Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


A 1598 reference within a kind of directory of contemporary wits mentioned Shakespeare's "sugared sonnets" that had been circulating only privately among friends. Two (138 and 144) were published in an anthology in 1599. Based on apparent topical allusions, connections with lines by other authors, and on comparisons with the plays -- some of which make much use of the sonnet format (e.g., Love's Labour's Lost), and one of which repeats a sonnet line [cp. the last line of Sonnet 94 and Edward III (II.i.451) dated 1594] -- the sonnets are often roughly dated from 1592 to early in the first decade of the 1600s, with most probably written in the early years.

Shakespeare's sonnets were published in 1609, no doubt without authorization, by the unsavory Thomas Thorpe (1580-1614), described as "a publishing understrapper of piratical habits" who "hung about scriveners' shops"; in order to pinch manuscripts. There was no reprint until 1640. Despite a conspiracy theory that would insist that the volume was suppressed, sonnets just were not in vogue anymore. The 1640 piracy titled, rearranged, and combined the sonnets until those to the young man seem to be to a woman. For 150 years this was the basis for the sonnets: early piracies. Indeed one might feel uncomfortable reading the sonnets, most intended probably as private missives from the poet and lacking that public show-off quality typical of other Renaissance sonneteers. If he had wanted us to witness them, they'd be plays.

The dedication is cryptic: "To the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets, Master W.H." who is wished "all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-living poet" (odd if Shakespeare was still alive in 1609). Is W.H. the procurer of the poems or one immortalized therein as the Fair Young Man? Is it William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (also a dedicatee in the First Folio in 1623)? But it would be disrespectful for a publisher to call an Earl "Master." Also proposed is Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who might work if the initials were transposed; he was a royal ward being urged to marry in the 1590s and refusing to do so.

The arrangement does not seem to work according to chronology nor subject; the sonnets certainly do not follow the conventions of a sonnet sequence. These are meditations, obsessive repetititions, not intended to reflect a love story, per se. But 1-126 seem substantially in sequence (esp. 1-17, 33-42, 63-65, 78-86, 108-124). "The poems are full of contradictions, forming together a kind of anatomy of the shifting moods of love" (Wells 128). The range of styles includes orderly meditations, enigmatic comments on particular situations, hyper-intellectual poetic conceits, tortured introspections. In a sense, the disorder and violent juxtapositionings are appropriate, but they are difficult to read as a sequence. Nevertheless, follow the link to Hank Whittemore's The Monument below for a powerful Oxfordian explanation to the meaning and structure of the Sonnets.

Are the sonnets autobiographical? Wordsworth said that Shakespeare "with this key ... unlocked his heart." But some orthodox scholars have insisted, insanely, that the poems are literary exercises which do not record the poet's own experiences. The sonnets are cryptic and fitful; they read convincingly like an anguished exploration of intensely private states of mind. The knotty syntax too perhaps even suggests that these are autobiographical utterances, intimate personal confessions. Here Shakespeare seems to speak in his own person rather than in the ventriloquist mode of the plays.

The Fair Young Man

Sonnets 1-126 seem to be addressed to an unnamed male friend considerably younger than the poet. At first (1-17) the poet seems driven or commissioned to urge this fellow to marry and breed. But the interpersonal friendship grows in intensity, and separation causes grief. The Young Man belongs to the upper class, is more than handsome, and is somewhat given to wantonness. We end up with true love poems here, causing commentators to fret about whether this was a homosexual relationship or if Elizabethan men simply expressed close friendship in this sort of language. Ultimately, the gender of addressee becomes irrelevant given the intensity of the poetic meditations, and so the sonnets have become a typical gift book for lovers of all persuasions.

The Rival Poet

In a few instances (76-86, maybe 100-103), the poet obliquely mentions a rival for either the patronage or the affections of the Young Man, a situation which arouses jealousy, as this poet has "a worthier pen" and "a better spirit." Was this Michael Drayton? Samuel Daniel? George Chapman? Edmund Spenser? Christopher Marlowe? Ben Jonson? Dante? Everyone and their more talented dogs have been proposed.

