Sonnet 1

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory.
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding.
    Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
    To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

–William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Sonnets  
Sonnets-Titelblatt 1609.png
Author(s) William Shakespeare
Country England
Language Early Modern English
Genre(s) Renaissance poetry
Publisher Thomas Thorpe
Publication date 1609

Shakespeare's Sonnets is a collection of 154 poems in sonnet form written by William Shakespeare, dealing with themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty and mortality.

History[edit | edit source]

All but 2 of the poems were 1st published in a 1609 quarto entitled Shake-speares Sonnets: Never before imprinted. Sonnets 138 and 144 had previously been published in a 1599 miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. The quarto also includes "A Lover's Complaint", a narrative poem of 47 seven-line stanzas written in rhyme royal.

The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, entered the book in the Stationers' Register on 20 May 1609:

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

Whether Thorpe used an authorized manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorized copy is unknown. George Eld printed the quarto, and the run was divided between the booksellers William Aspley and John Wright.

About Shakespeare

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's life
Religion • Sexuality
Collaborations • Attribution
Reputation • Influence
World Bibliography
Folger Shakespeare Library
Books on Shakespeare


Shakespeare's Sonnets
Shakespearean sonnet
Petrach vs. Shakespeare
"A Lover's Complaint"
"Venus and Adonis"
"The Rape of Lucrece"
"The Phoenix and the Turtle"

Chronology • Early texts
First Folio • Second Folio
False Folio • Style

Rowe • Pope • Theobald
Johnson • Steevens • Malone

The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Measure for Measure
The Comedy of Errors
Much Ado About Nothing
Love's Labour's Lost
A Midsummer Night's Dream
The Merchant of Venice
As You Like It
The Taming of the Shrew
All's Well That Ends Well
Twelfth Night


King John • Richard II
Henry IV, Part 1 • Part 2
Henry V • Henry VI, Part 1
Henry VI, Part 2 • Part 3
Richard III • Henry VIII


Troilus and Cressida
Coriolanus • Titus Andronicus
Romeo and Juliet''
Timon of Athens • Julius Caesar
Macbeth • Hamlet
King Lear • Othello
Anthony and Cleopatra


Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Cymbeline • The Winter's Tale
The Tempest
The Two Noble Kinsmen


Elizabeth I • James I
Beaumont and Fletcher
Geo. Chapman • Henry Chettle
Robert Davenport
Tho. Dekker • Michael Drayton
Thomas Heywood • John Ford
Ben Jonson • Thomas Kyd
John Lyly • Gervase Markham
Christopher Marlowe
John Marston • Tho. Middleton
Anthony Munday
Thomas Nashe • George Peele
Walter Raleigh • William Rowley
Cyril Tourneur • John Webster
Elizabethan miscellanies

In performance

Shakespeare's Globe
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Theatre companies
Film and TV adaptations
BBC Television Shakespeare


Shakespeare Apocrypha
Authorship question • History
Jubilee • Bardolatry
Shakespeare's Birthplace
Shakespeare garden

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Content[edit | edit source]

The first 17 sonnets, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are ostensibly written to a young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalise his beauty by passing it to the next generation.[1] Other sonnets express the speaker's love for a young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker's mistress; and pun on the poet's name. The final 2 sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the "little love-god" Cupid.

Form[edit | edit source]

The sonnets are almost all constructed from three four-line stanzas (called quatrains) and a final couplet composed in iambic pentameter[2] (a meter used extensively in Shakespeare's plays) with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg (this form is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet).

The only exceptions are Sonnets 99, 126, and 145. Number 99 has fifteen lines. Number 126 consists of six couplets, and 2 blank lines marked with italic brackets. 145 is in iambic tetrameter, not pentameter. Often, the beginning of the third quatrain marks the volta ("turn"), or the line in which the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a revelation or epiphany.

