Is Poetry of Shakespeare’s Sonnets Essentially the Poetry of a Dramatist?


Early sonnets are related to the early plays and later ones are akin to the dark comedies or tragedies: 

Despite the controversy about the date of composition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, they may be taken to have been composed during 1590’s whether we take Meres’ Palladis Tamia which dated the sonnets before 1598 or Jaggard’s Miscellany The Passionate Pilgrim, which published two sonnets in 1599. The nineties of the sixteenth century constituted Shakespeare’s lyrical period which produced besides the sonnets such pieces as Venus and Adonis, Lucrere, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice.
It has been argued sometimes that the early sonnets are related to the early plays and later ones are akin to the dark comedies or tragedies like Hamlet. There is the other contention that the order of the sonnets as we have them does not reflect the chronological order of their composition and that the affinity of style of sonnets to certain plays does not conclusively establish any necessary connexion between them. For a sonnet is a particular form of literary composition with its own innate theme and diction, different from a play with the latter’s structural and thematic uniqueness. C. S. Lewis makes the point admirably when he says that if Shakespeare could take time away to write a sonnet while composing King Lear, the sonnet might not have been in the style of Lear.

Early sonnets reflect Shakespeare’s life- experience with regard to love and lust:

William Shakespeare
Admittedly however, the early sonnets reflect Shakespeare’s life- experience with regard to love and what he calls its excess, lust. The central figures in this episode are a “sweet, lovely boy” and “a lady coloured ill”. Shakespeare in this period was maturing in a literary sense and trying to liberate himself from the excessive charms of Marlovian influence. In place of rhetorical sound and fury, a radiant light and loveliness was gradually asserting itself in his utterances. Much of this light and loveliness is discernible in the lyrical compositions of this period, namely, in Romeo & Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost as well as in the sonnets addressed to the “sweet, lovely boy.” Despite the masculine pronoun (He), normal readers of both sexes enjoy the sonnets as perfect expression of love poetry and the same sentiments are expressed in identical tone and tune in Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Early Sonnets find an echo in early plays:

How form and content in the early Sonnets find an echo in early plays may be illustrated briefly. Sonnet 24 beginning “mine eye had played the painter” and referring to “windows glazed with thine eyes” has very close affinity with “Behold the window of my heart, mine eye” in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Romeo and Juliet has also many lines on beauty and love echoing the sonnet experience closely is expressive and exquisite poetry (Sonnets 11 and 14 particularly). Then again the Dark Lady re-appears as Rosailne, Romeo’s closely pictured love with the same facial features, the pallor, the high forehead, the ravenblack eyes, the enchanting foot reminding us o Cressida to come. Love’s Labour’s Lost similarly presents the same black-and-white vision. Both the plays, Romeo and Juliet (1595 approximately) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598 approximately) were products of the 1590’s and so too the sonnets, wherefore they are found to record and reflect the same experiences in similar utterances.

Second group of sonnets:

Coming to the second group of sonnets addressed to the Dark Lady, we find a change in imagery and evolution of a style organically wedded to the content, sometimes speaking in Donne-like conceits. This group has utterances about the frailty of women later aired by Hamlet and very naturally reminiscent of the scene between Hamlet and his mother. Moreover, Hamlet in his taunting speech about Ophelia refers to jigging women and it is plain throughout that Hamlet has in mind a wanton woman with a particular habit of speech and a skipping gait. Shakespeare’s Cressida, a creation of notorious fascination, frailty and lechery, refers us back to the sonnet- feeling of “expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” It is also to be noted that although she is fair Cressida, her hair is described as darker that Helen’s. The stage shadow of the Dark Lady lastly appears as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, which is probably Shakespeare’s great hymn of forgiveness. The woman coloured ill, who had cracked a great heart at last meets her end as the lass unparalleled. Perhaps she was already dead. And Death close all and makes even the wanton of yesterday a fine royal spirit soaring her beautiful wings and entering ultimately the ethereal region of eternal bliss and solitude.

Ardhendu De


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