In the first decade of his career as a poet and dramatist, Shakespeare penned 154 sonnets. These sonnets appeared together for the first time in 1609 in a complete edition published by Thomas Thorpe. In Thorpe’s edition, the first 126 sonnets describe a passionate relationship between the poet and a young man known as the “fair youth.” The next 26 sonnets focus on the poet’s relationship with a mysterious “dark lady.” The last two sonnets have no obvious relation to the rest of the sequence, since they are adaptations of Greek poems. Scholars have long debated various aspects of the sonnets, including the proper sequence of the sonnets, which Shakespeare himself never confirmed. But the most frequent debates about the sonnets remain linked to questions of sexuality. Scholars have mined the sonnets to learn about Shakespeare’s sexuality, speculating about whether the homosexual and heterosexual relationships are autobiographical in nature.
Shakespeare’s sonnets represent a marked departure from previous sonnet sequences. The sonnet form had been popular since the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch published a long sequence of poems, mostly sonnets, on the theme of the poet’s love for a woman named Laura. Though influenced by Petrarch, Shakespeare departed from the older model. For one thing, he used an altered form of the Petrarchan sonnet. Both the Petrarchan and the Elizabethan sonnet forms comprised 14 lines, but those lines were grouped differently. Whereas the Petrarchan sonnet was grouped into two main sections known as an octave and a sestet, the Elizabethan sonnet was grouped into three quatrains and a final couplet. The Elizabethan sonnet allowed for a greater degree of complexity, since the structure of the sonnet itself involved more parts and hence enabled the development of clustered images and ideas. Shakespeare capitalized on the more complex structure of the later sonnet form to expand the emotional and psychological range of the traditional sonnet sequence. Whereas sonnet sequences traditionally featured a poet either wooing a woman of great beauty and virtue or else lamenting her coldness or lack of affection, Shakespeare explored complex erotic relationships with members of both sexes.