, notably A. L. Rowse, have attempted to identify the characters with historical individuals.
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The "Fair Youth" is the unnamed young man to whom sonnets 1–126 are addressed. Some commentators, noting the romantic and loving language used in this sequence of sonnets, have suggested a sexual relationship between them; others have read the relationship as platonic love.
The earliest poems in the sequence recommend the benefits of marriage and children. With the famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") the tone changes dramatically towards romantic intimacy. Sonnet 20 explicitly laments that the young man is not a woman. Most of the subsequent sonnets describe the ups and downs of the relationship, culminating with an affair between the poet and the Dark Lady. The relationship seems to end when the Fair Youth succumbs to the Lady's charms (Sonnet 144).
There have been many attempts to identify the young man. Shakespeare's language often seems to imply that the subject is of higher social status than himself. Shakespeare's one-time patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and his later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, are frequently suggested. Both claims begin with the dedication of the sonnets to "Mr. W.H.", "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets"; the initials could apply to either earl, though in one case their order would have been reversed.
In his short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," Oscar Wilde proposed that some lines of the sonnets represent a series of puns suggesting that the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, in his story Wilde acknowledges that there is no evidence for such a person's existence. Samuel Butler believed that the friend was a seaman. Joseph Pequigney argued in his book Such Is My Love that the Fair Youth was an unknown commoner.
The Dark Lady
The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–154) distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion. Among these, Sonnet 151 has been characterised as "bawdy" and is used to illustrate the difference between the spiritual love for the Fair Youth and the sexual love for the Dark Lady. The distinction is commonly made in the introduction to modern editions of the sonnets. The Dark Lady is so called because the poems make it clear that she has black hair and dun coloured skin. As with the Fair Youth, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual. Lucy Negro, Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier, Elizabeth Wriothesley, and others have been suggested.
The Rival Poet
The Rival Poet's identity remains a mystery; among the varied candidates are Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, or an amalgamation of several contemporaries. However, there is no hard evidence that the character had a real-life counterpart. The speaker sees the Rival as competition for fame, coin and patronage. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 78–86.
One interpretation is that Shakespeare's sonnets are a pastiche or parody of the 300-year-old tradition of Petrarchan love sonnets; Shakespeare consciously inverts conventional gender roles as delineated in Petrarchan sonnets to create a more complex depiction of human love. He plays with gender roles (20), comments on political events (124), makes fun of love (128), speaks openly about sexual desire (129), parodies beauty (130) and even references pornography (151). In a dozen of the sonnets to the youth, Shakespeare also refers to his "disgrace": "My name be buried where my body is / And live no more to shame nor me nor you." (72)
Shakespeare's Sonnets can be seen as a prototype, or even the beginning, of a new kind of "modern" love poetry. During the eighteenth century, The Sonnets' reputation in England was relatively low; as late as 1805, The Critical Review could still credit John Milton with the perfection of the English sonnet. As part of the renewed interest in Shakespeare's original work that accompanied Romanticism, The Sonnets rose steadily in reputation during the nineteenth century.
The Sonnets have great cross-cultural importance and influence. They have been translated into every major written language, including German, French, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Esperanto, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew,  Welsh and Yiddish.
Like all Shakespeare's works, The Sonnets have been reprinted many times. Prominent editions include:
- First edition and facsimile
- Shakespeare, William (1609). Shake-speares Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted. London: Thomas Thorpe.
- Lee, Sidney, ed. (1905). Shakespeares Sonnets: Being a reproduction in facsimile of the first edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 458829162.
- Variorum editions
- Alden, Raymond Macdonald, ed. (1916). The Sonnets of Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. OCLC 234756.
- Rollins, Hyder Edward, ed. (1944). A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: The Sonnets [2 Volumes]. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. OCLC 6028485.
- Modern critical editions
- Atkins, Carl D., ed. (2007). Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. ISBN 978-0-8386-4163-7. OCLC 86090499.
- Booth, Stephen, ed. (2000) [1st ed. 1977]. Shakespeare's Sonnets (Rev. ed.). New Haven: Yale Nota Bene. ISBN 0-300-01959-9. OCLC 2968040.
- Burrow, Colin, ed. (2002). The Complete Sonnets and Poems. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0192819338. OCLC 48532938.
- Duncan-Jones, Katherine, ed. (2010) [1st ed. 1997]. Shakespeare's Sonnets. The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series (Rev. ed.). London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-4080-1797-5. OCLC 755065951.
- Evans, G. Blakemore, ed. (1996). The Sonnets. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521294034. OCLC 32272082.
- Kerrigan, John, ed. (1995) [1st ed. 1986]. The Sonnets ; and, A Lover's Complaint. New Penguin Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-070732-8. OCLC 15018446.
