Shakespeare’s Sonnets Forms Themes Examples

Shakespeare’s Sonnets Forms Structure Examples

Meaning of Sonnet:

The sonnet in a general sense, means a short poem. It is a poem of fourteen lines with a special arrangement of rhymes. This treats generally one thought or emotion, formerly of intense love for an unresponsive, though honourable lady, but now of any possible subject of a genuine subjectivity. 

The term Sonnet has come from the Italian Sonnetto (‘suono’, a sound, a song). It originated in Italy, and was possibly written first in about 1230 or 1240 by Giacomo de Lenitino, a Sicillian lawyer at the court of Frederick II. In the following century, it grew prominent to become an established poetical form in particular. In the master hands of Petrarch, Cavalcanti and Dante, it attained there the pinnacle of perfection.

About Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

In addition to his plays and major poems, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets that deal with such subjects as love, loyalty, immortality and the changes caused by time. Since their publication in 1609, the sonnets have been a source of intrigue to scholars trying to learn more about Shakespeare’s life. Unlike the plays, in which the playwright speaks only through his characters, the sonnets often appear to many to be written in the poet’s own voice. It is therefore, tempting to read the 154 sonnet-sequnce as a description of events in Shakespeare’s life. 

In addition to the narrator, there are two major figures in the sonnets, the poet’s female lover and his male friend. Many critics have speculated about whether these two characters represent real people who were important in Shakespeare’s life and have suggested possible identities for them. Aside from such historical guessing games, however, the sonnets are significant as works of literature that rank among Shakespeare’s finest creations. Long after similar poems from the Elizabethan era have been forgotten, Shakespeare’s sonnets continue to be read and treasured.

Sources and History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

In the early 1590s, sonnet sequences (groups of sonnets) that explored a theme, told a story, or dealt with related subjects – became popular with English poets. The Elizabethan sonneteers drew on a tradition that dated back to Petrarch, the creator of the form. Petrarch, an Italian poet of the 1300s, wrote more than 300 sonnets, mostly focusing on his tortured love for the idealized Laura. Love became a traditional topic for the sonnet writers.

Elizabethan writers, such as Sir Thomas Wyatt, modified Petrarch’s form. Italian sonnets consist of an eight-line section (an octave) followed by a six-line section (a sestet) with a shift in tone or thought following the break between them. The Elizabethan sonnet, sometimes called the Shakespearean sonnet, consists of three sections with four lines, followed by a pair of rhyming lines (a couplet).

Sir Philip Sidney launched the fashion for sonnet sequences among English poets with his Astrophel and Stella, published in 1591. Both this sequence and Samuel Daniel’s “Delia” appear to have influenced Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shakespeare also borrowed from the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, whose “Metamorphoses” developed the theme that a poet’s praise conveys immortality. 

Time of Shakespeare’s Sonnets Written:

No one knows the exact dates of Shakespeare’s sonnets or the order in which he wrote them. They were first published in 1609, long after the fashion for sonnet sequences had waned. Most of the critics, however, believe that the majority of the sonnets were written between 1592 and 1598, when sonnet sequences were at the height of their popularity.

The publisher of Shakespeare’s sonnets was Thomas Thrope. Elizabethan critic, Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia, made reference to sonnets that Shakespeare had circulated among his private friends and Thrope may have obtained the manuscript from one of them.

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Form and Rhyme-scheme of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

The form, used in Shakespearean sonnets, was invented by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. The fourteen lines of the Shakespearean sonnets are divided into three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The quatrains say the subject and the couplet sums it up.

Thus, in the sonnets, like Remembrance, Revolutions, That Time of Year the quatrains state the argument of the poet and the couplets sum up his themes. There is, again, a pause after each quatrain to keep the symmetry of the progress of the argument. There are altogether seven rhymes (a, b, c, d, e, f, g) as opposed to the five of the conventional Petrarchan sonnet and these are arranged as abab, cdcd, efef, gg. 

Subjects of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

Shakespeare’s sonnets appear to be related and are usually considered a sequence. Thrope organised them into two broad groups. Sonnets 1 through 126 are addressed to a young man of high birth who seems to be the poet’s dear friend, probably the Earl of Southampton. Sonnets 127 through 152 are addressed to the a dark lady, Mary Fiton. The final two sonnets based on an ancient Greek God of Love.

Many later editors have objected to Thrope’s scheme and have attempted to arrange the sonnets in a different sequence, but most critics accept Thrope’s ordering of the sonnets as official.

Themes of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

A major theme in the sonnets is the contrast between two types of love: the poet’s passion for the Dark Lady and his affection for his male friend, often identified as the Fair Youth. He compares his relationship with the lady to a “sickly appetite” (Sonnet 147). His desire for her makes him an unwilling prisoner, even as his reason understands that she is unfaithful and hard-hearted. He contrasts these negative emotions with the purer and more wholesome love he feels for the fair Youth. Sonnet 144, in particular, compares his “two loves”, with the young man representing “comfort” and the Dark Lady “despair.”

