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Overview of the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

A Foreword: The Real “Shakespeare”

Increasingly, literary critics, scholars, and analysts, as well as reader and fans, are coming to accept the fact that the traditionally recognized author of the Shakespeare works, the man from Stratford, William Shakespeare, is an unlikely candidate for that rôle. With that realization comes the fact that the man from Oxford, Edward de Vere, is the more likely candidate. Siding with the Oxfordians, who opine that the 17th Earl of Oxford is the true writer of the works attributed to the nom de plume, "William Shakespeare,” Walt Whitman, one of America's greatest poets offers the following suggestion:

Conceiv'd out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the "wolfish earls" so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

(The De Vere Society, an organization that is "dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford,” offers further elucidation regarding this claim.)

The Sonnet Sequence

Elizabethan literary critics and scholars have sectioned the 154 Shakespeare sonnets into three thematic categories:

1. The Marriage Sonnets: 1-17

2. The Fair Youth Sonnets: 18-126

3. The Dark Lady Sonnets: 127-154.

Sonnets 1-17: The Marriage Sonnets

The Marriage Sonnets feature a speaker, who is striving to convince a young man to take a wife and thereby spring off beautiful children. Oxfordians, those who argue that the real Shakespeare writer was Edward de Vere, hold that the young man is quite likely Henry Wriothesley, who was the third Earl of Southhampton; thus, the Shakespeare speaker of the sonnets is attempting to persuade the young earl to marry Elizabeth de Vere, the eldest daughter of the speaker/poet, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Sonnets 18-126: The Fair Youth Sonnets

Traditionally, the Faith Youth Sonnets are interpreted as further pleadings to a young man; however, there is no young man in these sonnets—no persons at all appear in them. Although sonnets 108 and 126 do address a "sweet boy" or "lovely boy,” they remain problematic and are likely miscategorized.

The Muse Sonnets

Instead of addressing a young man, as the Marriage Sonnets clearly do, the speaker in this category is exploring issues of writing; thus, in some sonnets, he addresses his muse, and in others, his talent, or the poem itself. The speaker is examining his talent, his dedication to writing, and his own power of heart and soul. He even struggles with the issue of writer’s block and the ennui that writers experience from time to time.

My interpretation of this category of the sonnets differs greatly from traditionally received thought on this issue; therefore, I have retitled this category of sonnets, “The Muse Sonnets.”

Sonnets 127-154: The Dark Lady Sonnets

The Dark Lady sonnets explore an adulterous relationship with a woman of unsavory character. The term “dark” likely describes the woman’s shady character weaknesses, rather than the shade of her skin.

Five Problematic Sonnets: 108, 126, 99, 153, 154

Sonnet 108 and 126 offer a categorization problem. Most of the “Muse Sonnets” clearly address writing issues, with the speaker examining his talent and dedication to his art, with there begin no other human being evident in those poems. Sonnets 108 and 126, however, do address a young man as “sweet boy” and “lovely boy,” plus, sonnet 126 is not technically a “sonnet,” as it plays out in six couplets, not the traditional sonnet form of three quatrains and one couplet.

It remains a possibility that sonnets 108 and 126 caused the mislabeling of these sonnets as the “Fair Youth Sonnets.” Those poems would more logically reside with the Marriage Sonnets, which do address a young man. They also could be responsible for some scholars sectioning the sonnets into two categories instead of three, combining the Marriage Sonnets with the Fair Youth Sonnets and labeling them, “Young Man Sonnets.” The two category alternative is faulty, however, because the bulk of the Fair Youth sonnets do no address a young man.

Sonnet 99 plays out in 15 lines, instead of the tradition sonnet form of 14 lines. The first quatrain expands to a cinquain; thus, its rime scheme converts from ABAB to ABABA. The remainder of the sonnet continues as a traditional sonnet following the rime, rhythm, and function of the traditional form.

The Two Final Sonnets

Sonnets 153 and 154 also remain to some extent problematic. Even though they are categorized thematically with the Dark Lady Sonnets, their function differs somewhat from most of those poems.

Sonnet 154 offers a mere paraphrase of Sonnet 153; thus, they reveal identical messages. Both final sonnets are dramatizing a similar theme, which is a complaint of unrequited love. Those two final sonnets then dress the complaint in the garb of mythological allusion. The speaker engages the power of the Roman god Cupid along with that of the goddess Diana. The speaker thereby retains a safe distance from his emotions. He likely hopes this distancing will free him from the tyranny of his lust in order to restore him to a blessed balance of heart and mind.

In the lion’s share of the Dark Lady Sonnets, the speaker has been monologuing directly to the woman, and he makes it abundantly obvious that he means for her to hear what he is expounding. Obversely, in both final sonnets, he is no longer addressing the woman. He mentions her; however, instead of speaking to her, he is speaking about her. He is using the structural tactic to demonstrate his withdrawal from the woman and her drama.

Most perceptive readers have likely begun to sense that the speaker has become sick and tired of his battle for this flawed woman’s affection and respect. He has finally determined to create a high-minded dramatic statement to bring about the end of this inauspicious relationship, fundamentally announcing, "I’m done."

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes