Shakespeare's Sonnets

The text of selected sonnets linked from a synopsis of their content.


Containing some of the greatest lyric poems in English literature, Shake-speares Sonnets are not just the easy love sentiments of "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day." Many are bleak cries of emotional distress and spiritual exhaustion. They describe the struggle of love and forgiveness against anguish and despair. It is this tragic portrait of human existence that makes the sonnets immortal.

The Shakespearean Sonnet

The sonnet form evolved during the high Italian Middle Ages, most famously in the vernacular lyrics of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). The form spread through Spain and France, and was skillfully refined by the French "Pléiade" poets Joachim DuBellay (1522-1560) and Pierre Ronsard (1524-1585).

The book sized collection of sonnets, or sonnet cycle, was a familiar lyric genre at the end of the Renaissance. For precedents Shakespeare could look to the French sonnet cycles of Ronsard, Du Bellay, and in particular the two short but remarkable sonnet cycles of Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563), the close friend of essayist Michel de Montaigne; and in English to the cycles by Philip Sydney (1554-1586) and many minor writers such as Richard Field and John Davies.

French and Italian poets favored the "Italian" sonnet form — two groups of four lines, or quatrains (always rhymed a-b-b-a a-b-b-a), followed by two groups of three lines, or tercets (variously rhymed c-c-d e-e-d or c-c-d e-d-e). This condensed five rhyme palette (a-e) creates a sonorous music in the vowel rich Romance languages, but in English the scheme can sound contrived and monotonous, particularly in a series of sonnets on the same theme:

Q1  Divers doth use, as I have heard and know,
When that to change their ladies do begin,
To mourne and wail, and never for to lin,
Hoping thereby to pease their painful woe.
Q2And some there be, that when it chanceth so
That women change and hate where love hath been,
They call them false and think with words to win
The hearts of them which otherwhere doth grow.
T1But as for me, though that by chance indeed
Change hath outworn the favor that I had,
I will not wail, lament, nor yet be sad.
T2Nor call her false that falsely me did feed,
But let it pass, and think it is of kind
That often change doth please a woman's mind.
"Divers doth use" by Sir Thomas Wyatt [c.1540]

Shakespeare adopted the more idiomatic rhyme scheme used by Philip Sydney in the first great Elizabethan sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella (published posthumously in 1591). This scheme interlaces a rhyming pair of couplets to make a quatrain, then builds the whole sonnet of three differently rhymed quatrains and a concluding couplet:

Q1  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:
Q2But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Q3Thou 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:
CPity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

This Shakespearean sonnet affords two additional rhyme endings (a-g, seven in all) so that each rhyme is heard only once. This not only enlarges the range of rhyme sounds and words the poet can use, it allows the poet to combine the sonnet lines in rhetorically more complex ways. Shakespeare often gave special emphasis to the break between the second and third quatrains (equivalent to the major break between the 8 quatrain lines and the 6 tercet lines in the Italian sonnet), but he paired and contrasted the quatrains in other ways, creating a great range of poetic and dramatic effects. In particular, Shakespeare invested the couplet with a framing function. It often summarizes or characterizes the theme of the three quatrains in a sardonic, reflective or aphoristic voice, standing aloof from the more turbulent and heartfelt outpouring of the poem and creating a tone of detachment and closure.

Stages of Text and Context

Study of the syntax, choice of words and allusions to contemporary events in Shakespeare's sonnets suggests that the poems were brought together as a cycle around 1603-1604, the period of Measure for Measure, King Lear, and Othello, when Shakespeare was about 40 years old. However, some of the earliest sonnets were perhaps composed c.1593; the sonnets addressed to a sensual woman (the "dark lady" sonnets) echo passages in Love's Labour's Lost, written c.1594 and revised in 1597; and the opening sonnets addressed to a young man (the "fair youth" sonnets) were most likely written in 1597. Overall, the emotional conflicts the sonnets describe seem to date from throughout the 1590's, when Shakespeare was in his 30's. Because all the poems were likely revised right up to the time of the quarto's publication in the summer of 1609, the completed cycle stands as the evolving testimony, perfected in Shakespeare's maturity, on the attachments and passions that flowered over a decade earlier in his life.

