Shakespearean sonnets arguably set a template for most of the sonnets written during the Renaissance in England and even after. It would be easy for any student of literature to identify William Shakespeare as one of the architects of Renaissance in England. Many English and non-English poets have continued to pattern their works after the Shakespearean style. In this unit, we shall examine the life of Shakespeare briefly and some of his beautiful sonnets.
The Life of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-on-Avon. The son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, he was probably educated at the King Edward IV Grammar school in Stratford, where he learned Latin and some Greek and read the Roman dramatists. At eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman seven or eight years older than him. Together they raised two daughters: Susana, who was born in 1583 and Judith (whose twin brother died in boyhood), born in 1585.
Little is known about Shakespeare’s activities between 1585 and 1592. Shakespeare may have taught at school during this period, but it seems more probably that shortly after 1585 he went to London to begin his apprenticeship as an actor. Due to the plague, the London theatres were often closed between June 1592 and April 1594. During that period, Shakespeare probably had some income from his patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated his first two poems, “Venus and Adonis” (1593) and “the Rape of Lucrece” (1594). The former was a long narrative depicting the rejection of Venus by Adonis, his death, and the consequent disappearance of beauty from the world. Despite conservative objections to the poem’s glorification of sensuality, it was immensely popular and was reprinted six times during the nine years following its publication.
In 1594, Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamber Lain’s company of actors, the most popular of the companies acting at court. In 1599, Shakespeare joined a group of Chamber Lain’s Men that would form a syndicate to build and operate a new playhouse: the Globe, which became the most famous theatre of its time. With his share of the income from the Globe, Shakespeare was able to purchase New Place, his home in Stratford.
Though Shakespeare was regarded as the foremost dramatist of his time, evidence indicates that both he and his contemporaries looked to poetry, not plays, for enduring fame. Shakespeare’s sonnets were composed between 1593 and 1601, though not published until 1609. The edition, The sonnets of Shakespeare, consist of 154 sonnets, all written in the form of three quatrains and a couplet that is now recognized as Shakespearean. The sonnets fall into two groups: sonnets 1 – 126, addressed to a beloved friend, a handsome and noble young man, and sonnets 127-152, to a malignant but fascinating “Dark Lady” whom the poet loves in spite of himself.
Shakespeare is known to have invented thousands of words, often combining or contorting Latin, French and native roots. His impressive expansion of the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, includes such words as: arch-villain, birthplace, bloodsucking, courtship, dewdrop, downstairs, fanged, heartsore, hunchbacked, leapfrog, misquote, pageantry, radiance, schoolboy, stillborn, watchdog, and zary.
The Sonnets of Shakespeare
Nearly all of Shakespeare’s sonnets examine the inevitable decay of time, and the immortalization of beauty and love in poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a collection of 154 sonnets. The majority of the sonnets (1 – 126) are addressed to a young man, with whom the poet has an intense romantic relationship. The poet spends the first seventeen sonnets trying to convince the young man to marry and have beautiful children that will look like their father, ensuring his immortality. Many of the remaining sonnets focus on the power of poetry and pure love to defeat death and “all oblivious enmity” (55.9). Here, the second sonnet is analyzed:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held:
Where all the treasure of the lusty days;
To say within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse’
Proving his beauty by succession of thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old.
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
In this sonnet, the speaker warns the addressee about old age. According to him, in forty years more, i.e. forty more years added to the recipient’s age, the addressee will no longer be a youth. All his strength must have gone by this time. The speaker now advises this young man to replicate his beauty by having a son who will stand for him after he must have gone.
The final sonnets (127 – 154) are addressed to a promiscuous and scheming woman known to modern readers as the dark lady. Both the poet and his young man have become obsessed with the raven-haired temptress in these sonnets, and the poet’s whole being is at odds with his insatiable “sickly appetite” (147.4). The tone is distressing with language of sensual feasting, uncontrollable urges, and sinful consumption. Here, sonnet 130 is analyzed:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
Coral is far more red, than her lips red.
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know.
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.
The speaker in this sonnet compares the beauty of his mistress with the sun. To him, his mistress’ eyes glow like the sun. The speaker keeps on praising his mistress’ beauty negatively comparing parts of her body with some elements of nature like roses, the sun, snow, perfumes. He condemns her eyes, hair, cheeks, breath, speech and walk. The language is sarcastic and highly ironical.
The Style of Shakespearean Sonnets
Shakespeare’s sonnets are written predominantly in a meter called iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme in which each sonnet line consists of ten syllables. The syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. An iamb is a metrical unit made up of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. A line of iambic pentameter flows thus:
do REE / do REE / do REE / do REE / do REE
These examples are taken from the sonnets:
When I / do COUNT / the CLOCK / that TELLS / the TIME (Sonnets 12)
When IN / dis GRACE / with FOR / tune AND / men’s EYES
I ALL / a LONe / be WEEP / my OUT / Cast STATE (Sonnet 29)
Shall I / com PARE / thee TO / a SUM / ser’s DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE (sonnets 18)
There are fourteen lines in a sonnet. In the case of a Shakespearean sonnet, the first twelve lines are divided into three quatrains with four lines each. In the three quatrains, the poet establishes a theme or problem and then resolves it in the final two lines, called the couplet. The rhyme scheme of the quatrain is abab cdcd efef. The couplet has the rhyme scheme gg. This sonnet structure is commonly called the English sonnet or the Shakespearean sonnet, to distinguish it from the Italian Petrarchan Sonnet form which has two parts: a rhyming octave (abbaabba) and a rhyming sestet (cdcdcd). The Petrarchan sonnet style was extremely popular with Elizabethan sonneteers, much to Shakespeare disdain he mocks the conventional and excessive Petrarchan style in sonnet 130.
Whereas sonnets are usually made up of fourteen lines, three of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets do not conform to this structure. Sonnet 99 has 15 lines; sonnet 126 has 12 lines; and sonnet 145 which is written in iambic tetrameter.
Shakespearean sonnets are very important in the phase of English poetry. In his sonnets, Shakespeare coined a lot of new words and also consolidated his style as the English style for sonnet writing instead of the Petrarchan style. A lot of modern poets have patterned their works after Shakespeare’s sonnets. Wendy Cope’s poetry is parodied after Shakespearean sonnets.
In this article, we have been able to introduce the sonnets of William Shakespeare to you. We have told you that the first 17 sonnets are addressed to a Youngman while the ones from 127-154 are addressed to a promiscuous and scheming woman. The whole 154 sonnets are rich in English tradition.