Having only a vague recollection of Shakespeare’s sonnets from English classes, I was expecting beautiful poems about love. There is some of that, but it was quite a surprise to also find sordid poems about unfaithful lovers, stolen mistresses, jealousy, love triangles, and dirty puns.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are generally divided into two groups. The first 126 sonnets, which all seem to be addressed to a Fair Youth, and the final 28 which are addressed to a Dark Lady. A Rival Poet is also mentioned in sonnets 78-86. Many people over the years have tried to guess who the Fair Youth, Rival Poet, and Dark Lady are, however it’s unknown if these characters are even real people or not. It’s also unknown to what degree the sonnets reflect Shakespeare’s real love life and how much of them are fictionalizations.
We can’t be sure that all of the first 126 sonnets are actually addressed to the Fair Youth (only about one fifth of the sonnets specify the lover’s gender), but I’ll talk about them as if they are since that’s the convention.
The first 17 sonnets in the sequence are known as the Procreation Sonnets, since Shakespeare is urging the Fair Youth to have children so his good looks won’t die with him. (Sonnet 15 actually doesn’t contain an encouragement to have children, but is still considered part of the Procreation Sonnets since it seems to go along with Sonnet 16.)
Sonnets 18 and 19 tell the Youth that although he will grow old and die, poems about him will remain, giving him immortality of a kind. (This same message also appears in Sonnets 54, 55, 60, 63, 65, and 81, so it’s definitely a theme.)
In Sonnet 20, Shakespeare describes the Fair Youth as having both feminine and masculine traits, and expresses his wish that the Fair Youth was a woman, making it perhaps the most homoerotic sonnet in the sequence.
Over the course of the first 126 sonnets, Shakespeare’s relationship with the Fair Youth is a tumultuous one. He urges him to have children (1-17), praises his beauty (20-21), and declares his love for him (23-32). He then talks about his love being rejected (33-34) and says he forgives the Youth (35), but they must separate to keep the Youth’s reputation unsullied (36).
While separated, Shakespeare lives vicariously through the Youth (37) and still considers him his muse (38). He deals with the separation by thinking of their love (39). The Youth then steals Shakespeare’s mistress, who some have speculated is the Dark Lady (40-42). Shakespeare, however, is more upset at her for stealing him, than at him for stealing her.
Their separation continues, but now seems to be due to distance (43-45). Shakespeare’s eye and heart fight over who loves the Youth more (46-47) and he still worries about someone stealing the Youth from him (48) and preemptively forgives the Youth for pretending not to know him in the future (49). Separation continues as Shakespeare states that he hates traveling because it takes him away from the Youth (50-51), but that makes the time they do spend together more special (52).
Shakespeare continues to praise the Youth’s beauty (53, 59), declares that love shouldn’t fade over time (56), and declares himself to be the Youth’s slave (57-58). Thinking about the Youth keeps him up at night (61) and he continues declaring his love (62).
He’s pained by the thought that his love will die one day (64) and says life is so horrible, he’d die himself, except that would take him away from his love (66) who is too good for this horrible world (67). Also, Shakespeare is not a fan of cosmetics (68, 127, 146).
People slander the Youth because they’re jealous of his beauty (69-70). He tells the Youth not to mourn him when he’s dead because he doesn’t want him to be sad or for others to mock him (71-72). The Youth apparently loves Shakespeare more, now that Shakespeare is older and closer to death (73). Shakespeare tells the Youth that after he’s dead, the Youth will still have his poetry (74) and continues declaring his love (75-76).
A Rival Poet then starts writing poems about the Fair Youth, making Shakespeare jealous (78-86). Shakespeare seems to lose the Fair Youth, but still defends him, even against himself (86-92). He says the Youth’s beauty hides his sins (93-96) and mourns his loss (97-98).
He continues to praise the Youth’s beauty (99, 103, 104, 106), invokes the muse to give his love fame (100-101), and says his love is still just as strong as it used to be (102), even coming close to idolatry (105).
Sonnet 107 is another that tells the Youth he’ll live forever in the form of poetry. It also seems to refer to the death of Queen Elizabeth and the coronation of King James, giving us a possible clue to the date when it was written.
Shakespeare then confesses to being unfaithful to the Youth (109-111), but he still loves him (112-115). He says true love remains unchanging when things get bad (116) and even claims the reason he was unfaithful was to prove how true their love is (117-118)! Love is better when you destroy it, then build it back again (119), and besides, the Youth was unfaithful first, so now they’re even (120)!
