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An introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Hannah Crawforth explores how Shakespeare used and radically changed the conventions of love poetry, and how modern poets have reinvented his Sonnets for themselves.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are some of the most fascinating and influential poems written in English. First published in 1609, in a small quarto edition (roughly the size of a modern paperback), almost nothing is known about the poems’ composition. But the Sonnets have been read, recited, reprinted and written about ever since their first appearance. They have inspired many creative works, including music and dance pieces as well as other poems. And they continue to intrigue those of us who watch, read and study Shakespeare’s plays, for the insight they might offer into the mind of the man who wrote our most beloved dramatic works. This piece will explore why the Sonnets are so important to the history of English poetry and why they continue to be enjoyed – and imitated – today.

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

The earliest printed edition of the Sonnets was roughly the size of a modern paperback.

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Part of the reason Shakespeare’s Sonnets speak to us so directly is that they are written with their own afterlife in mind. These are poems designed to commemorate the poet’s beloved for all eternity. In the famous lines of Sonnet 18 Shakespeare suggests that his poem confers immortality: ‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee’ (ll. 11.13–14). Long after his lover’s death, Shakespeare’s poem will continue to keep his lover alive. The Sonnets look to their own future, imagining the readers who will come to them hundreds of years after Shakespeare’s death. We continue to read the poems partly because of this sense of contact with Shakespeare as he reaches out into the future, a sense of presence as well as a reminder of his absence (a theme that will return later in this piece).

But we need to be careful about reading the poems autobiographically, or seeing them as a key to the themes of love, jealousy, anger and lust that pervade Shakespeare’s plays. The poetic persona who speaks through the sequence is not Shakespeare himself. While many readers of the poems have traced a love triangle between the ‘poet’ and two figures often called the ‘Young Man’ and the ‘Dark Lady’, the Sonnets themselves resist straightforward narrative. The poems seem to play with the reader in this regard, tempting us with hints of the kind of love story that underpinned other popular poetic sequences of the time, or the plot of a Shakespearean comedy. At the same time, the poems constantly frustrate our attempts to trace the exact moment at which the poet loses – or gains – the affection of his lovers, or to map the precise relationship between the two enigmatic figures that so preoccupy his attentions. It is also significant that one of the lovers is male; Shakespeare’s Sonnets do not give us a predictably heterosexual romance but rather a complex and intricate exploration of gender and sexuality that encourages ambiguity rather than resolution. Shakespeare likewise subverts the conventional imagery of early modern erotic verse; ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’, begins Sonnet 130.

The Trial of Oscar Wilde, printed in 1906

The Trial of Oscar Wilde, printed in 1906

Shakespeare’s poems subvert the conventions of traditional heterosexual love poetry. They were used by Oscar Wilde, in his 1895 trial, to defend the love between two men, which Wilde famously described as ‘love that dare not speak its name’.

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This toying with the idea of narrative and the conventions of Elizabethan love poetry is one way in which the Sonnets are both highly traditional and also highly experimental. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are aware of their own place within poetic history and unafraid to rewrite this history in startlingly modern terms. This aspect of the Sonnets partly derives from the fact that Shakespeare is writing them somewhat after-the-fact. The sonnet form had been imported into English from Petrarch’s Italian poems by Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, earlier in the 16th century. The Elizabethan vogue for sonneteering reached its height in the 1590s with volumes by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Michael Drayton and Samuel Daniel, but was already on the wane by the time Shakespeare's Sonnets were published. There is in his poems a strong component of nostalgia for the form as well as a desire to reinvent it.

Celebration of Shakespeare in Meres' Wit's Treasury, 1598

Celebration of Shakespeare in Meres' Wit's Treasury, 1598

In his early book of literary criticism, Francis Meres lists the ‘most passionate’ poets to ‘bemoane the perplexities of love’. He places Shakespeare alongside Wyatt, Howard, Sidney, Spenser, Drayton, Daniel and others.

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While Shakespeare was not the first English poet to use the sonnet form, he did succeed in making it his own, changing its rhyme scheme and developing a distinctive structure that quickly became known as the ‘Shakespearean Sonnet’. Shakespeare’s predecessors had stuck closely to the Italian sonnet form used by Petrarch, which divides the poems into two sections, an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the final six). The Petrarchan sonnet often has a very strong turn, or ‘volta’, as the verse shifts from the first section to the second, making it the ideal form for expressing two different ideas or contrasting points of view. Shakespeare altered this structure, interweaving the first twelve lines of the poem and abolishing the two-part division of his poetic precursors. This allows his poems to express much more subtle, varied ideas, with each sonnet articulating a variety of different positions relative to its subject. Shakespearean sonnets also culminate in a resounding final couplet that can sound conclusive, offering a pithily memorable restatement of what has gone before: ‘If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved’ (Sonnet 116, ll. 13–14). Alternatively, the effect of the final couplet can appear inadequate, a deliberately ironic response to the rest of the poem: ‘Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be’ (Sonnet 138, ll. 13–14). In this way Shakespeare is able to utilise the final couplet to create quite differing effects.

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

In this early edition, Sonnet 116 is mistakenly labelled 119.

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Shakespeare was evidently a very innovative writer of sonnets, releasing new potential within this very old poetic form by modifying its structure to allow new expressive possibilities. But some poems in the 1609 sequence hint at yet further innovation. Sonnet 99 contains an extra line, for instance, while Sonnet 126 is incomplete at only 12 lines. Shakespeare also likes to experiment with metre and rhyme scheme; Sonnet 145 (‘Those lips that love’s own hand did make’) contains only four beats or stresses in each line (tetrameter), unlike the usual five (pentameter), for instance. And Sonnet 87 (‘Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing’) is a virtuosic display of skill, pivoting around a single rhyme sound for the first dozen lines. Even Shakespeare did not always write ‘Shakespearean’ sonnets, then.

