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About William Shakespeare’s Sonnets

by Litinbox

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English playwright and poet who is recognised as one of the largest theatrical and literary geniuses of the Middle English period.

Shakespeare penned approximately 38 plays and 154 sonnets, most of which have remained popular and are read or performed to date. The works of Shakespeare have been translated into many languages and his impact on the English literature is quite large.

Shakespeare & his Works

Shakespeare was born in the small town of Stratford-up-on-Avon in the year 1564. He got married to Anne Hathaway in 1582 and together they were blessed with three children.

Shakespeare initially was an actor before he began to write plays. His plays were in demand at the Globe Theatre, a theatre in which he was a shareholder, and enjoyed reception among the populace and the upper classes alike. Such plays are Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and Julius Caesar among others.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are a collection of poetry that was published in 1609 Quarto; they are considered one of the most notable works in the field of literature in the English language.

Tradition of Sonnets of Shakespeare

Shakespeare mainly adhered to the Italian sonnet, also known as Petrarchan sonnets, in his sonnet composition. Structure of a Petrarchan sonnet is 14 lines long with the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA CDECDE or in some cases a modified version of this.

However, Shakespeare also paid some attention to innovate the sonnet form and derived a more flexible form of rhyme scheme: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, which he used in his collection of 154 sonnets. This came to be known as the Shakespearean sonnet, or the English sonnet.

The 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The collection of 154 sonnets penned by William Shakespeare was first published in the 1609 Quarto, published under the title “Sonnets of Shakespeare” or “Shakespeare’s Sonnets”.

There has been greater consensus that the 1609 quarto was printed from Shakespeare’s manuscript which was acquired by Thomas Thorpe.

The first 126 sonnets are dedicated to a young man commonly known as the “Fair Youth“, and the remaining 28 are dedicated to a dark-haired woman generally referred to as “Dark Lady“.

The themes of the sonnets are diverse and include love, beauty, mortality, time, death, and the nature of poetry itself.

The publication of the 1609 quarto was important because it the first printed edition of William Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Although Shakespeare’s sonnets were already in circulation in manuscript form before this publication, the 1609 quarto facilitated their recognition as a genuine contribution to Shakespeare’s literary works.

Procreation Sonnets

William Shakespeare penned a sequence of the sonnets, known as the “Procreation Sonnets” or the “marriage sonnets” in which Shakespeare speaks of the desire of having children and encourages the Fair Youth to marry.

Altogether there are 17 sonnets (from 1-17) which are usually referred to as Procreation Sonnets, and probably, they were composed between 1592 and 1594.

These sonnets are dedicated to a young man, traditionally called the ‘Fair Youth,’ who is encouraged to reproduce so that he would pass on his beauty and exemplary character to the future generations.

In these sonnets, Shakespeare offers breeding as a means of defeating the grim reaper (mortality or death) as well as preserving beauty and love for the future generations.

According to him, through siring progeny, the fair youth will be able to escape the cruel hand of death and have his beauty and good qualities echoed into eternity.

Fair Youth Series

The Fair Youth series in Shakespeare’s Sonnets refers to the series of sonnets consisting of numbers 1-126 which are directed to the young man who is generally referred to as the “Fair Youth.”

The identity of fair youth is still unknown and there are numerous theories that have been proposed over the years about his identity.

The sonnets in the series of the Fair Youth are widely regarded as some of the Shakespeare’s most tender and romantic creations. The majority of the sonnets in this sequence are directly addressed to the Fair Youth, and some of them are more more meditative in nature, contemplating on the nature of love and passion.

Some of the most famous sonnets in the Fair Youth series include Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), Sonnet 29 (“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), and Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”).

Dark Lady Series

The first 126 sonnets in Shakespeare’s Sonnets are written to a young man who is referred to as the “Fair Youth,” while the last 28 sonnets are addressed to a woman known as the “Dark Lady.”

The Dark Lady sonnets (127-154) are often characterised by dark themes, making use of veins such as that of sexuality, jealousy, and betrayal.

As to the identity of the Dark Lady much controversy has raged on the subject as to who she was and many different theories have been made over years, as with the case of the Fair Youth’s identity.

According to some critics, she can be a woman whom Shakespeare have met in real life and dedicated this poem to, while others believe that she is completely arbitrary or fictional, and has no relation to Shakespeare’s life.

Regardless of the mystery surrounding the identity of the Dark Lady, the series of sonnets are widely considered as some of Shakespeare’s most passionate and haunting works, and they continue to be fascinating for readers and scholars until today.

Fair Youth & Dark Lady

The “Fair Youth” and the “Dark Lady” are two important personas in William Shakespeare’s sonnets. The identity of these two characters remains a mystery until today and different scholars have different opinions.

The Fair Youth is depicted in the first 126 sonnets. He is a young, handsome aristocratic man whose favours the poet desires. There is a popular view that this youth was a real person, an aristocrat and Shakespeare’s patron. This is a possibility that many scholars believe to be true.

Some have even pointed out that he might have been Henry Wriothesley -3rd Earl of Southampton because he was well known to have supported arts and may have had a homosexual relationship with Shakespeare.

While the Fair Youth is addressed in sonnets 1-126, the Dark Lady of sonnets 127-152 is depicted as a dark-skinned woman of questionable morals.

Even regarding the identity of the Dark Lady the scholars differ: some have claimed that she was a real woman whom Shakespeare knew; it is believed that she was a prostitute or a courtesan, while according to other critics, she was only an invention by Shakespeare for the purpose of the sonnets.

Some scholars have also suggested that Fair Youth and Dark Lady could have existed as lovers or could possibly know each other.

