Shakespeare's sonnets

01/02/1609View on timeline

Shakespeare's sonnets are poems that William Shakespeare wrote on a variety of themes. When discussing or referring to Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is almost always a reference to the 154 sonnets that were first published all together in a quarto in 1609; however there are six additional sonnets that Shakespeare wrote and included in the plays Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Love's Labour's Lost.


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Criticism

In his plays, Shakespeare himself seemed to be a satiric critic of sonnets – the allusions to them are often scornful. Then Shakespeare went on to create one of the longest sonnet-sequences of his era, a sequence that took some sharp turns away from the tradition.

He may have been inspired out of literary ambition, and a desire to carve new paths apart from the well-worn tradition. Or he may have been inspired by biographical elements in his life. It is thought that the biographical aspects have been over-explored and over-speculated on, especially in the face of a paucity of evidence. The critical focus has turned instead (through New Criticism and by scholars such as Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler) to the text itself, which is studied and appreciated linguistically as a “highly complex structure of language and ideas”.

Besides the biographic and the linguistic approaches, another way of appreciating Shakespeare’s sonnets is in the context of the culture and literature that surrounds them and precedes them. This is exemplified to an extreme degree by the influential study “Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 and the Art of Memory” by Raymond B. Waddington.

Gerald Hammond in his book The Reader and the Young Man Sonnets, suggests that the non-expert reader, who is thoughtful and engaged, does not need that much help in understanding the sonnets: though the reader may often feel mystified when trying to decide, for example, if a word or passage has a concrete meaning or an abstract meaning, laying that kind of perplexity in the reader’s path is something that sets Shakespeare apart, and dealing with it is an essential part of reading the sonnets — the reader doesn’t always benefit from having knots untangled and double-meanings simplified by the experts, according to Hammond.

During the eighteenth century, The Sonnets' reputation in England was relatively low; in 1805, The Critical Review credited John Milton with the perfection of the English sonnet. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare and Milton seemed to be on an equal footing, but the critics, stymied by an over-emphasis of their biographical explorations, continued to struggle for decades.

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Published in 18/09/2018

Updated in 19/02/2021

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