Modern readers associate the sonnet form with romantic love and with good reason: the first sonnets written in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy celebrated the poets’ feelings for their beloveds and their patrons. These sonnets were addressed to stylized, lionized women and dedicated to wealthy noblemen, who supported poets with money and other gifts, usually in return for lofty praise in print. Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to “Mr. W. H.,” and the identity of this man remains unknown. He dedicated an earlier set of poems, Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece, to Henry Wriothesly, earl of Southampton, but it’s not known what Wriothesly gave him for this honor. In contrast to tradition, Shakespeare addressed most of his sonnets to an unnamed young man, possibly Wriothesly. Addressing sonnets to a young man was unique in Elizabethan England. Furthermore, Shakespeare used his sonnets to explore different types of love between the young man and the speaker, the young man and the dark lady, and the dark lady and the speaker. In his sequence, the speaker expresses passionate concern for the young man, praises his beauty, and articulates what we would now call homosexual desire. The woman of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the so-called dark lady, is earthy, sexual, and faithless—characteristics in direct opposition to lovers described in other sonnet sequences, including Astrophil and Stella, by Sir Philip Sidney, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who were praised for their angelic demeanor, virginity, and steadfastness. Several sonnets also probe the nature of love, comparing the idealized love found in poems with the messy, complicated love found in real life.
In Shakespeare’s sonnets, falling in love can have painful
emotional and physical consequences. Sonnets
Several sonnets equate being in love with being
in a pitiful state: as demonstrated by the poems, love causes fear, alienation,
despair, and physical discomfort, not the pleasant emotions or euphoria
we usually associate with romantic feelings. The speaker alternates
between professing great love and professing great worry as he speculates
about the young man’s misbehavior and the dark lady’s multiple sexual
partners. As the young man and the dark lady begin an affair, the
speaker imagines himself caught in a love triangle, mourning the
loss of his friendship with the man and love with the woman, and
he laments having fallen in love with the woman in the first place.
To express the depth of their feelings, poets frequently
employ hyperbolic terms to describe the objects of their affections.
Traditionally, sonnets transform women into the most glorious creatures
to walk the earth, whereas patrons become the noblest and bravest
men the world has ever known. Shakespeare makes fun of the convention
by contrasting an idealized woman with a real woman. In Sonnet
Shakespeare portrays beauty as conveying a great responsibility
in the sonnets addressed to the young man, Sonnets