There is another variation on the standard English structure, found for example in sonnet 29. The normal rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the b of quatrain one in quatrain three where the f should be. This leaves the sonnet distinct between both Shakespearean and Spenserian styles.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes

I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee,—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Whether the author intended to step over the boundaries of the standard rhyme scheme will always be in question. Some, like Sir Denis Bray, find the repetition of the words and rhymes to be a "serious technical blemish",[3] while others, like Kenneth Muir, think "the double use of 'state' as a rhyme may be justified, in order to bring out the stark contrast between the Poet's apparently outcast state and the state of joy described in the third quatrain."[4] Given that this is the only sonnet in the collection that follows this pattern, it is hard to say if it was purposely done. But most of the poets at the time were well educated; "schooled to be sensitive to variations in sounds and word order that strike us today as remarkably, perhaps even excessively, subtle." [5] Shakespeare must have been well aware of this subtle change to the firm structure of the English sonnets.

Themes[edit | edit source]

One interpretation is that Shakespeare's sonnets are in part a pastiche or parody of the three-centuries-old tradition of Petrarchan love sonnets; Shakespeare consciously inverts conventional gender roles as delineated in Petrarchan sonnets to create a more complex and potentially troubling depiction of human love.[6] He also violated many sonnet rules, which had been strictly obeyed by his fellow poets: he plays with gender roles (20), he speaks on human evils that do not have to do with love (66), he comments on political events (124), he makes fun of love (128), he speaks openly about sex (129), he parodies beauty (130), and even introduces witty pornography (151).

Characters[edit | edit source]

When analyzed as characters, the subjects of the sonnets are usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady. Some scholars claim that the speaker expresses admiration for the Fair Youth's beauty, and later has an affair with the Dark Lady,(Citation needed) while others claim a homosexual attraction or relationship between the speaker of the sonnets and the Fair Youth. It is not known whether the poems and their characters are fiction or autobiographical; scholars who find the sonnets to be autobiographical, notably A. L. Rowse, have attempted to identify the characters with historical individuals.[7]

Fair Youth[edit | edit source]

Main article: Shakespeare's sexuality

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; Shakespeare's patron, and one candidate for the "Fair Youth" of the sonnets. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

"Fair Youth" refers to the unnamed young man to whom sonnets 1-126 are addressed.[8] Some commentators, noting the romantic and loving language used in this sequence of sonnets, have suggested a homosexual relationship between them; others have read this relationship as platonic love, or the love of a father for his son.

The earliest poems in the collection do not imply a close personal relationship; instead, they recommend the benefits of marriage and children. With the famous sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") the tone changes dramatically towards romantic intimacy. Sonnet 20 explicitly laments that the young man is not a woman. Most of the subsequent sonnets describe the ups and downs of the relationship, culminating with an affair between the poet and the Dark Lady. The relationship seems to end when the Fair Youth succumbs to the Lady's charms.(Citation needed)

There have been many attempts to identify the young man. Shakespeare's one-time patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton is commonly suggested, although Shakespeare's later patron, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, has recently become popular.[9] Both claims begin with the dedication of the sonnets to 'Mr. W.H.', "the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets"; the initials could apply to either earl. However, while Shakespeare's language often seems to imply that the subject is of higher social status than himself, the apparent references to the poet's inferiority may simply be part of the rhetoric of romantic submission.(Citation needed) An alternative theory, most famously espoused by Oscar Wilde's short story 'The Portrait of Mr. W.H.' notes a series of puns that may suggest the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, Wilde's story acknowledges that there is no evidence for such a person's existence. Samuel Butler believed that the friend was a seaman. Joseph Pequigney argued in his book Such Is My Love that the Fair Youth was an unknown commoner.

The Dark Lady[edit | edit source]

1593 miniature, possibly of Emilia Lanier, a candidate for the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–152), distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion. Among these, Sonnet 151 has been characterized as "bawdy" and is used to illustrate the difference between the spiritual love for the Fair Youth and the sexual love for the Dark Lady.[10] The distinction is commonly made in the introduction to modern editions of the sonnets.[10] The Dark Lady is so called because the poems make it clear that she has black hair and dusky skin. As with the Fair Youth, there have been many attempts to identify her with a real historical individual. Mary Fitton, Emilia Lanier and others have been suggested.

