Sonnets of William Shakespeare: Intricacies of Identity

Sonnets of William Shakespeare, sequence of 154 sonnets by English poet and playwright William Shakespeare a majority of them were written between 1595 and 1599 after the Earl of Southampton became his patron. The sonnet genre was at its acme by that time. Shakespearean sonnet differed from those of other predecessors in that it had three decasyllabic quatrains each rhyming alter natively and a rhyming couplet at the end -rhyme scheme ababcdcdefefgg.

Thomas Thorpe registered them on May 20, 1609, with the title Shake-speares Sonnets. Neuer before Imprinted. Thorpe prefixed to the volume a cryptic dedication: “To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr. W. H. all happinesse and that eternitie promised by our everliving poet wisheth the well-wishing adventurer in setting forth T. T.” Many attempts have been made to determine the identity of “Mr. W. H.” The two leading candidates are William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. We will, however, not indulge in the intricacies of identity. Rather we will discuss on the general nature of his sonnets.

William Shakespeare

 His artistic touch is surely mature than in his other poems. It is difficult to determine whether Shakespeare speaks as a men or an artist. Two different opinions exist among critics regarding the sonnets – one stating that Shakespeare has unpacked his soul and the other denying it. The literary convention of the age was love-sickness with all its abuses and complaints. The poet could be autobiographical, subjective and indicate them with his flight of fancy. Sidney had already shown the way in his poetry. Shakespeare had for his source the sonnets of Drayton and expresses the stock illustration of Renaissance poetry in the description of the season, or of a lovers’ emotion. However, there is, in them, his own artistic touch and indebtedness to masters like Petrarch and Ronsard. 

While some readers accept the sonnets as a literal account of events that actually happened to Shakespeare, most critics view them as semi-autobiographical evidence that has yet to be satisfactorily proven. Shakespeare’s sonnets do not reveal his heart but they exhibit his ‘personality and temperament’ with a subjectivity that is autobiographical. The sonnets anticipate the idea of Shakespeare the man as we find in his plays. He is seen to be ‘a man of an eager sensitive nature – one intensely alive to the pleasure of the senses, and to the beauty of the physical world’.  

While his  sonnets may provide little conclusive information about Shakespeare’s life, they do provide insight into him as an artist. Like his later plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets are highly metaphorical. The sonnets derive their artistic unity less from the story that runs intermittently through them than from their exploration of the universal human themes of time, death, change, love, lust, and beauty. The sonnets do not indicate the sagacity of outlook as found in Shakespeare’s plays. The poet, probably, was a disappointed of lover, or he was involved in tricks of friendship and comradeship in the court circle which was new to him. An absence of emotional balance pervades the sonnets along with the literary conventions. A sudden projection of a ‘story of intrigue, different in colour and complexion’ intervenes invariably.

Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert     
2. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature
3. Microsoft Students’ Encarta

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