This poem is one of several that describes the intense pain the speaker feels when his friend and his lover become romantically involved with each other. He is hurt by this betrayal, but he tries to direct his anger entirely at the Dark Lady, doing his best to forgive the Fair Youth because he can not bear the thought of losing his friendship.

Many critics have commented on the intense emotion the poet displays in speaking of the young man, and some have speculated that Shakespeare and his male friend were involved in a real-life love affair. The passionate declaration of affection in the sonnets, however, do not necessarily indicate the poet’s Homosexuality. It was common in Elizabethan times for male friends to declare their devotion to each other without any suggestion that such feelings were sexual. Another major theme in the sequence is mutability, or change, a subject that fascinated many Elizabethan writers.

Change generally appears as a destructive force in the sonnets. The poet considers several ways to escape the clutches of “Devouring Time,” as he calls it in Sonnet 19. In the first 17 sonnets, he urges his young friend to marry and have children so that his beauty will be preserved in his descendants.

Other poems, such as the famous Sonnet 18, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?” promise to immortalise the friend’s beauty and virtue in words. In Sonnet 55, the narrator declares, “Not marble nor the gilded [monuments] / Of princes shall outlive this pow’rful rhyme,” suggesting that by preserving his friend’s memory in timeless verse, the poet may also gain immortality for himself. The narrator’s fears about death and change intersect with his thoughts about love most vividly in Sonnet 116, which defines true love as eternal and unchanging, “an ever-fixed mark / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

Shakespeare’s sonnets reflect the poetic conventions established by Petrarch, but they also modify them in some ways. Instead of idealizing his female lover, the speaker comments on her bad qualities and bemoans his inability to escape from her spell. At the same time he praises his male friend’s beauty, showing him in the same ideal light as Petrarch’s Laura, and makes heroic efforts to explain away whatever faults appear in his friend’s character.

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One of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, Sonnet 130, mocks the conventional phrases used by Elizabethan sonneteers. Declaring “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” the poet rejects the exaggerated praise other authors heap on their loves while at the same time swearing that his beloved is “as rare / A any she belied with false compare.”

Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets:

For nearly 200 years after their original publication, Shakespeare’s sonnets received little attention. Later writers of sonnets, such as English poets Michael Drayton and possibly John Donne and John Mitton in the 1600s, may have been inspired by the poems, but publishers and critics generally disregarded them. In 1793, George Steevens wrote that even an act of Parliament would not be enough to entice people to read them.

The popularity of the sonnets first began to swell in the 1800s, around the time that readers were taking an increased interest in the personal lives of literary figures. Poet William Wordsworth called the sonnets the key with which “Shakespeare unlocked his heart.”

People who read the sonnets as autobiography have proposed many identities for the friend and the Dark Lady. Speculation about the friend centres on the dedication of the 1609 volume, which mentions a “Mr W. H” who appears to have either inspired the poems or given them to Thrope. Leading candidates for the identity of W. H are two of Shakespeare’s literary patrons, Henry Wriothsley, the earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, the earl of Pembroke. Researchers have proposed other identities for both figures, but it is impossible to prove that any of these theories is accurate – or even that the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady represent real people at all.

Many 20th century interpretations have focused on the form, language and themes of the sonnets rather than on the author’s voice. In the opinion of some critics, the sonnets are simply great poetry, regardless of whether they were inspired by real events or were born entirely in the poet’s creative imagination. 

Examples of Shakespeare’s Sonnet:

Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day is the Sonnet No 18 out of 154 sonnet-sequnce of William Shakespeare. In this sonnet 18, Shakespeare tries to establish the immortality of his friend’s beauty through his eternal lines of his verses.

Sonnet No 18, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day 

Shall I Compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate. 

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his Gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometimes declines, 

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st, 

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Interpretation of Sonnet No18, Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day

The sonnet no 18, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” is the celebration of the permanence of the beauty of the poet’s friend, probably the Earl of Southampton. The poet tries to depict the beauty of his friend through the various images of summer. But the poet feels that the beauty of his friend far exceeds the beauty of summer. The poet thinks that the beauty of his friend is more lovely and more template as it will be constant and perpetual. It is not subjected to decay which is wrought by time to nature in summer. The sonnet also catches the poet’s firm conviction of the eternity of his verses which will challenge even the omnipotence of time. The poet will eternalise the beauty of his friend through his verses. The poet confidently asserts that as long as men will breathe and eyes can see his verses will be read and his eternal lines of his verses will immortalise the graceful presence of his friend. 

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