William Wordsworth was unimpressed by these sonnets. He wrote that:

These sonnets, beginning at 127, to his Mistress, are worse than a puzzle-peg. They are abominably harsh, obscure & worthless. The others are for the most part much better, have many fine lines, very fine lines & passages. They are also in many places warm with passion. Their chief faults, and heavy ones they are, are sameness, tediousness, quaintness, & elaborate obscurity.

The Rival Poet[edit | edit source]

Main article: Rival Poet

The Rival Poet's identity has always remained a mystery; among the varied candidates are Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman, or, an amalgamation of several contemporaries.[11] However, there is no hard evidence that the character had a real-life counterpart. The speaker sees the Rival as competition for fame, coin and patronage. The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 7886.[11]

Dedication[edit | edit source]

The sonnets include a dedication to one "Mr. W.H.". The identity of this person remains a mystery and has provoked a great deal of speculation. The dedication reads:


Given the obscurity of its referents, since the 19th century the dedication has become (in Colin Burrow's words) a "dank pit in which speculation wallows and founders". Don Foster concludes that the result of all the speculation has yielded only 2 "facts," which themselves have been the object of much debate: First, that the form of address (Mr.) suggests that W.H. was an untitled gentleman, and second, that W.H., whoever he was, is identified as "the only begetter" of Shakespeare's Sonnets (whatever the word "begetter" is taken to mean).[12]

The initials 'T.T.' are taken to refer to the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, though Thorpe usually signed prefatory matter only if the author was out of the country or dead.[13] Foster points out, however, that Thorpe's entire corpus of such consists of only four dedications and three stationer's prefaces.[14] That Thorpe signed the dedication rather than the author is often read as evidence that he published the work without obtaining Shakespeare's permission.[15]

The capital letters and periods following each word were probably intended to resemble an ancient Roman lapidary inscription or monumental brass, thereby accentuating Shakespeare's declaration in Sonnet 55 that the work will confer immortality to the subjects of the work:[16]

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this pow'rful rhyme,

126 of Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to a young man, often called the "Fair Youth." Broadly speaking, there are 2 branches of theories concerning the identity of Mr. W.H.: those that take him to be identical to the youth, and those that assert him to be a separate person.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of contenders:

