Shakespeare's Sonnets

English 203

Dr. Fike


Points of Interest


1.  The sonnet was invented by Dante but popularized by Petrarch (1304-1374).  It was Petrarch who fixed the sonnet's form and content:  14 lines; iambic pentameter; a two-part organization--8 then 6 lines, octet then sestet, question then answer, problem then resolution; rhyme scheme ABBAABBA CDECDE or CDCCDC or CDEDCE.  Although Chaucer was the first to translate a Petrarchan sonnet, it was Wyatt brought the Italian sonnet into English; Surrey introduced the English form of the sonnet with rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.  There is one other kind of sonnet—the Spenserian sonnet, with the following rhyme scheme:  ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.  Look up the following words in your handbook:  iambic pentameter, meter, scansion, sonnet, quatrain, and couplet.


2.  There are 154 sonnets in Shakespeare's sequence.  Sonnets 1-126 are written to a young man (an unconventional audience).  Of these, 21, 78-80, and 82-86 concern a rival poet.  Sonnets 127-52 are addressed to a Dark Lady (a more conventional audience).  Sonnets 153 and 154 concern Cupid.


3.  Shakespeare's sonnets 99, 126, and 145 are aberrations:  99 has 15 lines, 126 has 6 couplets, and 145 is tetrameter instead of pentameter.


4.  Shakespeare's sonnets were written singly and in small groups for friends and for his patron, the Earl of Southampton (Henry Wriothesley).  Most were written between 1593-97 (when the black death hit London in 1593-94, the theaters were closed, and Shakespeare had to turned to writing poems to make money).  Sonnets 138 and 144 were published in an anthology in 1599, but the whole sequence was not published until 1609.  The sonnets’ organization was set not by Shakespeare but by an editor named Thomas Thorpe.


5.  Ladies in the sonnet tradition were ideally beautiful and cruel in their chastity.  Shakespeare reverses this convention, particularly in Sonnet 130 (CXXX).  Because his love interest is not the blue-eyed blonde goddess of Petrarch's sonnets, we say that Shakespeare's sequence is "anti-Petrarchan."  Although the Dark Lady is not conventionally beautiful, he is obsessed with her because his lust has overcome his reason and has taken control of his will (he frequently puns on his first name).


6.  The major themes in Shakespeare's sonnets include the following:  the tyrrany of lust, the value of mutuality and of a cherishing kind of love in relationships, life's transience along with its permanence-in-mutability, and immortality through poetry, progeny, love, and the Christian afterlife.


7.  Consider mainly sonnet 73:  In what romantic situation does Shakespeare find himself?  What kind of love does Shakespeare have for the young man?  Is it the same as the Dark Lady's love for the two of them?  Draw lines to complete the following diagram. 


                                    Shakespeare                         (Wife)



                                   Young man                        Dark Lady



                                   Rival Poet                          (Husband?)



Questions about Individual Sonnets:


Sonnet 73 (LXXIII):


·        To whom is the poet speaking?

·        What are the major images? 

·        What is the significance of their order?

·        What is the duration of each image?

·        Why does Shakespeare say "yellow leaves, or none, or few," instead of "yellow leaves, or few, or none"?

·        How is the nature of the third image different from that of the other two?  What is strange about the third image?

·        How does the structure act out the poem's meaning?

·        What is the difference between "That time of year thou mayst in me behold," and "In me thou see'st"?  Again, how does the poem act out its meaning?

·        Paraphrase the couplet.  To what or whom does "that" refer?  Who will do the leaving?  What part of speech is "well"? 


Sonnet 116 (CXVI):


·        How do you paraphrase the first two lines?  What are "true minds"?  How can love not be love? 

·        Can you hear an echo of the marriage ceremony in the opening lines?

·        How would you paraphrase lines 4-8?

·        How would you paraphrase lines 9-12?

·        What are the important images in this poem?  What do they suggest?

·        Are there any sexual references here?  What is their purpose?

·        Why does the couplet seem especially forceful?