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William Shakespeare's Love Sonnets: Summary and Guide

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Title sheet of the sonnets, first published in 1609

Title sheet of the sonnets, first published in 1609

William Shakespeare and the Love Sonnets

William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in total. The first 126 are addressed to a 'fair youth', the remaining 28 to a mistress known as the Dark Lady.

They've been a source of inspiration, mystery and intrigue probably since the day they were first published as a complete sequence in 1609. I hope to shed some light on their meaning and construction and help you to get to know them a little better.

You probably know some of them already, or at least are familiar with opening lines such as these from sonnet 15:

When I consider everything that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment,

Although the Bard of Avon is better known for his plays, he began his literary life as a poet, writing Venus and Adonis and publishing it in 1593. No doubt he would have been writing other verse too, including the love sonnets.

No one knows for sure when he started to write his sonnet sequence but some say he must have worked on them from 1592-94 when London theatres were closed because of the plague.

More followed over time, variations on a theme of fourteen lines (save for one special sonnet, number 126, with only twelve), completing a remarkable set of love sonnets that have never been bettered.

Having studied 'Sonnet 18 'at school, which we had to learn by heart, I know that some are regarded, rightly so, as little masterpieces:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

But there are many others to explore containing some of the best-known poetic lines you can find, despite the odd archaic word and challenging phrase.

Although scholars and academics have put forward many different ideas about the sonnets - analysing the sequence, the content, the quality, questioning the authorship - none can deny the colour, the deeply rich and sometimes disturbing worlds each creates. romance, lust, disappointment, praise, agony and ecstasy.

As one critic has written:

'The poems are full of contradictions, forming together a kind of anatomy of the shifting moods of love.' - Stanley Wells, Shakespeare: A Life in Drama, Norton, 1995.

All are the work of an undoubted master-craftsman, who left this world a wealthy man, a celebrity in his own lifetime. How strange that so little evidence of his personal life remains, apart from one or two official and legal documents.

Still, the sonnets embrace romance, lust, disappointment, praise, agony and ecstasy. Perhaps they also offer tantalising glimpses through Elizabethan windows into the true emotional life of William Shakespeare?

Structure and Rhyme Scheme of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Most of Shakespeare's sonnets follow the regular rhyme scheme of:

abab cdcd efef gg

In structure, most feature 3 quatrains and a couplet, making 14 lines in total. Sonnet 126 is the exception, having only 12 lines.

Rhyme and Metre

The sonnets are based on strong iambic pentameter, that is, each line has five feet within ten syllables (sometimes eleven) and follows the..... daDum daDum daDum daDum daDum.... unstressed-stressed pattern.

Here is the opening line of 'Sonnet 12':

When I do count the clock that tells the time,

And split into five iambic feet:

When I / do count / the clock / that tells / the time,

However, not all of Shakespeare's sonnet lines are iambic pentameter - many break with this steady plodding rhythm to produce drama and colour and a varied feel. For example in sonnet 33:

Full ma / ny a glor / ious mor / ning have / I seen

Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding / pale streams / with heav / enly al / chemy,

The twelve-syllable first line (arguably a hexameter) starts with an iambic foot but this is not sustained...two anapaests follow (dadaDUM...dadaDUM) which gives a strong sense of rising.

The second and third lines start with a trochee - an inverted iamb, with the stress on the first syllable, the second syllable being unstressed - whilst the fourth line starts with a trochee and ends with the soft pyrrhic (no stresses).

Many of the sonnet lines deviate from the iambic which is why the reader has to be especially careful when it comes to finding the right emphasis for certain phrases and clauses.

Rhyme Scheme

In the abab rhyme scheme of 'Sonnet 33' this quatrain has an interesting full rhyme....seen/green... and off rhyme.....eye/alchemy.

Many other sonnets contain subtle off rhyme (near or slant) which the poet uses to add texture and interest and entertainment for the reader.

For example:

Sonnet 19..............brood/blood.

Sonnet 30..............past/waste.

Sonnet 34..............sheds/deeds.

Sonnet 95..............privilege/edge.

What Are the Subjects Within Shakespeare's Sonnets?

All of Shakespeare's sonnets are about love - but that would be selling them short!

Nature, time, art, immortality, philosophy and human emotion feature in almost every poem, combining to create an entangled world full of twists and turns and mystery.

You'll find praise, absence, longing, vision, beauty, death, self-doubt, autobiographical hints, arrogance, lust, jealousy and human failing.

Above all perhaps is the theme of division. Reading through the sonnets I get a feeling of a split personality having to cope with all sorts of loose-ended emotion, inner fears and the inevitable loss of love. Time is a cruel governor, yet generous enough to allow beauty its day in the sun.

Autobiographical or Pure Fiction?

