Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets

What We Know About Shakespeare and His Sonnets

William Shakespeare was born in 1564. The April 23 conventional date for his birthday is a guess, based on the recorded date of April 26 for his baptism in Straford, England. In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway; he was 18, she was 26. Some six months later, in 1583, she bore a daughter, Susanna, and in 1585, twins, Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet died in 1596, probably of the plague.
Between 1585 and 1592 we do not know where Shakespeare was or what he was doing. He would have been 21 to 28 years of age during this gap in the chronology.
Shakespeare reappears in 1592 in records referring to him acting in London plays. He also seems to have been working as a playwright, since another dramatist, Robert Greene, in A Groatsworth of Wit refers to Shakespeare somewhat scathingly:

for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.

Greene, one of the educated “university wits” is not likely to look upon a countrified citizen without a degree fondly, especially one who achieved fame if not fortune. The reference “Shake-scene” certainly suggests Shakespeare; the reference to a “Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” is a direct reference to Henry VI, Part 3 1.4.138, and York’s reference to Margaret as a “tiger’s heart wrapped in woman’s hide.” This tells us that already in 1592 Shakespeare was gaining notice.
In 1593 and 1594 two of Shakespeare’s narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were published. Both are dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.
By the time of his death in 1616, Shakespeare (depending on how you count a few plays that were the work of multiple writers), had written at least 37 plays, four long poems, and 154 sonnets.

The Printing History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

The sonnets were first printed in 1609 in quarto by less than law abiding printer, G. Eld, on behalf of the publisher Thomas Thorpe as Shakes-Speares Sonnets.
The publisher Thomas Thorpe entered the book in the Stationers’ Register on 20 May 1609. The entry in the Register reads:

Tho. Thorpe. Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes vjd.

George Eld printed the quarto, and the run was divided between two booksellers William Aspley and John Wright. The name of the bookseller was printed on the cover of the various copies; presumably the print run was divided evenly between the two, but we do not know for certain.

  • We do not know if Thorpe used an authorized manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorized copy.
  • Thorpe has a record of publishing pirated books printed without permission or fee to the author. The general tendency has been to assume that this was the case with Shakespeare’s sonnets.
  • The dedication in the first edition of the sonnets reads from “TT” (Thomas Thorpe, presumably) “To the Only Begetter of These Ensuing Sonnets Mr. W. H.”

The 1609 quarto is our only early authority for the text of the sonnets, with the exception of sonnets 138 and 144 which were included in a 1599 poetry anthology called The Passionate Pilgrim, along with works by other poets
The 1609 quarto has 40 leaves of paper (80 pages). The pages are not numbered and the sonnets are followed immediately by the text of Shakespeare’s The Passionate Pilgrim.
There are thirteen copies of the 1609 quarto first edition still extant. One of them is in the collection of The British Library as C.21.c.44; this is the edition I used as the base text of the sonnets.
In 1598 Francis Meres refers in Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury to Shakespeare:

The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends, &c.

The reference to “sugared sonnets among his private friends” suggests that Shakespeare’s sonnets circulated privately in ms. It also suggests that the sonnets existed (or at least some of them) before 1609 when Thorpe’s pirated edition was published.
By 1609 there were a number of Shakespeare’s plays circulating in bootleg editions, as well as the legal editions of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Given that it was fairly customary, and downright fashionable for the aristocratic court poets and similarly fashionable sorts to pass around their poetry in hand-written manuscripts (there were even elaborate courtly games involving passing a manuscript from hand to hand and adding to it) it wouldn’t be difficult for a printer to obtain a manuscript from someone other than the author, especially if there were several copies of the manuscript in question.
It was so common for printers to surreptitiously obtain books and plays (especially prompters’ copies) that John Heminge and Henry Condell refer to “stolen and surreptitious copies” of the plays in their Preface to the 1623 first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.
We do not know if this is the case with Shakespeare’s sonnets or not. As the British Library puts it:

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.

It is however telling that Shakespeare’s name is featured on the cover of the 1609 quarto. His name, in other words, was a selling point.

Cover of the 1609 quarto first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets Image: British Library C.21.c.44

When Were the Sonnets Written?

