William Shakespeare (1564–1616) penned a collection of 154 sonnets, which are regarded as a significant accomplishment in English poetry. The primary source for Shakespeare’s sonnets is a quarto (a book made by folding a sheet of paper to form four leaves) published in 1609, titled “Shake-speare’s Sonnets.” It contains 154 sonnets and a long poem called “A Lover’s Complaint.” Additionally, there are six extra sonnets written by Shakespeare and included in his plays like Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. There’s also a partial sonnet found in the play Edward III.
The quarto features a dedication to “Mr. W.H.,” whose identity remains uncertain, sparking much speculation and debate among scholars. The sonnets can be divided into two main sequences: the first 126 sonnets are often referred to as the “Fair Youth” sequence, addressed to a young man. These sonnets delve into the poet’s admiration, friendship, and love for this young man. The remaining 28 are addressed to a mysterious woman and are categorised as the “Dark Lady” sequence. The initial 17 sonnets in this sequence are commonly called the “Procreation Sonnets” because, in these, the poet urges the young man to marry and have children to preserve his beauty. There is also a mention of a “Rival Poet” in the sonnets from 78 to 86, who is seen as a competitor for fame and patronage, and his presence adds complexity to the poet’s feelings and relationships. The true identities of the Fair Youth, Dark Lady, and Rival Poet remain a mystery, and scholars have tried to identify them with historical figures, but no consensus has been reached.
Shakespeare’s sonnets cover a wide range of themes, including love, time, beauty, infidelity, jealousy, mortality, and the passage of time. His sonnets are both a continuation of the sonnet tradition and a departure from it, challenging the conventions of love poetry and expanding the possibilities of poetic expression. Instead of fixating on a goddess-like female love-object, as poets like Petrarch and Dante did, Shakespeare introduced a young man and the enigmatic “Dark Lady.” The themes in his sonnets range from traditional expressions of love and beauty to more unconventional topics like lust, homoeroticism, misogyny, infidelity, and acrimony. He introduced a more human and complex approach to love and relationships.
Characteristic features of Shakespeare’s sonnets:
1. Structure: Shakespearean sonnets, also known as English sonnets or Elizabethan sonnets, consist of 14 lines divided into three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and a final rhymed couplet (two-line stanza).
2. Rhyme Scheme: The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, which is distinct from Petrarchan or Italian sonnets.
3. Meter: Each sonnet is composed in iambic pentameter, a metrical pattern with ten syllables per line having alternating stressed and unstressed syllables.
4. Volta or epigrammatic shift: In Shakespearean sonnets, the “volta” is a significant feature. It represents a shift or a turn in the theme or argument of the poem, typically occurring at the start of the third quatrain or in the final couplet. The volta often serves to twist or reframe the preceding lines, providing a new perspective or resolution to the poem’s subject matter. For example, in sonnet 130, the volta takes place in the third quatrain when the poet acknowledges his mistress’s imperfections and unconventional beauty, leading to the couplet where he affirms his love for her.
5. Imagery and Metaphor: Shakespeare’s sonnets are rich in vivid imagery and metaphors. He often uses natural elements, such as the sun, moon, and seasons, to convey the complexities of human experience. For instance;
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”
— (Sonnet 130, Line 1)
This line (from Sonnet 130) uses imagery to contrast the mistress’s eyes with the brilliance of the sun, highlighting her lack of traditional beauty.
Again in sonnet 116,
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
— (Sonnet 116, Lines 7-8).
Here, love is metaphorically described as a constant star that doesn’t change even when it encounters change. This metaphor emphasizes the enduring nature of true love.
6. Paradox and Wordplay: Paradox and wordplay are common features in Shakespeare’s sonnets, adding complexity and depth to his exploration of themes. Paradox involves the use of contradictory or seemingly contradictory ideas to create an intriguing effect, while wordplay involves clever and often playful use of words and their multiple meanings. Here are examples of these features in Shakespeare’s sonnets:
Sonnet 30:“Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,” The wordplay here involves the repetition of “grieve” and “grievances,” highlighting the speaker’s mourning for past sorrows.
Sonnet 18: “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade”. In this line, there is a paradoxical idea that the beloved will not be subject to Death because they are immortalized in the poet’s verse.
7. Themes: Common themes of his sonnets include love, beauty, time, mortality, and the complexity of human emotions. Many sonnets explore the poet’s affection for a young man and his relationship with a dark lady, along with the emotional challenges they pose.
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