The Dark Lady

The poet has a "black" mistress, which can mean anything from a African woman to simply an English non-blonde (127-152). These sonnets range from the rapture of Romeo and Juliet to the disgust of Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet. Again, there have been numerous proposals as to historical identity, including Lady Penelope Rich (Sidney's inspiration) Mary Fitton (the Earl of Pembroke's mistress, but whose portraits show her as fair), Anne Hathaway (yeah, right), Mrs. Jane Devanant (wife of an Oxford innkeeper whose dramatist son Sir William was rumored to be Shakespeare's), and Lucy (an African prostitute). It has been suggested that she never existed historically but functions as an anti-Petrarchan construct. This affair, fictional or not, brings about conflicting emotions: an obsession but a sexual nausea. Some sonnets (35, 40, 41, 42) refer to affair between the male friend and a woman who seduces him, presumably this dark woman.

Here is a more precise, conventional breakdown of the sonnets:

1-17 urge the fair young man to marry and breed; admiration, deference, and possessiveness develop. This breeding rhetoric is peculiar under any circumstances, including today's U.S. cultural obsession with many of the same spurious arguments (e.g., not breeding is selfish??).

18-26 pay tribute to him. Sonnet 20 may indicate platonic love and rule out homosexual implications, or not.

27-32 indicate sorrow at an enforced separation.

33-35, 40-42 concern the Dark Lady and the friend. This group belongs with 127-152? Male friendship vs. love between the sexes was a Renaissance theme.

36-39, 43-47 recount the friend's absence from London. (37 suggest lameness on the part of the poet.)

48-55 indicate the poet's removal from the friend.

56-58, 61 form a group on loneliness.

59-60, 62-65 are a series on time and beauty.

66-70, 94-96 on the world's corruption.

71-74, 81 brood upon death.

75-77 praise the friend as the inspirer of verse.

78-80, 82-86 reproach the friend for bestowing favors on the Rival Poet.

87-93 regret loss of the friend's confidence.

97-103, 113-114 recount another absence of the friend.

104-108, 115-116 are congratulatory.

109-112, 116-126 seek the restoration of the friendship.

127-128, 130 give taunting compliments to the Dark Lady.

129, 146, 147, 152 bitterly reject her.

135, 137, 143 pun on the name "Will," whether that's really his or a pen name.

153, 154 are translations of Greek epigrams referring to the hot springs at Bath.

[The word "time" appears 78 times in 1-126, and never in the remainder of the sonnets. The plays include the hostility of and towards time in the period from 1592-1595.]

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Stratfordians tend to treat the sonnets as inadmissable evidence in the argument over the identity of "Shakespeare," but these poems allude to his high birth, age, lameness (as self-described in Oxford's letters), disgrace (he served time in the Tower of London), his being a target of "vulgar scandal" (the accusation of Oxford's "buggering boys"), legal material (Oxford studied at Inns of Court; his surviving letters use over 50 of the 200 legal terms appearing in the sonnets), the expectation of the burial of his name (this would not be the impending case if Stratford Will's own name were on them). In 1589 it is reported that Oxford declined publishing works under his own name.

The Fair Young Man is almost certainly Southampton, whom Lord Burghley had been pushing to marry his granddaughter, Oxford's daughter Elizabeth. (Sonnet 10 pleads with the youth to beget "another self ... for love of me" -- in essence, asking for a grandson. Such a request from Stratford Will would have been insane). C.S. Lewis has asked, "What man in the whole world, except a father or potential father-in-law, cares whether any other man gets married?" And no commoner like Stratford Will would make homosexual advances to an earl, but another earl might.

Published in 1609 with reference to "our ever-living poet" implies that poet's death, but Will had seven more years to live. Oxford died in 1604.


Gordon, Helen Heightsman. The Secret Love Story in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Xlibris, 2005.

Otis, William Bradley, and Morriss H. Needleman.An Outline History of English Literature: Volume I. NY: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Shakespeare's Sonnets: Notes. Lincoln NE: Cliff's Notes, 1965.

Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare: A Life in Drama. NY: W.W. Norton and Co., 1995.

Whalen, Richard F. Shakespeare: Who Was He? The Oxford Challenge to the Bard. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1994.

Whittemore, Hank. The Monument: "Shake-Speares Sonnets" by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Marshfield Hills, MA: Meadow Geese Press, 2005. http://www.shakespearesmonument.com/.

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