  • William Herbert (the Earl of Pembroke). Herbert is seen by many as the most likely candidate, since he was also the dedicatee of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works. However the "obsequious" Thorpe would be unlikely to have addressed a lord as "Mr".[17]
  • Henry Wriothesley (the Earl of Southampton). Many have argued that 'W.H.' is Southampton's initials reversed, and that he is a likely candidate as he was the dedicatee of Shakespeare's poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Southampton was also known for his good looks, and has often been argued to be the Fair Youth of the sonnets; however, the same reservations about "Mr." also apply here.
  • A simple printing error for Shakespeare's initials, 'W.S.' or 'W. Sh'. This was suggested by Bertrand Russell in his memoirs, and also by Foster[18] and by Jonathan Bate.[19] Bate supports his point by reading 'onlie' as something like 'peerless', 'singular' and 'begetter' as 'maker', ie. 'writer'. Foster takes "onlie" to mean only one, which he argues eliminates any particular subject of the poems, since they are addressed to more than one person. The phrase 'Our Ever-Living Poet', according to Foster, refers to God, not Shakespeare. 'Poet' comes from the Greek 'poetes' which means 'maker', a fact remarked upon in various contemporary texts; also, in Elizabethan English the word 'maker' was used to mean 'poet'. These researcher believe the phrase 'our ever-living poet' might easily have been taken to mean 'our immortal maker' (God). The 'eternity' promised us by our immortal maker would then be the eternal life that is promised us by God, and the dedication would conform with the standard formula of the time, according to which one person wished another "happiness [in this life] and eternal bliss [in heaven]". Shakespeare himself, on this reading, is 'Mr. W. [S]H.' the 'onlie begetter', i.e., the sole author, of the sonnets, and the dedication is advertising the authenticity of the poems.
  • William Hall, a printer who had worked with Thorpe on other publications. According to this theory, the dedication is simply Thorpe's tribute to his colleague and has nothing to do with Shakespeare. This theory, originated by Sir Sidney Lee in his A Life of William Shakespeare (1898), was continued by Colonel B.R. Ward in his The Mystery of Mr. W.H. (1923), and has been endorsed recently by Brian Vickers, who notes Thorpe uses such 'visual puns' elsewhere.[20] Supporters of this theory point out that "ALL" following "MR. W. H." spells "MR. W. HALL" with the deletion of a period. Using his initials W.H., Hall had edited a collection of the poems of Robert Southwell that was printed by George Eld, the same printer for the 1609 Sonnets.[21] There is also documentary evidence of one William Hall of Hackney who signed himself 'WH' three years earlier, but it is uncertain if this was the printer.
  • Sir William Harvey, Southampton's stepfather. This theory assumes that the Fair Youth and Mr. W.H. are separate people, and that Southampton is the Fair Youth. Harvey would be the "begetter" of the sonnets in the sense that it would be he who provided them to the publisher, after the death of Southampton's mother removed an obstacle to publication. The reservations about the use of "Mr." do not apply in the case of a knight.[17][22]
  • William Himself (i.e., Shakespeare). This theory was proposed by the German scholar D. Barnstorff, but has found no support.[17]
  • William Haughton, a contemporary dramatist.[23][24]
  • William Hart, Shakespeare's nephew and male heir. Proposed by Richard Farmer, but Hart was nine years of age at the time of publication, and this suggestion is regarded as unlikely.[25]
  • William Hatcliffe of Lincolnshire, proposed by Leslie Hotson in 1964.
  • Who He. In his 2002 Oxford Shakespeare edition of the sonnets, Colin Burrow argues that the dedication is deliberately mysterious and ambiguous, possibly standing for "Who He", a conceit also used in a contemporary pamphlet. He suggests that it might have been created by Thorpe simply to encourage speculation and discussion (and hence, sales of the text).[26]
  • Willie Hughes. The 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt first proposed the theory that Mr. W.H. and the Fair Youth were one "William Hughes," based on presumed puns on the name in the sonnets. The argument was repeated in Edmund Malone's 1790 edition of the sonnets. The most famous exposition of the theory is in Oscar Wilde's short story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," in which Wilde, or rather the story's narrator, describes the puns on "will" and "hues" in the sonnets, (notably Sonnet 20 among others), and argues that they were written to a seductive young actor named Willie Hughes who played female roles in Shakespeare's plays. There is no evidence for the existence of any such person.

Legacy[edit | edit source]

Coming as they do at the end of conventional Petrarchan sonneteering , Shakespeare's sonnets can also be seen as a prototype, or even the beginning, of a new kind of "modern" love poetry. During the 18th century, their reputation in England was relatively low; as late as 1805, The Critical Review could still credit John Milton with the perfection of the English sonnet. As part of the renewed interest in Shakespeare's original work that accompanied Romanticism, the sonnets rose steadily in reputation during the 19th century.[27] As late as 1911, though, the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition was dismissing them as sonnets, insisting they were really quatorzains.

The cross-cultural importance and influence of the sonnets is demonstrated by the large number of translations that have been made of them. In the German-speaking countries alone, there have been 70 complete translations since 1784. There is no major written language into which the sonnets have not been translated, including Latin,[28], Japanese, [29]Turkish,[30]Esperanto,[31] and Klingon.[32]

Modern editions[edit | edit source]

Like all of Shakespeare's work, the sonnets have been reprinted in many editions.