Concerning the Dark Lady, some of the scholars reacted that she was a mistress of the Fair Youth, while others believed that she was the contender for the youth.

Therefore, it may be correct to state that, although the Fair Youth and Dark Lady have been much written about and many attempts have been made to identify the true particulars of these figures, their real life counterparts probably will remain unknown forever. Nevertheless, their presence in William Shakespeare’s Sonnets continues to attract and puzzle readers even today.


To this day, the identity of the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady is unknown. Similarly, the dedication of Shakespeare’s sonnets also remains a mystery until today. The dedication in the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets reads as follows:

  • To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr. W.H. all happinesse and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth T.T.

The meaning of these lines in simple English:

  • To the only person who inspired these sonnets, Mr. W.H., I wish you all happiness and the eternal fame promised by our immortal poet. Best wishes from T.T., who is taking a risk by publishing them.”

“T.T.” refers to Thomas Thorpe, the publisher who first printed the sonnets in 1609. The “immortal poet” refers to Shakespeare. However, the identity of “Mr. W.H.” – whom the sonnets are dedicated – is still a mystery and remains a subject of debate among scholars and critics throughout the ages. Some theories suggest he could be:

  • William Herbert: The Earl of Pembroke, a patron of Shakespeare.
  • Henry Wriothesley: The Earl of Southampton, another patron.
  • A Fictional Character: Some believe “Mr. W.H.” could be a fictional or symbolic name.

There are assumptions that Mr. W.H. and the Fair Youth are one and same. Some scholars are convinced that Mr. W.H. was an actual historical figure; while others believe that he was a fictional character created by Shakespeare out of his imagination.

The terms such as ‘onlie begetter’ have been uncertain as to whether it relates to the name of the person who inspired the sonnets, or, the gentleman behind the publication of the sonnets.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets that Occur in his Plays

While Shakespeare’s sonnets, 154 in total, are standalone poems, there are 6 additional sonnets that occur in his plays, such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Henry V”.

Shakespeare incorporates sonnets in “Romeo and Juliet” to express the intense emotions of love between the titular characters.

These sonnets are different from the 154 sonnets of Shakespeare in structure and form, and they are written for performance or narrative.

In “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare incorporated a sonnet into the play (at the moment when these two meet) is in the form of a dialogue:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Structure & Themes


Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a strict structure, with each poem consisting of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Each line contains ten syllables, with the stress falling on every second syllable.

The rhyme scheme of the Shakespeare’s sonnets is also consistent, with each line following an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG pattern. The final couplet in each sonnet serves as a conclusion, often summarizing the themes explored in the previous lines.


Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets explore the complexities of love and relationships, including the joys and pains of romantic love, unrequited love, and the passing of time in love.

Some of the sonnets also touch on themes of mortality, aging, beauty, and the power of art to transcend time and death.

Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man and a dark-haired woman, whom scholars have speculated may have been real-life figures or fictional constructs.

Shakespearean sonnets

The sonnets that use the typical rhyme scheme of Shakespeare’s sonnets (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG) are known as Shakespearean sonnets, or English sonnets, or Elizabethan sonnets.

Often, at the end of the third quatrain occurs the volta (“turn”), where the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a turn of thought.


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.

Apart from rhyme, and considering only the arrangement of ideas, and the placement of the volta, a number of sonnets maintain the two-part organization of the Italian sonnet.

In that case the term “octave” and “sestet” are commonly used to refer to the sonnet’s first eight lines followed by the remaining six lines.

Analysis & Interpretation

Some scholars assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets represent an autobiographical account of Shakespeare’s personal life, while others have suggested that the sonnets are works of fiction, written to explore universal themes of love and mortality.

One of the most controversial aspects of Shakespeare’s sonnets is the identity of the young man to whom most of the poems are addressed. Some scholars have guessed that the young man may have been Shakespeare’s patron; others have suggested that he was a lover or a friend.

Similarly, the identity of the Dark Lady, addressed in the last 28 sonnets, remains a subject of debate and discussion.

Legacy & Influence

Shakespeare’s sonnets have had a considerable influence on the development of English poetry and literature. These pieces have inspired a number of poets and writers, from the Romantic poets of the 19th century to contemporary writers such as Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage.

In addition to their literary influence, Shakespeare’s sonnets have also had a significant impact on popular culture.

Many of the sonnets, such as Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), have become widely known and quoted; others have been adapted into songs, films, and plays.

Let’s take this piece as an example to analyse the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and poetic imagery in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Sonnet 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

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;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’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 can see,

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

Sonnet 18 is the most popular sonnet among all other sonnets of Shakespeare; it is known for his mastery of language and poetic imagery. Continue reading the following summary of this sonnet to understand how beautiful is the language of Shakespeare.

In the first line, the speaker asks the “Faith Youth” (his beloved) whether he can compare him to a summer’s day. The poetic imagery begins here with the comparison to a summer’s day.

However, the speaker quickly acknowledges the transient nature of summer, with its “darling buds of May” shaken by “rough winds” and its “gold complexion” dimmed by clouds.

Ultimately, the speaker realises that it is foolish to compare the transient earthly beauty to the timeless beauty of his beloved. He says, “thy eternal summer shall not fade”, and his beloved’s beauty surpasses that of the summer’s beauty.

How can a human’s beauty be immortal or enduring while nature’s beauty itself is transient? It’s because the beloved’s beauty is immortalized in the poet’s words (sonnets): “But thy eternal summer shall not fade,/ When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.”

The ending couplet immortalises the beloved and his beauty. The speaker asserts that as long as people read this sonnet, the beloved will live on. Here, the sonnet itself becomes a tool preserve the beauty and immortality of the beloved: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”