Shakespeare’s exploration of sexuality in his sonnets is highly unusual. Sonnet sequences were popular in the sixteenth century, and they traditionally featured a poet either wooing a woman of great beauty and virtue or else lamenting her coldness or lack of affection. Shakespeare undermines this tradition in the first sequence of 126 sonnets, which are intimate in tone and clearly written in the voice of a male narrator and addressed to a young male lover, a “lovely boy” (sonnet 126) who possesses great beauty yet lacks virtue. Many of the poems in the initial sequence are explicit in their same-sex desire, though none is more forthright than sonnet 20, where the poet refers to the young man as “the master-mistress of my passion.” In the final couplet of this sonnet the poet laments that since nature “pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,” the poet will have to resign himself to not having the youth for himself: “Mine by thy love and thy love’s use their [i.e., women’s] treasure.” Though the sonnet clearly expresses same-sex desire, these final lines deny that any sexual intimacy actually took place, which was important in a time when homosexual acts were punishable by death.
Following the 126 sonnets devoted to the fair youth, the sequence turns to a series of 26 sonnets about the poet’s sexually voracious mistress. This shift in focus is precipitated by a transgressive act on the part of the youth, who apparently slept with the poet’s dark-haired lady. More upset by the youth’s betrayal than by his mistress’s infidelity, the poet turns away from the formerly “sweet boy” (sonnet 108) and delves into his complex relationship with his mistress. The opening lines of sonnet 138 reveal that this relationship is tortured and emotionally difficult: “When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her though I know she lies.” By the end of this poem the poet resolves to remain sexually involved with this woman despite the fact that neither can fully trust the other: “Therefore I lie with her, and she with me, / And in our faults by lies we flattered be.” In these closing lines the verb “lie” has a double function, meaning both “tell a falsehood” and “have sex with.” In this and other sonnets featuring the “dark lady,” sexuality is painfully bound up with deceit.
Learn more with our guide to Shakespeare’s sonnets →