Do we know for sure if these sonnets were written with a real person or persons in mind? The true answer is: No one is 100% certain. Shakespeare leaves us in the dark, which is where he meant us to be. If he had wanted anyone to know names he would have given clues.

Writers and poets have speculated for centuries but no definite names have emerged. What is clear is that the 154 verses reflect the changing nature of a poet helplessly in love, going through the age-old processes, expressing them anew.

This is the wonder of some of the sonnet lines - they are fresh, timeless, and right on the nail. You can even see the influence of the sonnets in some modern pop and song lyrics. I'm not sure Shakespeare would have approved!

Shakespeare's sonnets can be split into three distinct groups:

1-126 The Young Man or Lovely Boy sonnets

127-154 The Dark Lady sonnets

(153-154 The Coda Sonnets)

Miniature painting of Henry Wriothesley, at 21 years of age.

Miniature painting of Henry Wriothesley, at 21 years of age.

William Herbert aged 45, painted by Daniel Mytens.

William Herbert aged 45, painted by Daniel Mytens.

The Fair Youth/Lovely Boy/Young Man: Sonnets 1-126

William Shakespeare addresses the first one hundred and twenty-six sonnets to a young man, 'my lovely boy.'

Sonnets 1-17 have a specific message imploring marriage and offspring!! Taken as a whole these seventeen poems are saying: Time waits for no man, even a beautiful man! Marry! Have children! Then when you start aging, your kids will still retain your own youthful beauty.

There's an urgency in some of these poems that sometimes borders on the desperate. It's as if the poet is demanding the young man get married as soon as possible, to start a family. To end the agony of the ecstasy so to speak, it would be better for all if the young man simply hitched up with a female and sowed his seed. That way, a strained gay relationship would probably have to end?

As to the reasons why Shakespeare was so adamant about his cause, well, he must have been in love, or, as some think, sponsored by someone to write such verses.

But just who was this young man? One possibility comes in the shape of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, a patron of the arts at that time. Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wriothesley but there is no other evidence to suggest any sort of emotional relationship between them.

Another probable candidate for this beautiful young male is one William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, known to Shakespeare through court contacts and the theatre. As an eligible aristocrat his family, in particular his mother, would have wanted him to marry a suitably high-status female.

Was, then, Shakespeare 'hired' to write these sonnets as a sort of tool of persuasion? Or did he have a genuine relationship with William Herbert?

Speculation is rife. You can read an endless number of sonnet theories and come back full circle, blue-faced and confused. The only conclusion I can draw from various sources is that no one really knows the truth and no one ever will.

'Sonnet 1'

From fairest creatures we desire increase,

That thereby beauty's rose might never die,

But as the riper should by time decease,

His tender heir might bear his memory;

But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,

Feed'st thy light's flame with self-substantial fuel,

Making a famine where abundance lies,

Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.

Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament

And only herald to the gaudy spring,

Within thine own bud buriest thy content,

And, tender churl, mak'st waste in niggarding.

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,

To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.

Mary Fitton

Mary Fitton

The Dark Lady: Sonnets 127-152

Controversy follows controversy! If only Shakespeare had kept a diary or written more letters none of this loose-ended speculation would be necessary! But of course, he didn't, so we're left to fill in the gaps and create our own theories.

It seems likely that William Herbert is the 'lovely boy' of the first 126 sonnets, or at least the first 17. The so-called Dark Lady character is much harder to focus on. Shakespeare must have known a good many female beauties of the time, meeting and greeting them at the theatre or getting to know them in court circles and social gatherings.

Although he had a wife, Ann Hathaway, and three children, they were living in rural Stratford, a world away from the dizzying heights of London, royal courts and professional acting. It seems unthinkable that Shakespeare, the sensitive, modest poet, wouldn't eventually have fallen in love with one of these women. But was this an ideal love? Was it a consummated love? Or did Shakespeare simply create the whole fantasy, writing a series of sonnets based on an imagined female?

This would be hard to believe. 'Sonnet 129' confirms that there was indeed a woman in his life and that the relationship was physical. These lines are packed with lust and the consequences of that 'lust in action.'

Shakespeare must have suffered the 'expense of spirit' following lustful intimacy and climax. Most men can relate to the empty feeling once orgasm is reached, having been 'mad in pursuit' and 'in quest to have, extreme.'

Following on, you would have to say that surely all the sonnets contain some grains of personal truth. They're just too full of experience and humanity. But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, he never completely lets the cat out of the bag. He leaves us suspended. He creates the space but never fills it himself, preferring his readership to tie up the loose ends, tantalising them.

There must have been a Dark Lady, but no one has found concrete evidence of a name, only circumstantial.

Over the years, several candidates have emerged.

The Dark Lady of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Mary Fitton - a gentlewoman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I

Lucy Morgan - keeper of a brothel in Clerkenwell (also known as Lucy Negro, Black Luce)

Emilia Bassano Lanier - poet, daughter of a Venetian court musician.