Shakespeare’s adaptation and modernisation of the sonnet did not stop at reshaping its form. He also radically reimagined its linguistic possibilities, opening up whole new metaphorical landscapes within his poems. At times, the register of his poems seems tantalisingly close to the realities of Shakespeare’s own life. His dramatic career is teasingly suggested in Sonnet 23, ‘As an unperfect actor on the stage’, in which the poet’s nervousness about his abilities to capture his lover in verse is figured as a kind of stage fright (l. 1). Similarly, several of the Sonnets depict the poet in the act of writing itself, evoking the challenges and frustrations – as well as the rewards – of literary creativity. Sonnet 59 labours (in a deliberate echo of the struggles of childbirth) to produce an apt image of the elusive lover, asking how to find the words to describe ‘this composed wonder of your frame’ (l. 10). The beloved even seems to become a sonnet momentarily here, as the ‘frame’ of the poem struggles to contain this poet’s awed wonder.

If such moments of apparent self-consciousness suggest introspection, elsewhere the Sonnets look outwards. Shakespeare’s sequence responds to the rapidly changing political and economic climate of his own times, using financial and legal imagery (as in Sonnet 4, which ends with a rather threatening evocation of wills and the executors who will inherit responsibility for his beloved’s ‘unused beauty’ after his death (ll. 13–14)). The religious upheavals that traumatised many throughout early modern Europe are evident too, in Sonnet 73’s haunting depiction of the ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’ (l. 4). The poems also capture some of the more mundane aspects of life in Shakespeare’s England; Sonnet 143 imagines a ‘housewife’ who puts down her baby to chase after the chickens that have escaped in her garden; the lover is asked to ‘play the mother’s part’ towards the poet: ‘kiss me, be kind’ (ll. 1, 12). Such shifts in the sequence between issues of national or even international importance and those relating to the domestic sphere give a sense of the sheer variety of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as well as of their interest in unsettling the reader’s sense of scale. The sonnet is one of the smallest, most compact poetic forms, just 14 lines of tightly rhymed verse, but Shakespeare shows that it is capable of encompassing the most profound range of human experience and emotion.

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, c. 1614-1615

Paintings of London in the friendship album of Michael van Meer, 1614-15

A woman breastfeeds her baby in this early modern watercolour painting. Shakespeare moves between the domestic sphere and the wider political arena.

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It is these particular expressive qualities, this particular combination of tradition and innovation that continues to draw artists to Shakespeare’s Sonnets today. Describing her own recent poem ‘2014/15’, written after Sonnet 73 (‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’), Jo Shapcott says that ‘My poem bows to the original somewhere in every line and spins round it in grateful celebration’.[1] The idea that Shakespeare’s Sonnets hold a gravitational force, around which today’s writers orbit, is a powerful image for their continuing influence and centrality within the English poetic tradition. And Shapcott’s sense of acknowledging the original poem in a series of ‘bows’ embodies both the sense of gratitude she describes but also an accompanying freedom; poets are not enslaved by the form, intimidated by the long shadow Shakespeare casts, but rather can be liberated and even exhilarated by the possibilities his verse offers. Imtiaz Dharker strikes a similarly elegant balance between emulation and innovation, indebtedness and resistance, proximity and distance, in her own ‘The Trick’, written in response to Sonnet 43 (‘When most I wink, then do my eyes best see’). Sonnet 43 ‘is such a perfect sonnet of absence and presence, presence in absence’, Dharker says of Shakespeare’s verse; ‘The poem plays tricks on the mind with light and shade, with words that look and sound the same but make cunning grammatical shifts.’[2]

The Trick
In a wasted time, it’s only when I sleep
that all my senses come awake. In the wake
of you, let day not break. Let me keep
the scent, the weight, the bright of you, take
the countless hours and count them all night through
till that time comes when you come to the door
of dreams, carrying oranges that cast a glow
up into your face. Greedy for more
than the gift of seeing you, I lean in to taste
the colour, kiss it off your offered mouth.
For this, for this, I fall asleep in haste,
willing to fall for the trick that tells the truth
that even your shade makes darkest absence bright,
that shadows live wherever there is light.

Dharker’s evocative description of Sonnet 43 and poetic recreation of the ‘tricks’ Shakespeare’s Sonnets play at once identifies something entirely distinctive about these poems, and also offers a way forward for poets writing ‘in the wake | of’ Shakespeare’s awe-inspiring command of the sonnet form. The ‘cunning … shifts’ Dharker describes are present in Shakespeare’s original poems, endlessly reforming the work of his predecessors and endlessly resisting critical interpretation, ever elusive. But they also license ongoing poetic experimentation and innovation in the form today, remaking Shakespeare as he himself remade the sonnet.

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

First edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609

Sonnet 43, as it appears in the first printed edition.

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[1] Jo Shapcott, On Shakespeare's Sonnets – A Poets' Celebration, ed. by Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 89.

[2] Imtiaz Dharker,On Shakespeare's Sonnets – A Poets' Celebration, ed. by Hannah Crawforth and Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 78.

  • Hannah Crawforth
  • Hannah Crawforth is a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at King’s College, London. She is the author of Etymology and the Invention of English in Early Modern Literature (Cambridge, 2013) and co-author of Shakespeare in London (Arden, 2015). With Elizabeth Scott-Baumann she has edited a collection of essays on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and a volume of responses to these poems by contemporary writers.

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