The collection of 154 Shakespeare sonnets remains some of the most important poems ever written in the English language. Indeed, the collection contains Sonnet 18 - 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?' - described by many critics as the most romantic poem ever written.
It is strange that, considering their literary importance, they were never supposed to be published!
For Shakespeare, the sonnet was a private form of expression. Unlike his plays, which were written expressly for public consumption, there is evidence to suggest that Shakespeare never intended for his collection of 154 sonnets to be published.
Publishing the Shakespeare Sonnets
Although written in the 1590s, it wasn't until 1609 that the Shakespeare sonnets were published. Around this time in Shakespeare's biography, he was finishing his theatrical career in London and moving back to Stratford-upon-Avon to live out his retirement.
It is likely that the 1609 publication was unauthorized because the text is riddled with errors and seems to be based on an unfinished draft of the sonnets - possibly obtained by the publisher through illegitimate means.
To make things even more complicated, a different publisher released another edition of the sonnets in 1640 in which he edited the gender of the Fair Youth from “he” to “she”.
A Breakdown of Shakespeare's Sonnets
Although each sonnet in the 154-strong collection is a standalone poem, they do interlink to form an overarching narrative. In effect, this is a love story in which the poet pours adoration upon a young man. Later, a woman becomes the object of the poet's desire.
The two lovers are often used to breakdown the Shakespeare sonnets into chunks.
- The Fair Youth Sonnets: Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to a young man known as the “fair youth”. Exactly what the relationship is, is unclear. Is it a loving friendship or something more? Is the poet's love reciprocated? Or is it simply an infatuation? You can read more about this relationship in our introduction to the Fair Youth Sonnets.
- The Dark Lady Sonnets: Suddenly, between sonnets 127 and 152, a woman enters the story and becomes the poet's muse. She is described as a “dark lady” with unconventional beauty. This relationship is perhaps even more complex than the Faith Youth's! Despite his infatuation, the poet describes her as “evil” and like a “bad angel”. You can read more about this relationship in our introduction to the Dark Lady Sonnets.
- The Greek Sonnets: The final two sonnets in the collection, sonnets 153 and 154, are completely different. The lovers disappear and the poet muses on the Roman myth of Cupid. These sonnets act as a conclusion or summing up to the themes discussed throughout the sonnets.
It is difficult to appreciate today how important Shakespeare's sonnets were. At the time of writing, the Petrarchan sonnet form was extremely popular… and predictable! They focused on unobtainable love in a very conventional way, but Shakespeare's sonnets managed to stretch the strictly-obeyed conventions of sonnet writing into new areas.
For example, Shakespeare's depiction of love is far from courtly - it is complex, earthy and sometimes controversial: he plays with gender roles, love and evil are closely entwined and he speaks openly about sex.
For example, the sexual reference that opens sonnet 129 is clear:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust.
In Shakespeare's time, this was a revolutionary way of discussing love!
Shakespeare, therefore, paved the way for modern romantic poetry. The sonnets remained relatively unpopular until Romanticism really kicked in during the nineteenth century. It was then that the Shakespeare sonnets were revisited and their literary importance secured.