The focus of the "fair youth" poems was most likely William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630), a nephew of the poet Philip Sydney and the "W.H." of the dedication in Shake-speares Sonnets by the publisher Thomas Thorpe. Herbert was a prominent courtier during the reign of James I and a munificent patron of the literary arts (the Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays is dedicated to him, and he was a sponsor of the dramatist Ben Jonson). Herbert was also (as a contemporary attests) "immoderately given up to women," a confirmed bachelor who was briefly imprisoned in 1601 for making pregnant and then refusing to wed Mary Fitton, a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth.

In the summer of 1597 Herbert would have been 17 years old and likely under pressure from his parents to marry Bridget Vere, daughter of the Earl of Oxford. This makes it plausible that Shakespeare, age 33 at the time, initially sought to attract a patron's attention by composing for the young bachelor the first 17 sonnets (one for each year of Herbert's life) on the theme from fairest creatures we desire increase. These formed the seed of the cycle that expanded through subsequent additions.

An obscure Stationer's Register entry hints that Shakespeare took steps to publish some of the sonnets in 1600, perhaps in response to the unauthorized appearance of two "dark lady" sonnets (138 and 144) in William Jaggard's miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim (1599). But no volume appeared. Shakespeare held the poems in manuscript until an oppressive plague epidemic (1606-10) curtailed theatrical performances; loss of theatrical income, the possibility of a gift from the tacit dedicatee, even awareness of his own mortality, may have motivated him finally to send the collection to press.

If Shakespeare sought remuneration or posthumous fame in publishing his lyrics, he misjudged. The poems went unacknowledged by Herbert, sold poorly, were not reprinted intact for over 70 years, and (with the exception of a few admirers) were neglected, misunderstood or disparaged by readers for the next two centuries. This despite indications in the text itself that Shakespeare intended the 1609 quarto to immortalize both his poetical gifts and his relationship to his noble patron.

Readings and Misreadings

The long neglect of the sonnets seems to have been a reaction to their portrayal of homoerotic love and heterosexual lust, their sometimes bitter tone and dark imagery, and their thoroughgoing repudiation of many sonnet conventions — the same qualities that brought Shakespeare admirers during the Romantic literary movement of the early 19th century.

Shakespeare transforms the stereotypes of renaissance lyric poetry — the anguished lover and the idealized, unattainable beloved. Jacobean sonnets and epigrams had trivialized these conventions in a mannerist excess of wit, allusion and irreality. Shakespeare goes the other direction, stripping away convention with an unrelenting candor and realism.

Where formerly the lover sang to the pale moon, the limpid fountains, the brief rose of spring and the wounding child god of Love, Shakespeare shows a lover burdened by age, toil, and regrets — sad for lost friends and failed achievements, weary of gossip and scorn, sick with futility, ready to flee this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell. The lover never invokes Christian faith or redemption; solace comes from the transient beauties of the world and from the lover's abiding sense of his own merit. His senses are fallible but his intellect is strong, though his mind often bends the truth in order to justify and sustain his amorous desires.

Two loves polarize the poet's world, and here again convention is transformed. Where traditionally the sonnet beloved was a chaste, haughty and fair complexioned goddess, the poet narrator of these poems is bound to a charming but depraved "fair youth" and a promiscuously tormenting "dark lady." Ideals he hopes to see embodied in the "fair youth" are betrayed by the youth's "common" and vicious character; desires aroused in his commerce with the "dark lady" only sicken and degrade him. As a result, the poet suffers the same moral grief and sexually fouled obsessions that torment King Lear. Yet in response to these degredations and betrayals, the poet affirms his belief that constancy, humanity, and the power of his verse — his spirit in words — will triumph against time and decay. This is the vision of love and faith that the sonnets immortalize, a vision that the pathetic realism makes more radiant.