  • Shakespeare's Sonnets (illustrated by Henry Ospoval). London: John Lane, 1899.[33]
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets (edited by Martin Seymour-Smith) . Oxford, UK: Heinemann, 1963.
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets (edited by Stephen Booth). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets (edited by W.G. Ingram & Theodore Redpath). 2nd edition, 1978.
  • The Sonnets and a Lover's Complaint (edited by John Kerrigan). Penguin, 1986.
  • The Sonnets (edited by G. Blakemore Evans (1996). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1996.
  • Shakespeare's Sonnets (edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones). (Arden Edition, Third Series, 1997.
  • The Complete Sonnets and Poems (edited by Colin Burrow). Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Full list of sonnets[edit | edit source]

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Stanley Wells and Michael Dobson, eds., The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 439.
  2. A metre in poetry with five iambic metrical feet, which stems from the Italian word endecasillabo, for a line composed of five beats with an anacrusis, an upbeat or unstressed syllable at the beginning of a line which is no part of the first foot.
  3. Bray, Sir Denis. The Original Order of Shakespeare's Sonnets. (Brooklyn: Haskell House, 1977) p. 36
  4. Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare's Sonnets. (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1979) p. 57
  5. McGuire, Philip C. Shakespeare's Non-Shakespearean Sonnets. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Autumn, 1987) p. 304-319; 306
  6. Stapleton, M. L. "Shakespeare's Man Right Fair as Sonnet Lady." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46 (2004): 272
  9. Boyd, William (2005-11-19). "Two Loves Have I". The Guardian. Retrieved 2011-02-22. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Matz, Robert. The World of Shakespeare's Sonnets: An Introduction. p. 111. ISBN 9780786432196. 
  11. 11.0 11.1
  12. Foster, Donald. "Master W.H., R.I.P." PMLA 102 (1987) 42–54, 42.
  13. Burrow, Colin (2002). Complete Sonnets and Poems. Oxford University Press. p. 99. ISBN 019818431X. 
  14. Foster 1984, 43.
  15. Vickers, Brian (2007). Shakespeare, A lover's complaint, and John Davies of Hereford. Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0521859123. 
  16. Burrow 2002, 380.
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Schoenbaum, Samuel (1977). William Shakespeare, a compact documentary life (1 ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 270–271. ISBN 01981257555. 
  18. Foster, 1987.
  19. Bate, Jonathan. The Genius of Shakespeare (1998) 61-62.
  20. Vickers, 2007,8
  21. Collins, John Churton. Ephemera Critica. Westminster, Constable and Co., 1902; p. 216.
  22. Appleby, John C (January 2008). "Hervey, William, Baron Hervey of Kidbrooke and Baron Hervey of Ross (d. 1642)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 
  23. Berryman, John (2001). Haffenden, John. ed. Berryman's Shakespeare: essays, letters and other writings. London: Tauris Parke. p. xxxvi. ISBN 9781860646430. 
  24. Neil, Samuel (27 April 1867). Athenæum (London): 552. 
  25. Neil, Samuel (1863). Shakespere: a critical biography. London: Houlston and Wright. pp. 105–106. OCLC 77866350. 
  26. Colin Burrow, ed. The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford UP, 2002), p. 98; 102-3.
  27. Sanderlin, George (June 1939). "The Repute of Shakespeare's Sonnets in the Early Nineteenth Century". Modern Language Notes (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 54 (6): 462–466. doi:10.2307/2910858. JSTOR 2910858. 
  28. Shakespeare's Sonnets in Latin, translated by Alfred Thomas Barton, newly edited by Ludwig Bernays, Edition Signathur, Dozwil/CH 2006
  29. Sonetto-shū, translated by Takamatsu Yūitsu, Iwanami Shoten, Tokyo 1986
  30. Tüm Soneler, translated by Talat Sait Halman, Istanbul 1989
  31. Shakespeare: La sonetoj (sonnets in Esperanto), Translated by William Auld, Edistudio, Edistudio Homepage, verified 2008/02/03
  32. Selection of Shakespearean Sonnets, Translated by Nick Nicholas, verified 2005/02/27
  33. Shakespeare's Sonnets, Internet Archive. Web, July 29, 2019.

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