- Mowat, Barbara A.; Werstine, Paul, eds. (2006). Shakespeare's Sonnets & Poems. Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Washington Square Press. ISBN 978-0743273282. OCLC 64594469.
- Orgel, Stephen, ed. (2001). The Sonnets. The Pelican Shakespeare (Rev. ed.). New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0140714531. OCLC 46683809.
- Vendler, Helen, ed. (1997). The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-63712-7. OCLC 36806589.
- Sobran, Joseph Shakespeare's Disgrace, Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Spring 1997
- Ogburn, Charlton The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth & The Reality, EPM Publications, 1992, p342
- Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, eds., The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 439.
- Burrow, Colin, William Shakespeare: Complete Sonnets and Poems, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 98.
- Foster, Donald. "Master W.H., R.I.P." PMLA 102 (1987) 42–54, 42.
- Burrow, Colin (2002). Complete Sonnets and Poems. Oxford University Press. p. 99. ISBN 0-19-818431-X.
- Foster 1984, 43.
- Vickers, Brian (2007). Shakespeare, A lover's complaint, and John Davies of Hereford. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-521-85912-3.
- Burrow 2002, 380.
- Schoenbaum, S. (1977). William Shakespeare: a compact documentary life (1st ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 270–271. ISBN 0-19-502211-4. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
- Foster, 1987.
- Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare (1998) 61–62.
- Vickers, 2007,8
- Collins, John Churton. Ephemera Critica. Westminster, Constable and Co., 1902; p. 216.
- Appleby, John C (January 2008). "Hervey, William, Baron Hervey of Kidbrooke and Baron Hervey of Ross (d. 1642)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
- Berryman, John (2001). Haffenden, John, ed. Berryman's Shakespeare: essays, letters and other writings. London: Tauris Parke. p. xxxvi. ISBN 978-1-86064-643-0.
- Neil, Samuel (27 April 1867). Athenæum. London: 552. Missing or empty
- Neil, Samuel (1863). Shakespere: a critical biography. London: Houlston and Wright. pp. 105–106. OCLC 77866350.
- Colin Burrow, ed. The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford UP, 2002), p. 98; 102-3.
- Hyder Edward Rollins, The Sonnets, New Variorum Shakespeare, vol. 25 II, Lippincott, 1944, p. 181−4.
- A metre in poetry with five iambic metrical feet, which stems from the Italian word endecasillabo, for a line composed of five beats with an anacrusis, an upbeat or unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line which is no part of the first foot.
- "Glossary of Poetic Terms". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 12 February 2018.
- "The International Literary Quarterly". Interlitq.org. Retrieved 2014-04-02.
- Articles by FORT, J. A. (1933-01-01). "The Order And Chronology Of Shakespeare'S Sonnets". Res.oxfordjournals.org. Retrieved 2014-04-02.
- Boyd, William (19 November 2005). "Two Loves Have I". The Guardian. Retrieved 22 February 2011.
- Matz, Robert. The World of Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Introduction. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-7864-3219-6.
- Furness, Hannah (2013-01-08). "Has Shakespeare's dark lady finally been revealed?". Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-04-02.
- "'Dark Lady' of Shakespeare's sonnets 'finally revealed to be London prostitute called Lucy Negro' | Mail Online". Dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-04-02.
- Moore, Peter. The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised. Verlag Laugwitz, 2009.
- MacD. P. Jackson (2005-04-01). "Francis Meres and the Cultural Contexts of Shakespeare's Rival Poet Sonnets". Res.oxfordjournals.org. Retrieved 2014-04-02.
- Stapleton, M. L. "Shakespeare's Man Right Fair as Sonnet Lady." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46 (2004): 272
- Sobran, Joseph Shakespeare’s Disgrace, Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Spring 1997
- Sanderlin, George (June 1939). "The Repute of Shakespeare's Sonnets in the Early Nineteenth Century". Modern Language Notes. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 54 (6): 462–466. doi:10.2307/2910858. JSTOR 2910858.
- e.g. : William Shakespeare, Tutte le opere, edited by Mario Praz, Firenze, Sansoni, 1964
- Sonetto-shū, translated by Takamatsu Yūitsu, Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo 1986
- Tüm Soneler, translated by Talat Sait Halman, Istanbul 1989
- In Eternal Lines, translated by Yaakov Ostrover, Netanya, Israel 2017
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- Full collections
- The Sonnets at Project Gutenberg
- Complete sonnets of William Shakespeare – Listed by number and first line.
- Shakespeare's Sonnets public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Study resources
- Self-referential concordance to The Sonnets
- The Sonnets – Compare two sonnets side-by-side, see all of them together on one page, or view a range of sonnets on Open Source Shakespeare
- Explore the Sonnets yourself, with Gramener's tool helps readers explore Shakespear's Sonnets