This rugged affirmation of love's power is fatuously marginalized if we read the poems as merely homosexual or erotic true confessions. The trials Shakespeare creates for his poet — his fictional identity — bite much deeper. To see the homoerotic allusions in their contemporary context, consider Michel de Montaigne's love for his friend Étienne de la Boétie and the inconsolable grief he felt many years after la Boétie died:

For in truth, if I compare all the rest of my life—though by the grace of God I have spent it pleasantly, comfortably, and (except for the loss of such a friend), free from any grievous affliction, and full of tranquillity of mind...—if I compare it all, I say, with the four years which were granted me to enjoy the sweet company and society of that man, it is nothing but smoke, nothing but dark and dreary night. Since the day I lost him, I only drag on a weary life. And the very pleasures that come my way, instead of consoling me, redouble my grief for his loss.... We went halves in everything; I was already so formed and accustomed to being a second self everywhere that only half of me seems to be alive now (Essais: On Friendship).
This passage — which obviously parallels the core despair of the sonnets — is not inherently sexual, but entwined with the pursuit of spiritual, cultural and masculine ideals: rebirth in an admirable brother. It's beside the point to say that sodomy was a mortal sin in the Renaissance. By focusing on sexuality or impiety, we kill this manly virtue with a modern misinterpretation.

The "fair youth" seems never to have reciprocated Shakespeare's attentions: after his open declaration of love and his ambition to replace both wife and child in the "fair youth"'s affections (sonnets 18-25), the poet's inner life varies across weary self pity, denial, self interested forgiveness, tolerance of neglect, petulant accusation, defensive withdrawal, petty retribution, naked remorse and wretched affirmations of submission. No one who has suffered an unrequited love can find any of these sentiments unfamiliar. But the sonnets also describe disappointments in career, social status, advancing age and wounded vanity, complicating the amorous interpretation.

The implicit tension is between the priority claims of biography and art. If we take the poems as homoerotic testiments or a confessional poème à clef, then we lean to the interpretation that they were written as instruments to change a real person's feelings toward the poet; if we take them as poetic assemblies, then Shakespeare might have gathered insights from many of his past and present attachments and woven them around the theme of a single relationship as the narrative pretext for the sonnet cycle. Judging the priority is, of course, entirely left to the reader.

But is that a judgment the reader must make at all? It's important to keep in mind that most of the sonnets are not explicit as to whether the beloved is a "fair youth" or a "dark lady" (as confirmed by the easy quotation of "fair youth" poems in a heterosexual context). My synopsis refers to a neutral "beloved" in order to trace a narrative arc with minimal interpretation. However the poems acquire a deeper resonance if we accept the poet's love as symbolic of the meaning in human life, and the poems as a description of the human search for meaning despite degrading desires, illusory beliefs, and an uncertain path through our brief and challenging existence.

The Story the Sonnets Tell

At the opening of the cycle, the poems bear witness to the virtue that the "fair youth" could exert through his influence over so many hearts, lives and careers. This is the opening into the poet's love. Physically superb, radiantly youthful, politically ascendant, socially powerful, the fair youth represents nearly everything that Shakespeare's culture valued in external life accomplishments and courtly character. To highlight this idealization (and allude to a patronage relationship), the fair youth's perceived virtues are explicitly contrasted with the poet's "too sullied" and demeaning real world existence.

This idealization treats lightly the youth's fundamental flaw, his selfishness in refusing to wed and procreate. But this initial idealization yields to the poet's gradual recognition and then public denunciation of the youth's vicious, shallow and selfish character. The poet's ideals become a pathetic illusion, and the poems describe a pervasive spiritual strangulation that goes far beyond amorous disappointment. It is this existential exhaustion that the poet struggles to overcome.

The sensual betrayal by the "dark lady" counterpoints the spiritual betrayal by the "fair youth". With the woman (whose historical identity is unknown) the poet's feelings of betrayal are feral and gut wrenching, and gratification of his lust is mixed with an addict's remorse. As in King Lear, Shakespeare sometimes makes the point with distastefully literal dirt: but for Shakespeare literal is lower. Lust is a painful but self induced humiliation that worsens the spiritual anguish of disillusionment and mortality. The poet is not only betrayed by the "fair youth"'s vicious nature: he is betrayed by his own. Most important, the "dark lady" characterizes a merely sexual desire, which clarifies the difference between carnal hunger and the idealistic longing that reaches out to the "fair youth."

The figure of lust, of desire that turns to revulsion, is only one of many conflicts in the poet's existence. He also confronts the struggle between beauty and "devouring time," youth and age, the heart and the eye, truth and passion, torment and steadfastness, duty and fatigue. As in Shakespeare's greatest plays, the core themes are amplified through parallel subplots and images. These align to show that all good and true things are fragile and most of our beliefs are illusions, for which the only remedies are forgiveness, courage and the consolations of art.

