Shakespeare published a quarto of 154 sonnets in 1609. He wrote the poems throughout his career.

A sonnet is a form of verse with these main characteristics: 

  • One stanza of 14 lines
  • Usually written in iambic pentameter
  • Structured in three quatrains (each with their own ABAB rhyme schemes) and a final couplet
  • The final rhyming couplet often sums up or gives a surprising twist 
Shakespeare seated at a table with a quill and a pile of books
An Ideal Portrait of William Shakespeare - painted by George Henry Hall in 1896
Oil painting digitised by Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) © RSC Theatre Collection Browse and license our images

WHO Did SHAKESPEARE ADDRESS WITH HIS SONNETS?

They may be addressed to a series of different people.

The first 17 sonnets for example seem to be addressed to a fair youth, an aristocratic young man, imploring him to get married, and have children. There are several candidates for this Fair Youth.

  • William Herbert - refused to marry Elizabeth Carey, granddaughter of the Lord Chamberlain, the patron of the company Shakespeare worked for. His initials fit to the dedication of the book to 'Mr WH'.
  • Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton to whom in 1593 Shakespeare dedicated his poem Venus and Adonis and later The Rape of Lucrece. He has the correct initials, just reversed - perhaps to conceal his identity.

Towards the end of the series there are 28 sonnets addressed to a woman. Far from idealising a perfect woman, they feature a female lover accused of making the poet sexually obsessed, furiously jealous, of cheating on him, stealing away his boy friend, and giving him a dose of the clap. No one knows the identity of the 'Dark Lady' but possible candidates include: 

  • Mary Fitton - maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, and the mistress of William Herbert.
  • Emilia Lanier - mistress of Lord Hunsdon, (Henry Carey) the Lord Chamberlain, and thus Shakespeare’s boss, as patron of his company. Emilia was also a member of the Venetian Bassano family, who were musicians at court.
  • Black Luce, a brothel owner in Clerkenwell
  • The wife of John Florio, a linguist and translator of Montaigne, who may have been satirised as the pedantic Holofernes In Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Possibly the Dark Lady is an amalgam of many different women. 

 

Sonnet descriptions

Descriptions of a selection of Shakespeare's sonnets from our Artistic Director Gregory Doran drawing on Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells' new book All the Sonnets of Shakespeare (published September 2020).

Sonnet 2

'When forty winters shall besiege thy brow'

When you become old, you should be able to show that you have a successor to your beauty – but only if you beget a child.

More usual as an argument made by a man to a woman, as part of his seduction.

Sonnet 12

'When do I count the clock that tells the time'

The number of hours in the day. Everything dies, so the only way to survive is to have children.

Evidence that everything eventually perishes prompts the poet to consider that his friend is subject to the same process.

Sonnet 17

'Who will believe my verse in time to come'

The last of the poems encouraging procreation - perhaps for the 17th birthday of William Herbert.

My poetry alone cannot convey your many wonders, and might be mistrusted, so have a child as well.

Sonnet 18

'Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day'

You don’t need children to testify to your beauty, because that will live for ever in this poem. My poetry turns you into an eternal summer in which you will be forever beautiful. This is one of the best chat up line poems I know.

Sonnet 20

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted’ 

Famously puzzling sonnet - the language is slippery and self subverting.

You are more beautiful than a woman, and have more allure, but nature fell in love with you and gave you the equipment to give pleasure to women. Nevertheless, you must stay constant to me!

You look like both a man and a woman, and everyone is attracted to you. I can love you, but your love-making is really for women.

Sonnet 23

'As an unperfect actor on the stage'

Sometimes I lose the ability to express my love, but realise it is there – in the silence of what I have already written.

Sonnet 27

'Weary with toil, I haste me to me bed'

I cannot sleep, even though I go to bed exhausted, because my mind sees you in the darkness.

Sonnet 29

'When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes'

When I am feeling out of favour with the world, I happen to think of you, and am so transported to heaven that my happiness is greater than kings’. Your love compensates for everything.

Sonnet 30

'When to the sessions of sweet silent thought'

In solitude, the poet takes stock of his failures. Until he thinks consolingly of you. When I call to mind the past, I grieve; but when I think of you, my sense of loss and my grief end.

Sonnet 34

'Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day'

Why did you betray me? Give me the come on then reject me. You have let me suffer and your trying to rescue the situation, and being repentant, does not help. But your tears do.

Sonnet 40

'Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all'

Why don’t you just take away all the love I have? I forgive you, but love’s deception is worse than straightforward hatred.