We aren’t sure when Shakespeare wrote the sonnets, or even if they were written contiguously as presented or in batches. Many seem to assume that the sonnets were were written (perhaps intermittently) during the late 1580s and the early 1590s, during the “gap” of 1585–1592 when Shakespeare appears to have vanished, in as much as we don’t know where he was, or what he was doing.
If Shakespeare wrote them during the late 1580s and the early 1590s, that would be before what we know of Shakespeare’s early dramatic career. There is some suggestion in some of the sonnets that he is possibly part of a dramatic company engaged in provincial tour.
There are also some thematic ties between the sonnets and some of the plays. Some of the plays incorporate sonnets (e.g., Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet). Edward III (II.i.451) dated 1594 includes the last line of Sonnet 94.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets in a Poetic Context

The sonnet is at its heart an Italian creation, with its early history in Dante’s La Vita Nuova (1293–4) which mixed sonnets in praise of Beatrice with other poetic forms and culminating in Petrarch’s influential sonnet sequence, Canzoniere, consisting of 366 sonnets about the poet’s beloved Laura written between 1330 and 1374.
The sonnet was introduced to the English reader primarily through the publication of Tottel’s Miscellany (1557), which includes sonnets translated by Henry Howard the Earl of Surrey and new compositions by Surrey and his friend Wyatt, among others. The fashionable courtly era of the sonnet brought forth (most influentially), Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (1591), followed by Samuel Daniel’s Delia (1592) and Michael Drayton’s sonnet cycle Idea’s Mirror (1593). Spenser, somewhat late to the pastime, published his Amoretti in 1595.
Assuming Shakespeare was writing his sonnets during the years from 1585–1592, he was already a little late to the pastime; the sonnet sequence as a genre reached peak popularity some years earlier. By the time of publication in 1609, sonnets were not the fashion at all. That said, while drama was Shakespeare’s daily bread and butter, poetry was the key to aristocratic patronage; poetry was the tool of the Elizabethan and Jacobean “social influencer.” Never forget that the theaters were located across the Thames, in the “bad” part of London. Playwrights and actors were not socially acceptable. Poetry, however, was an aristocratic pastime; courtiers like Sir Phillip Sidney and Thomas Wyatt wrote poetry, often in an attempt to influence the crown. Poetry, of the right sort, led to aristocratic patronage.
It’s also worth noting that Shakespeare’s other published poems were very popular. Venus and Adonis (1593) was printed multiple times during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and more editions came out in the first few year after his death in 1616. The Rape of Lucrece (1594) also did quite well. That said, the publication of the Sonnets in 1609 didn’t seem to make much of a ripple.

The Order of the Sonnets

By convention, the sonnets are numbered from 1–154 after the 1609 quarto which numbers the sonnets and follows them with Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint, a narrative poem of 47 seven-line stanzas written in rhyme royal.There have been various attempts to re-order the sonnets. None have been very satisfactory. Most modern editions have retained the numbers and sequence of the 1609 quarto.
We have no idea if the sonnets are meant to go in a particular order, if Shakespeare conceived them being read in a particular order, or even if the current numeric system represents the “correct” or Shakespearean order.
My personal suspicion is that the sonnets are in the order Shakespeare left them. I think this is particularly true of the first 17; they truly seem to be a coherent set.

The Sonnets and Narrative Plot

Conventional scholarship divides the sonnets into four groups. Some editors and readers further subdivide the groups into smaller thematic clusters:
A. The first seventeen sonnets are, somewhat atypically for sonnet sequences, addressed to a young man, and urge him to procreate.
B. Sonnets 18–126 seem to describe the relationship with the young man and the poet/narrator as evolving. The standard tropes of sonnets are turned sideways, and transformed into new shapes. There seem to be a number of references to homoerotic desire, but the dominant theme refers to the hazards of encroaching time.
C. Sonnets 127–152 are conventionally associated with the “Dark Lady,” an unknown woman who the poet/narrator seems to be ambivalent about. We have a love triangle of some sort, but this is not an idealized Petrarchan lady-love.
D. Sonnets 153–154 are Cupid sonnets.
The Shakespearean Sonnet Form
Shakespeare divides the fourteen lines into three quatrains and a rhyming couplet. The rhyme scheme is almost invariably abab cdcd efef gg. The couplet usually functions much like the volta in the Petrarchan sonnet in that it presents an alternative, or commentary or resolution to the concepts presented in the previous twelve lines. Shakespeare in particular likes to play with meter, alternating iambic pentameter lines with alexandrines, or using “substitutions,” occasional metrical variations for a phrase or so, then returning to the dominant rhythm The “Shakespearian” form was previously used exclusively by Samuel Daniel in his Delia sequence (1592).

The Text

The text is here is a lightly edited version of the 1609 quarto.
I’m really trying to be sparing with punctuation; mostly I’m modernizing the spelling. That said, read the sonnets with sound-similarities (and puns) very much in the fore-front of your mind. And do obtain a legitimate edition of the sonnets, edited by a Shakespearean scholar.
I’ve posted images of each sonnet from the 1609 quarto.