Shakespeare's Sonnets

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In 1598 Francis Meres praised “mellifluous & hony-tongued” Shakespeare for his Ovidian poetry, Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends” (Palladis Tamia. Wits Treasury, fols. 281v-82r). Some of these poems, like Sonnet 145 (thought to describe Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway), were likely printed by Thomas Thorpe in his quarto of 1609, Shake-speares Sonnets. Neuer before Imprinted, but editors and critics have plausibly dated the composition of most of the sonnets to the following decade. Thorpe evidently did not obtain his copytext directly from Shakespeare, who contributed no preface to the book. The publisher wrote his own dedication, as follows: “To the onlie begetter of these insving sonnets Mr. W. H. all happinesse and that eternitie promised by ovr ever-living poet wisheth the well-wishing adventvrer in setting forth.” This “adventvrer”, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “One who undertakes, or shares in, commercial adventures or enterprises”, seems to be Thorpe himself, who must have speculated that the collection would recover his costs. As adventurer, Thorpe wished two things to “the onlie begetter” the sonnets, a Mr. W. H.: all happiness and the eternity promised by Shakespeare (evidently as described in Sonnet 122).

The two passages by Meres and Thorpe are the only contemporary remarks on Shakespeare’s sonnets, among which are some of the very greatest poems in the English language, but a vast speculative literature has grown from them. The fine editions by Stephen Booth, G. Blakemore Evans, and Katherine Duncan-Jones, and the wit and wisdom of W. H. Auden, summarize much of this thinking and add more of their own.

  • Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Stephen Booth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • --. The Sonnets. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • --. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Thomson Learning,1997.
  • --. The Sonnets. Ed. William Burto. Intro. W. H. Auden. Signet Classic Shakespeare. 2nd rev. edn. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Whatever else can be reasonably said about the sonnets (and almost everything said has been contradicted by someone), they treat of love, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Art of Love. Meres was right about that. Also, the one who utters the sonnets and who alludes to his career as playwright and poet in them appears to be Shakespeare himself, or at least Thorpe thought so, given the title he chose for the book. Astonishingly, then, Thorpe and those who bought the book in 1609 accepted the sonnets as autobiographical. If they are, they reveal more about Shakespeare than comparable works expose of almost any other writer in the Renaissance period. If Meres is right, as well, that Shakespeare circulated the sonnets among his friends, he treated them as verse letters. Their recipients would have read them as expressing Shakespeare’s own thoughts, not just about himself, but about persons he knew, loved, and hated and whom he addresses, often in the second person, in the poems. For these reasons, the sonnets are less like a literary sequence (written and revised as a single group with a dominant theme) than like an accumulation of poems written over several decades, under varying circumstances, to different people for whom he cared deeply. That is, the sonnets are often occasional poetry. When Shakespeare wanted to write to a loved, resented, or hated friend-mistress, he wrote a sonnet and dispatched it to them.

Now, it would be helpful to know both Shakespeare’s life and the people to whom he addressed his sonnets, wouldn’t it? Unravelling their identities has been an obsession for many researchers. Unluckily, the first person some have decided to unravel has been Shakespeare himself. Yet, as Samuel Schoenbaum and other brilliant biographers of this man have shown, we know a great deal more about this man than about many other contemporary writers. There are no grounds to doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford--not Francis Bacon, not the earl of Oxford, and not any other haplessly seized-on imposter--was the playwright-actor-poet who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.


  • Chambers, E. K. William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930.
  • Duncan-Jones, Katherine. Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life. The Arden Shakespeare. 2001.
  • Schoenbaum, Samuel. William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life. Clarendon Press, in association with Scolar Press, 1975.
  • --. Shakespeare's Lives. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Mr. W. H., the youth whom the first 17 sonnets persuade to marry, and Shakespeare’s “lovely boy” (Sonnet 124) were, most probably (although we will never know), William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, one of the two patrons who helped publish the first folio of Shakespeare’s works in 1623. George Chapman most resembles the rival poet. The married woman of Sonnet 152, and the mistress with the black hair and eyes (the so-called dark lady), if they are the same person, left Shakespeare to take up with Herbert, who suffered as much disgrace from the association as Shakespeare did. She would, then, be Mary Fitton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting whom Herbert publicly seduced, made pregnant, abandoned, and (for that, as punishment) spent several months in prison.

The sonnets show Shakespeare (a) advising a youth to get married (as he did in 1604, historically, according to documents in the Mountjoy-Belott lawsuit of 1612); (b) falling in love with a handsome young man (to whom Shakespeare, just once, apologizes for being ill-equipped to have sexual relations with); (c) succumbing to a devastating social disgrace (which might have followed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s private performance of his Richard II for the earl of Essex’s fellow conspirators in a plot to depose Elizabeth in 1601); (d) growing obsessed and unbalanced over a black-haired, black-eyed woman whom he took as his mistress; and (e) losing the love of both the young boy and his mistress to each other, and the literary respect of the boy to a rival poet who had more to say than Shakespeare admits he does in Sonnet 105. The chronological order of these times in Shakespeare’s life is unknown. A few of the sonnets lack his usual rhyme schemes and lengths, notably the sonnet that may allude to Anne Hathaway.

This modern-spelling edition is based on an encoded diplomatic transcription edited by Hardy Cook and myself for Renaissance Electronic Texts in 1998. See The RPO glossarial notes are all interpretative and suggestive, not authoritative or even factual, even when they cite the Oxford English Dictionary Online. I have modernized spelling but have been reluctant to emend the text substantively. This edition, for that reason, serves as a very modest introduction to the only authoritative text, Thomas Thorpe’s, which can be seen online at Internet Shakespeare Editions (

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