Although nowadays we think of Shakespeare primarily as a playwright, in his own lifetime he was also well-known as a poet. His sonnets and narrative poems appeared in print to widespread acclaim during the 1590s and 1600s.
The themes of Shakespeare’s sonnets include the shortness of life and fleetingness of beauty, ways to achieve immortality (through having children and writing or being written about in poetry), desire and longing, love as a sickness, and poetic patronage. He is quite radical in his love poetry, often departing from courtly ideals of truth and purity to wrangle with sex, lies and love triangles. It is not known whether the sonnets are autobiographical or purely fictional. The first 126 sonnets are addressed to a ‘fair youth’ and the rest to a ‘Dark Lady’; many scholars have tried to identify these characters with historical individuals and speculated about Shakespeare’s sexuality, the ‘fair youth’ sonnets possibly revealing a romantic and/or sexual interest in men.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote and revised the sonnets during the 1590s and early 1600s. They were first printed in 1609 in a quarto volume – Shakes-Speares Sonnets – containing a sequence of 154 sonnets concluded by a longer poem, A Lover’s Complaint. Although scholars in the past have taken a different view, it is now generally believed that Shakes-Speares Sonnets was published with the consent of the author and with the poems in their proper order, but that the manuscript/s used to set the printed text may not have been authorial or definitive, or may have been difficult to work from.
What is a sonnet?
The sonnet form, most commonly used for love poems, was created in Italy in the 13th century and made popular by Renaissance poets such as Petrarch. The Italian sonnet (also called the Petrarchan sonnet) is made up of 14 lines of iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables in a ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum rhythm). Its argument is in two parts, an octave (eight lines) outlining a problem or question, followed by a sestet (six lines) offering a resolution; the transition between the two at the start of the ninth line is called the volta or ‘turn’. The octave rhymes abba abba, while the sestet can have a looser rhyme scheme, often cde cde or cd cd cd. Some common features of Petrarch’s love sonnets are an exaggerated adoration of the beloved, the use of contrasts and opposites in his imagery, and the idea of the poet being in anguish because his love is not acknowledged or returned.
The sonnet was brought to England in the early 16th century by Sir Thomas Wyatt and was particularly fashionable in the 1590s. The Elizabethan sonnet (also called the Shakespearean sonnet) is also in iambic pentameter, but it usually follows a structure of three quatrains (four line stanzas) of cross-rhyme followed by a couplet: abab cdcd efef gg. The volta usually still comes with the ninth line, but in Shakespeare’s sonnets it often comes with the 13th. In England, sonnets often circulated privately in manuscript among an elite audience before finding their way into print.
Sonnets and Romeo and Juliet
The sonnet form and the themes and rhetoric of romantic poetry occur frequently in Romeo and Juliet, most famously at Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss. Incorporated into a piece of theatre, each of these enacted sonnets creates a sense of an elevated moment. They also allow Shakespeare to poke some gentle fun at Romeo, who early in the play is full of Petrarchan cliché. As the play progresses, the language of the lovers moves away from rhymed cliché to more complex expression in blank verse, reflecting their emotional development and the increasing difficulty of their situation.