Although apparently confessional, even the most agitated poems show literary skill and control. The episodic patterns of narrative repetition and reversal create the impression that the poet is recording his life in the moment, as events happen. There is an undercurrent of progressing time rather than advancing narrative; an exploration of spiritual facts rather than a sequence of human events. As a whole, the cycle weaves its theme of love through a majestic rhythm of affirmation and denial, accusation and response, weakness and resolve, pain and acceptance.

Amid his suffering, the poet's dignity emerges in his highminded endurance, in the strength of his love, his forgiveness, his dry humor, and his powerful verse. The "fair youth" sonnets conclude with an awed realization of the power of the steadfast heart to triumph over any suffering. Love is precious not because the youth is worthy or because the poet's love is sweet to fulfill, but because love alone can overcome life's unrelenting waste and futility:

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

Whatever the source of the poet's strength, it is this discovery that the sonnets celebrate.  


I've summarized the cycle in a commentary on the narrative patterns and poem groupings. Shakespeare often pairs poems thematically, or uses one poem to answer a question or respond to a claim posed by the previous. My identification of these pairs is indicated by a "+" sign.

The numbers link to versions of the sonnets in the quarto text with minimal modernization.


The Fair Youth Poems

[ 1 : 2 : 3 : 4 : 5 + 6 : 7 : 8 : 9 : 10 : 11 : 12 : 13 : 14 : 15 + 16 : 17 ]

The sonnets open in a public, ceremonial tone. They graciously entreat a noble and beautiful young man (the "fair youth") to sire a child who will preserve his physical virtues after he is old or dead. (Conception implies the contract of marriage, which is never mentioned explicitly.) Most of the important themes or key images in the sonnet cycle are first expressed here in stylized terms: beauty's passing, the human desire to preserve beauty against time and decay, the deferential relationship between the fair youth and the poet who speaks the sonnets, the connections among people that the desire to preserve beauty motivates, the power of verse to persuade and memorialize, and (gently expressed) the narcissism and selfishness that underlies the youth's indifference to the poet's requests.


[ 18 : 19 : 20 : 21 : 22 : 23 : 24 : 25 ]

The poet discards his ceremonial tone for personal declaration. Gone is any mention a child who will immortalize the young man's beauty: now the poet's verses will serve this role. The poems also render superfluous a woman to bear the fair youth a son. The poet openly declares his love but also begins to blur the gender identity of his beloved as the master-mistress of my passion, a man in hue with a woman's face [20]. And because of the ways that the beloved affects the poet — increasing the power of the poet's verse but inhibiting the poet's ability to express his love directly — the poet's character and suffering also begin to enter the picture.


[ 26 : 27 + 28 : 29 : 30 : 31 : 32 ]

The poet begins to speak of the troubles or griefs he endures — his vassalage to the beloved, weary with toil and in an outcast state — for which his love is often (but not always) a consolation. To foreshadow the unequal reciprocation of feelings that will follow, the poet openly declares his love and even his poems to the beloved as a reminder of the poet after his death, reversing the memorializing role the poems were assigned in the opening sonnets.


[ 33 : 34 : 35 : 36 ]

A chill falls over the relationship. Perhaps the beloved has not publicly reciprocated the poet's tributes or has found an attachment elsewhere. The beloved's vanity and self centeredness have afflicted the poet directly, but for now his reproaches are mild and forgiving.


[ 37 : 38 : 39 ]

A brief return to conventional and submissive tributes to the beloved. The poet acts as if the beloved's behavior has not deeply affected his feelings.


[ 40 : 41 : 42 ]

The poet is again troubled by the beloved's faithless character, and the poet seeks reasons to justify or palliate this fact. The function of the beloved is also enlarged to signify a close friend who is faithless with a woman loved by the poet — perhaps the "dark lady" of later sonnets — but the loss of her affection seems inconsequential by comparison to the betrayal.


[ 43 : 44 + 45 : 46 + 47 ]

A fantasy interlude as the poet withdraws into himself — into dreams [43], into a description of his own eye and mind in a struggle to portray the beloved [47]. The implicit reality is that the love is absent, and these inward reveries take his place.


[ 48 : 49 : 50 + 51 : 52 ]

A sad passage bracketed by two sonnets figuring the beloved as a valuable stolen from the poet's heart [48]. The distance between the beloved and poet is large; though the poet still loves, he now openly considers the time when he will fall completely out of the beloved's favor [49].