Sonnet 44

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought

Continuing the theme of absence, the poet wishes his body could move with the same agility as his thoughts.

If only I were made of thought so that I could fly quickly to wherever you are! But I am only made of heavy elements and must wait for time to reunite us.

Sonnet 55

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments'

My poetry will outlast buildings and cities. Nothing will outlive my rhyme and the way it immortalises you, until you yourself are resurrected from the dead

Sonnet 57

'Being your slave what should I do but tend'

Listen - I am entirely subservient to you in both my thoughts and my deeds, but I am aware that you may be fooling around. I am your slave, and have nothing better to do than to wait around for you. My love for you will excuse anything you do.

Sonnet 60

'Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore'

The inevitable process of maturity and decay can only be counteracted by my verse. Our minutes pass, and time destroys everything that it once made beautiful. But my poetry will survive, praising you.

A meditation on the power of poetry to transcend time.

Sonnet 66

'Tired with all these, for restful death I cry’ 

I am so sick and tired of things as they are, that I am looking forward to death – except that in dying I would leave my loved one alone.

A meditation about all that’s wrong with the world, which refers to a male or a female loved one.

Sonnet 71

'No longer mourn for me when I am dead'

Let your mourning for me be short. I would rather you forget me, even when you read my poem, than be unhappy, for which you might be mocked.

A plea for oblivion.

Sonnet 73

'That time of year thou mayst in me behold'

I am in the winter and sunset of my life, an old, fading fire. But seeing me like this might make your love for me even stronger.

This sonnet explores the young man’s perception of the older poets decrepitude. Concluding that this would only strengthen their love.

Sonnet 80

'O, how I faint when I of you do write'

Although I am discouraged because another, better poet is also writing about you, I will continue to do what I can and, if I fail, at least I can say I have failed for love’s sake.

He acknowledges the superiority of the rival poet. He and his rival are compared to two different kinds of ships.

Sonnet 87

'Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing'

Farewell, you are too precious for me to keep, and I was mistaken in your love. The poet relinquishes his claim on the young man.

Sonnet 90

'Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now'

If you are going to leave me, do it quickly. Do it while things are going badly for me that way my other misfortunes will dwindle by comparison.

Sonnet 91

'Some glory in their birth, some in their skill'

Everyone has something they deeply enjoy: for me it’s your love.

He spurns what others enjoy, because he invests everything in his beloved, who can thus deprive him of everything.

Sonnet 94

'They that have power to hurt and will do none'

Some apparently admirable people have a natural power over others and over themselves, but this might eventually turn nasty.

A meditation in the third person, an essay in miniature. The gift of beauty carries with it an obligation to behave virtuously. The best final couplet of all the sonnets.

Sonnet 97

'How like a winter hath my absence been’

Being away from you feels like winter, and even though it is summer and autumn, the best of the year is always where you are.

The first of three related sonnets about absence.

Sonnet 106

'When in the chronicle of wasted time'

When I read the poetry of the past, praising the most beautiful people, I realise that they were really describing you, but could never do so adequately – nor can we.

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds’ 

True minds in love know that love never changes but lasts forever, and, if I am wrong, I have never written anything, nor been in love.

Sonnet 129

'The expense of spirit in a waste of shame'

To be possessed by lust wastes vital energy which, being acted upon, promises heaven, but only leads to a hell of guilt.

An almost breathless meditation on the feelings and consequences of lust.

Sonnet 130

'My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun'

My mistress is nothing like any of the false comparisons usually drawn in love poems, and is therefore more special than any woman about whom such false claims are made.

A meditation about a mistress. The traditional forms of beauty celebrated in love poetry are unnecessary to provoke desire. Like Touchstone and Audrey (As You Like It).

Sonnet 138

'When my love swears that she is made of truth'

My loved one and I both know we are lying to each other, she about her faithfulness, I about my age, but our lies help our relationship to function.

Mutually dependent self deception he pretends she’s chaste, she pretends he is young.

Sonnet 144

'Two loves I have of comfort and despair'

The man and woman whom I love are like good and bad angels, and I suspect her of infecting him.

A meditation about a male and a female for whom the poet feels contrasting love. The good and bad Angel sonnet

Sonnet 147

'My love is as a fever, longing still'

I am sick from loving you, but want to remain so, even though I know it is fatal, and is turning me mad.

He is in the grip of a mania, Love is a disease. He has been abandoned by reason. And I know you are not what you pretend to be. A shivering final couplet.

For explanatory notes and paraphrases of all Shakespeare's sonnets, see All the Sonnets of Shakespeare  ed. by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, due to be published Cambridge University Press in September 2020.