After all, it’s better to sin and experience the pleasure than be accused of sinning without getting the pleasure (121)! Shakespeare then reiterates how much he loves the Youth (122-125).
Sonnet 126 is the final sonnet addressed to the Fair Youth. Shakespeare tells the Youth that his lovers have aged while he remains fair, but he’ll get old and die too some day. Sonnet 126 isn’t technically a sonnet, but rather a series rhymed couplets with only 12 instead of the usual 14 lines. This has led some to speculate that it might have been incomplete or got redacted.
Sonnet 127 (one of Shakespeare’s anti-cosmetics sonnets) begins the Dark Lady sequence. These are quite a bit more lewd than the Fair Youth sonnets. He says he’s jealous of the Dark Lady’s piano, wishing she’d touch him like that (128). He bemoans the fact that sex is only pleasurable for a moment before making you feel disgust (129).
Sonnet 130 seems to be a parody of other sonnets which excessively praise their subjects. Shakespeare says his mistress doesn’t literally have cheeks like roses, breath like perfume, etc., but she’s still lovely anyway.
Others say the Dark Lady isn’t pretty enough to enthrall a man, but Shakespeare says she is cruel enough (131). He says he’ll call her beautiful, even though she isn’t, if she’ll pity him (132). He complains that she’s enthralled both him and his friend (perhaps the Fair Youth) and she should pick one of them (133-134).
Sonnets 135 and 136 are both bawdy, sexually-explicit poems filled with puns on the word “will” which can be variously defined as wish, determination, sexual desire, male genitalia, female genitalia, and, of course, an abbreviation for William. The Dark Lady apparently has a big “will” and admits lots of lovers, so why not admit one more?
He goes on to say his eyes view the Lady, who will sleep with anybody, as fair, when she really isn’t (137). He says the two of them lie to each other (138) and she wounds him by flirting with others (139). He threatens to slander her unless she says she loves him (140). His five senses don’t love her, only his heart does (141).
He admits to being unfaithful to her, but says she’s been unfaithful to him too (142). He compares her to a housewife who ignores her baby to chase a bird (143). He says he has two loves: a good man and an evil woman who is tempting him (144). When she said “I hate” it broke his heart, until she added, “not you” (145).
Shakespeare says the Dark Lady is horrible, but he loves her anyway because love is blind (147-150). He makes a lot of sexual innuendos (151) and concludes by reiterating that they’ve both been unfaithful to each other (152).
The final two sonnets (153-154) are known as the Anacreontics. They seem to stand alone. They tell the story of how Cupid’s brand was doused in a spring which gained healing properties, but Shakespeare could only be cured by his mistress’s eyes where Cupid got his new fire.
I recently read Jo Walton’s review of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in which she focuses on references to him being lame and accuses Shakespearean biographers of erasing his disability. Shakespeare does indeed say he’s lame in Sonnets 37 and 89 and mentions limping in Sonnet 66, but biographers haven’t ignored this, rather they’ve argued over whether these references are meant to be taken literally or not.
Rene Weis makes the case for Shakespeare being lame in Shakespeare Revealed: A Biography, for one example, so I don’t think it’s fair to say biographers have erased his disability. I just don’t think we can know for sure if he was disabled or not based on references in his poems. After all, Shakespeare also says he’s blind in his sonnets, but this is most likely metaphorical (love is blind) rather than literal. Shakespeare also referred to himself as being old when he was in his 20s and 30s, not because he really was old, but because he was writing poetry.
Overall, my favorite sonnets of the lot are 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?), 22 (My glass shall not persuade me I am old), 88 (When thou shalt be disposed to set me light), and 147 (My love is as a fever, longing still).
Sonnet 18 is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous poem in which he says his love is superior to a summer’s day and will live forever in the poem.
Sonnet 22 is a particularly weird one. Shakespeare talks about exchanging hearts with his love in a literal way, and asks his love to keep his heart safe, but ends by saying he won’t give his love’s heart back again.
Sonnet 88 is kind of weird too. Shakespeare says he loves the Youth so much, he’ll attack himself to make the Youth look better. It’s also full of tennis references such as “set” (which also means bet) and “double vantage” (which in Shakespeare’s day meant to win two points in a row after deuce.)
Sonnet 147 basically says love is blind. Shakespeare loves the Dark Lady even though he knows she’s bad news. His love is a sickness that causes him to dismiss his physician (reason), leaving him past cure and raving mad.