[ 53 : 54 : 55 : 56 ]

A sunny respite from the agitation of the previous poems, the poet again speaks of his love in a serene, selfless and majestic tone. And once again the poems take up their proper role as tributes to and memorializations of the fair youth.


[ 57 : 58 ]

A jarring shift of tone: the poet describes himself as an obedient slave, waiting patiently for the return of the beloved, who again is absent — we assume with another lover.


[ 59 : 60 ]

Verses that directly contemplate the humbling chasm of time by looking backward to the poets of antiquity and forward to the ages that will still read the poet's verse.


[ 61 ]

A single mention of the beloved's absence and unfaithfulness, sufficient to remind us of the poet's tormented helplessness.


[ 62 : 63 : 64 : 65 ]

A subtly hostile passage. The poet speaks harshly of his own sin and ambivalently considers how his poetry will perserve the beloved's image — in black ink — after the beloved is dead.


[ 66 : 67 + 68 : 69 + 70 ]

A cankerous eruption at the center of the sonnet cycle. The poet speaks of his weariness with the injustices and griefs of the world and for the first time cries openly for death; the beloved dost common grow and common deeds befoul beauty with the rank smell of weeds [69].


[ 71 + 72 : 73 + 74 : 75 : 76 : 77 : 78 ]

As if surmounting his torments, the poet achieves a valedictory insight. He realizes the themes of death and passing time affect him personally. He speaks of his aging and the briefness of life, the limited range of his poetical powers, and his inevitable demise. He is letting go of life in part because of his disappointments in love, yet he is also letting go of bitterness and regret, even urging the beloved to forget him if memories of the poet would cause regret.


[ 79 : 80 : 81 : 82 + 83 : 84 + 85 : 86 ]

The poet describes various consequences of his displacement from the beloved's favor by a rival poet. The cause is perhaps the poet's own barren verse, or lack of merit, or the indescribable virtues of the beloved, or the withdrawal of the beloved's affections.


[ 87 : 88 + 89 + 90 : 91 ]

An interlaced sequence of sonnets, forming a single self critical monolog, in which the poet exhorts the beloved to abandon him if he is unworthy, and announcing that the poet will yield to whatever judgment or punishment the beloved wishes to impose — making himself scapegoat for the failure of their relationship.


[ 92 + 93 : 94 : 95 : 96 ]

The second, final outburst of galling despair and derision, the dark climax of the sonnet sequence. The poet turns from submission to a bitter catalog of the beloved's duplicity and dissipation, which is even more repulsive because the beloved had once seemed so pure: lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds [94]. But it is life itself, not only the beloved, that stands accused here.


[ 97 + 98 : 99 ]

Poems that apparently commence after a long absence from the beloved; perhaps the poet has traveled to heal his wounds. The poet speaks of distance and time, spring, flowers, and a thaw in the seasons of the heart. His final healing has begun.


[ 100 + 101 : 102 : 103 : 104 : 105 : 106 : 107 : 108 ]

The poet stands at last revealed in his true nobility of character. After so much suffering, he gently chides his dormant muse to sing again, and turns his song to renewed declarations of his unconquerable love. The beloved has aged, no longer the "fair youth" of the first sonnets, nor the dissipated libertine who tormented the poet's heart, yet the poet's love remains. The tone is calm, accepting, and strong, rising to tributes that transcend physical age and corporeal desire: to me, fair friend, you never can be old [104]. Now he speaks of his love as a fact that simply is, no longer as something he must struggle to master or escape, but as something miraculous in its powers to endure.


[ 109 : 110 : 111 : 112 ]

The poet describes some of the circumstantial consequences of the separation between himself and the beloved, now grown old. The poet's life has taken him into paths less glorious or less honorable than he or the beloved had expected. Hints of the healing that has occurred between the two appear in the kindnesses the beloved shows to the poet — O for my sake do you with Fortune chide [111], your love and pity doth th'impression fill Which vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow [112].


[ 113 : 114 ]

A pair of stylized poems describing a contest between the poet's eye and mind, similar to sonnets 43-47. The conceit is darkened by the idea that the eye serves a poisoned cup of flattery to the mind, which the mind drinks willingly, uncaring of the truth.


