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|Language||Early Modern English|
Shakespeare's sonnets are a collection of 154 sonnets, dealing with themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty and mortality, first published in a 1609 quarto entitled 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.
The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to a 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 a 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.
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:
126 of Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to a young man, often called the "Fair Youth." Broadly speaking, there are branches of theories concerning the identity of Mr. W.H.: those that take him to be identical to the youth, and those that assert him to be a separate person.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of contenders:
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, the beginning of the third quatrain marks 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. There is one other variation on the standard structure, found for example in sonnet 29. The normal rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the b of quatrain one in quatrain three, where the f should be.
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 later has an affair with the Dark Lady. 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.
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 one-time patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton is commonly suggested, although Shakespeare's later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, has recently become popular. 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. However, while Shakespeare's language often seems to imply that the subject is of higher social status than himself, the apparent references to the poet's inferiority may simply be part of the rhetoric of romantic submission. An alternative theory, most famously espoused by Oscar Wilde's short story 'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.' notes a series of puns that may suggest the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, Wilde's story 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 sequence (sonnets 127–152), 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, and others have been suggested.
The Rival Poet's identity remains a mystery; among the varied candidates are Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, 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).
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. There is no major written language into which the sonnets have not been translated, including German, French, Japanese, Turkish, Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew, Welsh, Yiddish, Esperanto and most other languages.
Like all Shakespeare's works, the sonnets have been reprinted in many editions.
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