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Overview of the Shakespeare 154-Sonnet Sequence

The Shakespeare sonnets play an essential rôle in my poetry world. Those 154 classic sonnets masterfully dramatize truth, beauty, and love.

Gulielmus Shakspere - the traditional "Shakespeare"

Gulielmus Shakspere - the traditional "Shakespeare"

Contemporary Shakespeare Scholarship: Oxfordians vs Stratfordians

Any current discussion about the works or the biography of "William Shakespeare," or the "Bard," will likely include at least a cursory mention of the Oxford vs. Stratford controversy. In the past, literary students learned about the genius of Stratford-upon-Avon, who despite little education or world travel experience, managed to write some of the most important, detailed literature in existence.

Little is known about the Stratford man who has traditionally been thought to be the writer named William Shakespeare, and his biography continues to remain vague. As scholars have continued to research and study the issue, many have discovered that it is unlikely that the Stratford man could have been the producer of the works hitherto ascribed to him.

However, the Stratfordians continue support the theory that Gulielmus Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon did write the Shakespeare canon, while the Oxfordians have come to believe that Edward de Vere, 17 thEarl of Oxford, is most likely the writer of those works, and the Oxfordians, thus, posit that the name, "William Shakespeare," is the earl’s nom de plume.

Note Regarding My Commentaries on the Shakespeare Sonnet Sequence

Because I side with Oxfordians regarding the identity of "William Shakespeare," my commentaries on the sonnets may often reflect that choice. However, consideration of a poet’s biography is only one factor in understanding and appreciating his art. The sonnets say what they say, regardless of who wrote them. My main purpose in offering these commentaries is to assist beginning poetry readers and students in understanding and appreciating poems.

The "Shakespeare" identity is not the only issue with which I take exception from traditional Shakespeare studies. I depart from the traditional view that the bulk of the sonnets (18–126) focus on a "fair youth" and suggest instead that they take as their theme the poet’s relationship with his art.

The Sonnet Sequence

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

1. Marriage Sonnets: 1–17

2. Fair Youth Sonnets: 18–126

3. 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" Replace the "Fair Youth 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.

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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, "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 being 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, nor do they address any person, except on occasion the speaker himself.

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 the 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 lions’s share of the "Dark Lady Sonnets," the speaker has a 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.

The conclusion of the sequence appears to dramatize the fact 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."

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: the real "Shakespeare" - Wellbeck Portrait

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford: the real "Shakespeare" - Wellbeck Portrait

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

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