[ 115 : 116 : 117 : 118 : 119 : 120 : 121 : 122 : 123 : 124 : 125 ]

A final majestic summation of the poet's spiritual journey. He describes how his love has inexplicably continued to grow, transcending time and decay in its eternally rejuvenating power. He excuses his own wanderings, his resort to bitter sauces to cure love's excesses; he condemns the limbecks foul as hell where he drank his intoxication. He inventories the faults of humanity, of himself, of his beloved; proclaims his own unbowed constancy; and contrasts his love to the petty changes of politics and fashion. The poet achieves a quietly triumphant summation of his individual dignity.


[ 126 ]

A six couplet poem, a half formed sonnet, punctuates the sonnet cycle. The poet invokes Nature's power to overcome time and decay through love and procreation, though this triumph creates a debt that only beauty's demise can repay.


The Dark Lady Poems

[ 127 : 128 ]

We enter a new chapter in the sonnet cycle, this time with the poet praising a woman who is voluptuous, delectable, and promiscuous. Her raven black eyes signal that fairness (virtue) is no longer esteemed; and praise of her is praise of the secret allure of vice. Music (rather than painting) is the master art of their affections.


[ 129 : 130 : 131 : 132 ]

The poet contemplates the effects of his lust for the dark lady, at times despising the debasing effect it has on him. The lady is attractive because she is sexually eager — she is hardly beautiful enough to justify the hold she exerts on him — and black in her behavior as well as appearance.


[ 133 + 134 ]

The dark lady has ensnared the poet's friend, and in this romantic triangle the lover seeks to extricate one from the other. Here the "dark lady" poems seem to describe the same relationship as the previous sonnets 40-42, suggesting that the sonnet cycle should not be read as a chronological sequence of events.


[ 135 + 136 ]

Irritatingly mannered poems that ring chiming puns on the various meanings of the word "will" (including the name "Will"). We seem to be near the bottom of the poetic barrel.


[ 137 : 138 : 139 + 140 : 141 ]

A contemplation of the sensory and psychological deceptions that sustains the poet's love for the dark lady. Deception must characterize their love, because she is neither fair nor honest, yet somehow she has captured his love and trust. Indeed, he begs her to deceive him in order to spare his heart any disillusionment; and because he is deceived, he concludes that he does not really perceive her with his senses but with his foolish heart.


[ 142 : 143 : 144 : 145 : 146 : 147 + 148 : 149 : 150 : 151 : 152 ]

A loosely connected series of poems that dwell again on the "two loves" who betray the poet with each other, and contextualize the entire sonnet cycle as a depiction of the poet's character tormented by sensual desires that are degrading (the "dark lady") and faith in ideals that are illusory (the "fair youth"). The poet's passion for the dark lady instigates a moral contest between love and hate, as the poet describes her capacity to deceive and pain him. The poet bewails the inconstancy or falsity of his senses, and his willing collaboration in his own deception. In short, the poet is in hell — tormented, degraded, acting consciously to prolong his own punishment — and in this chaos there is no spiritual progression for his soul to make. On that bleak note the sonnets come to an end.



[ 153 + 154 ]

Shakespeare makes mannerist quaint fun, and distances us a little from the darkness we have endured, by painting mythical figures in an ironically conventional style. Yet even within these enameled images, his love is restless and vexing.


For a long time disparaged by critics, the quarto edition is now believed to be an intelligent printer's careful editing of a difficult manuscript, probably in Shakespeare's hand.

Shakespeare's Sonnets, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1997). Among modern editions, The Arden Shakespeare is most faithful to the original text, and includes the late poem "A Lover's Complaint," apparently written as a thematic pendant to the sonnet sequence. Inexplicably, though the annotations are superb, the book lacks an index of first lines.

The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). Helen Vendler offers another conservative modernization of the 1609 text to accompany her intensive critical dissection of every poem. Facsimilies of the quarto let us see the poems exactly as they first appeared. The book includes a CD of Vendler reading over 60 of the best sonnets, though not always (to my ear) to best effect.

The pronunciation of Shakespeare's time would sound broad to our ears — much like a Scots dialect. I look forward to a reading of the sonnets by a male actor using the historical dialect and diction to convey the full range of rage, futility, contemplation and devotion these poems contain.

Last revised 3/13/2013 : © 2013 Bruce MacEvoy