William Shakespeare first made his mark on the literary
globe in the competitive theatre business in 1587 in the
city of London.
He wrote dramatic comedies influenced by the Queen
Elizabeth I followed by fantastical tragedies that gained
support from King James I.
Around the year 1598, there was an enforced absence
from theatre in England, which allowed for Shakespeare to
focus more on poetry as opposed to playwrights.
This is the assumed time in which Shakespeare wrote his
154 sonnets that are known and read today.
Without Shakespeare’s permission, reputable
publisher Thomas Thorpe published
Because Shakespeare did not title his sonnets,
they are entitled by the order in which they were
published, for example, sonnet 130 is the 130th
sonnet that appeared in the original publishing.
It is unknown if Shakespeare intended for his
sonnets to be ordered as they appear in the first
publishing or if the publisher, Thorpe, organized
them into the sequence they are now known in.
What is a sonnet?
A typical sonnet is a poem consisting of fourteen
lines with some sort of rhyme scheme.
Although there are some unconventional sonnets, the
three known sonnet forms include:
Italian sonnets are broken into two sections based on
how the lines rhyme, the first half being known as the
octave and the remaining half being known as the
Spenserian sonnets have an identifiable rhyming
scheme in the first twelve lines and conclude with a
separate rhyming scheme in the final two lines.
Sonnet Instead of using other conventional forms of sonnets within
his time, Shakespeare decided to develop his own form of a
sonnet that is widely known today.
Shakespeare’s first twelve lines of his sonnet contain three
alternating rhyming quatrains. To end the sonnet,
Shakespeare completes the last two lines with a rhyming
The rhyming scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet is:
A B A B
C D C D
E F E F
Shakespeare’s sonnets can be broken down into three
subcategories according to themes.
Since it is not known who organized his sonnets, either
Shakespeare grouped his sonnets purposely according to
their themes or the publisher went through them,
recognized the themes, and ordered them according to
Sonnets 1-17 have a common theme of procreating.
Sonnets 1-126 are all addressed to a young man.
Sonnets 127-154 share the theme of a dark lady.
The Procreating Sonnets
Shakespeare writes these sonnets in an attempt to
persuade his audience, a young man, to get married and
The young man in these sonnets is selfish, attractive, self-
loving man who does not see the benefits of procreating
or the reason to have children.
In an attempt to encourage the young man to procreate,
Shakespeare writes that having children will allow for him
to multiply his own beauty, which will eventually fade, and
as a result everyone will better from his offspring.
Lastly, these sonnets tell the young man that he is
depriving women of marriage and motherhood by
marrying himself and hoarding his “seeds.”
The Young Man Sonnets
With the first 27 sonnets being in reference to procreation, the first 126
sonnets are all addressed to a young man.
In reference to love, these sonnets note that as time goes on, true love
truly endures despite the fading of beauty with age.
The young man sonnets also reference death and the fact that it will
eventually happen to everyone; therefore, they almost serve as a
warning to the young man in a sense that the young have a hard time
realizing this reality.
These sonnets also help to ground the young man being that they
reference that some men think too highly of themselves.
In the 126th sonnet, Shakespeare leaves the final rhyming couplet blank,
which could be in reference to the fact that he is letting the young man
go, just as death eventually lets everyone go.
The Dark Lady Sonnets
Shakespeare’s final sonnets, numbers 127-154, are all in
reference to a dark lady.
These sonnets depict a dark lady who is grim but still
admired by Shakespeare.
Although she is now what society considers to be beautiful
in Shakespeare’s time, she talks about likeable subject
matters and is grounded.
The dark lady sonnets display a tension between idealized
love and realistic love within poetry.
It is likely that Shakespeare wrote sonnets 127-154 as a
parody toward his other poetic counterparts and their
overdramatic, pleasurable imagery used to describe their
What are the sonnets
The procreating sonnets urge young man to start a
family and have numerous children.
Both the procreating sonnets and young man
sonnets stress the theme of everlasting love
despite the eventual fading of beauty.
Sonnets 1-127 all emphasize that death is a reality
that cannot be escaped by anyone.
The dark lady sonnets tell of a grim woman who,
although she physically described otherwise, is a
What is Shakespeare telling
us? With the procreating sonnets, Shakespeare is persuading young men to
share their beauty with the world by giving up their vain love for
themselves by marrying and having children.
The procreating sonnets and young man sonnets are Shakespeare’s
attempt to tell his readers that the value of true love goes beyond the
physical changes that happen with age.
Shakespeare uses sonnets 1-127 to make it clear to his readers that
they will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that they will not
The dark lady sonnets set the stage for Shakespeare to tell his readers
that although she may not be described as attractive, the dark lady truly
is attractive because she is a grounded and realistic lover.
What do the sonnets tell us about
Although it has not been confirmed, the procreating sonnets give readers
an insight to Shakespeare’s possible religious affiliation being that he
urges his readers to be fruitful and multiply, which is a common belief
within the Protestant of Catholic faith.
The young man sonnets give readers a possible idea that Shakespeare
himself had recognized that love is much deeper then the physical sense
and he believes that others do not make this connection.
Sonnets 1-127 can also give readers a sense that Shakespeare was
accepting of the idea of death and that he possibly does not fear it.
Lastly, the dark lady sonnets can give readers a hint that Shakespeare
thought highly of himself in comparison to his literary counterparts being
that sonnets 127-154 serve as a mockery towards other love poetry at his
Damrosch, David. “William Shakespeare.” Gateways to World Literature:
The Ancient World through the Early Modern Period. Ed. David Damrosch.
Boston: Pearson, 2012. 1083-1085. Print.
Miller, Nelson. "Basic Sonnet Forms." Sonnet Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 18
Apr. 2014. <http://www.sonnets.org/basicforms.htm>.