William Shakespeare, Sonnets


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1983


Today we associate William Shakespeare primarily with his plays. When we hear the name of the most famous English poet of all time, we think of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” or Richard II’s desperate “a kingdom for a horse”. But in his day, Shakespeare was even more famous for his poetry.


Shakespeare’s sonnets, a cycle of 154 individual poems, are part of a long European tradition of sonnet writing, which takes its beginning in the 14th century with Francesco Petrarca. Petrarch’s sonnets, which praise his beloved Laura, become the model for the so-called Italian sonnet, which often describes the beauty of a lady in standardized imagery: her eyes are bright as stars, her lips red as a rose, her skin white as snow. Although it is Sir Thomas Wyatt who popularizes the sonnet in England, the English sonnet often attains its most perfect form in Shakespeare’s verses.


With the English sonnet, Shakespeare does not only diverge from his Italian predecessors in form, he also plays with established conventions, turns them upside down, and parodies them. Sonnet 130, for instance, opens with the lines “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun/ Coral is far more red than her lips’ red/ If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;/ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” The lyrical I, whose voice we listen in on here, apparently doesn’t care much about such “false compares” and instead prides himself on a mistress, who is worth more than such empty words. In this respect Shakespeare develops an understanding of love in his sonnets that often far exceeds the works of his predecessors in its psychological complexity and nuance.  


But as much as Shakespeare’s poetry is marked by outstanding formal and semantic complexity, it is also straightforward, direct, and bawdy in other instances. So the speaker in sonnet 3 tells his addressee he had better procreate quickly because he was getting old and children were, after all, the best way of preserving one’s image for posterity. It also shouldn’t be too difficult, he continues, to find a lady who wouldn’t like to have her “field plowed” by him. In this sonnet the poet cleverly employs imagery to link nature and human life and, moreover, creates great entertainment.


Love and beauty, man and nature, life and death, mortality, fame, and jealousy are among the central themes of the sonnet cycle. The poems are grouped into several sequences according to their respective addressee: a young man (“fair youth”), a rival poet, and a “dark lady”. One of Shakespeare’s most scandalous innovations on the Petrarcan form, which exclusively focused on idealized women, is that he writes love poetry addressed to a man. The question, which real historical person might be hidden under the guise of the pseudonym “fair youth” has been the subject of century-long debates. The poem collection includes a dedication to a “W.H.”, which is very likely to mean either Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, or William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. An alternative theory suggests that W.H. is simply a misprint of W.S. and thus refers to the poet himself. Perhaps we will never know for sure.


by Teresa Teklić




Signet Sunflower Foundation