Marie Mountjoy - landlady of a lodging house on Silver Street.

Jacquiline Field - wife of printer and publisher Richard Field.

Six Outstanding Sonnets

Out of the 154 sonnets, six stand out as being of particular importance because of their position within the sequence. I've chosen these not for their outstanding poetics but to highlight the meaning and in two examples, unusual wording.

Sonnet 1 - a plea from the poet for the subject to 'increase', that is, create an heir so that beauty's rose might live on.

Sonnet 20 - the subject, a male, with a deeply feminine aura, has such powers over everyone that even nature is left infatuated by such refined masculinity. Women, watch out! Men, beware!

Sonnet 87 - a sonnet of past participles, 10 lines ending with the feminine -ing. A dry lament of sorts, with reference to value, worth and lost riches.

Sonnet 126 - technically not a sonnet as it has only 12 lines. The last of the 'lovely boy' verses, concerned with time and nature, which beauty must eventually surrender to.

Sonnet 127 - the first sonnet to the Dark Lady. Black is the new beauty in the words of the poet, and the 'mistresses' eyes' are 'raven black'.

Sonnet 154 - the final sonnet, a round up in mythological and symbolic language of the poet's failed attempt to find a cure for Love.

'Sonnet 20'

A woman's face, with nature's own hand painted,

Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion -

A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue all hues in his controlling,

Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,

And by addition me of thee defeated,

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she pricked thee out for women's pleasure,

Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

'Sonnet 87'

Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing,

And like enough thou know'st they estimate.

The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;

My bonds in thee are all determinate.

For how do I hold thee but by the granting,

And for that riches where is my deserving?

The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,

And so my patent back again is swerving.

Thyself thou gav'st, thy own worth then not knowing,

Or me, to whom thou gav'st it, else mistaking;

So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,

Comes home again, on better judgement making.

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter:

In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

Eleven Famous Sonnets - First Two Lines


When I consider everything that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment,


Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:


When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,


Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end,


Why is my verse so barren of new pride,

So far from variation or quick change?


They that have power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,


When in the chronicle of wasted time

I see descriptions of the fairest wights,


Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips' red;


When my love swears that she is made of truth,

I do believe her, though I know she lies,


Two loves I have of comfort and despair,

Which like two spirits do suggest me still


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2013 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on January 04, 2014:

I thank you for the comment and visit bethperry, much appreciated. I do plan to write more on the Bard of Avon - perhaps I'll look at some of his poetry within the plays - some rich content there! Or a quiz hub might be a good idea?

Beth Perry from Tennesee on January 04, 2014:

chef-de-jour, great Hub and well-researched! Shakespeare is such a fascinating persona, too. Have you thought about writing more on the Bard, and perhaps compiling a book on the subject? Your style here is educational and the speculation on historical events behind his verses very appealing. I could see where a publisher may be interested.

btw, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" is one of my very favorite poems. Voted up!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on December 05, 2013:

Many thanks for the visit and comment. Jamie - there's a whole world within these 154 sonnets, never bettered as expressions of love with all its twists and turns and agonies and pleasures!

Jamie Lee Hamann from Reno NV on December 05, 2013:

Incredibly written hub! Ahhh..I remember when I read these sonnets from the 1st to the last, what amazed me was that when they are read in order Shakespeare tells an incredible and romantic tale. Thank you for writing this, I love it. Jamie

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on November 30, 2013:

Thanks for the visit and comment. I'm very happy you enjoyed this artcicle

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on November 30, 2013:

Many thanks for the visit and comment. This article just didn't want to end!!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on November 30, 2013:

Many thanks for the visit, really appreciate that. WS created so much - great art and speculation!!

tamron on November 29, 2013:

Very long post on Shakespear but good reading!

torrilynn on November 29, 2013:

Shakespeare was an amazing writer who used words to express emotion and to tell a story. Nice article. Voted up.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on November 29, 2013:

I enjoyed reading this so much. So much about Shakespeare is mystery, and we are still reading and trying to figure out his life. The man was a genius. Your take on the sonnets is well done. I love his sonnets and so many were written to a 'young boy', even number 18, the most quoted one of all. Thanks for your analysis and an interesting and informative read!

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on November 29, 2013:

Many thanks annart, your visit is much appreciated. The sonnets are a complete world in themselves - you could spend years exploring the landscape!

Ann Carr from SW England on November 29, 2013:

That's the beauty of Shakespeare - timeless emotions and absorbing language, today as much as ever. Despite studying a reasonable amount of the bard, I don't know much about the sonnets and this is a detailed analytical description of structure and style.

There are so many words and sayings in our everyday language that come from him so he has made English all the richer. I think the questions surrounding these sonnets make the study of Shakespeare even more intriguing. Great hub! Ann