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Updated: Aug 25, 2020


William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 in Startford-upon-Avon. He was an English playwright, poet and actor, the son of John Shakespeare, an alderman, and Mary Arden, the daughter of the family’s landlord. He was one of the eight children and lived to be the eldest surviving son of the family. (Shakespeare’s exact birth date remains unknown. He was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in Startford-upon-Avon on April 26, 1564. This has led scholars to conjecture that he was born on April 23rd, given the era’s convention of baptizing newborns on their third day.)

It is widely assumed that Shakespeare attended the local grammar school where he would have studied Latin, Greek, and classical literature. His early education must have made a huge impact on him because many of his plots were drawn from the classics. Shakespeare was a prolific writer during the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages of British theatre. His legacy was as rich and diverse as his work. He wrote 37 plays, 154 Sonnets and some poems. Little is known about Shakespeare’s activities between 1585 and 1592. But it is more probable that shortly after 1585 he went to London to begin his apprenticeship as an actor and playwright.

In January 1593 the theatres were closed because of an outbreak of plague in London. They did not re-open again until the spring of 1594. In 1593-94, with the theatres closed, Shakespeare wrote lengthy poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, who was nineteen in 1593. It is probably around this time that Shakespeare began writing his sequence of a hundred and fifty-four Sonnets, which depict the complex relationship of the writer’s love for a young man and for a woman (popularly known as the Black Lady). The sonnet form was popular in Shakespeare’s era.

In the early 17th century, Shakespeare wrote the so-called "problem plays" and a number of his best known tragedies. In his final period he had written his late romances - Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and The Tempest. Tradition holds that Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday, April 23, 1616. After Shakespeare's death, a funerary monument was erected to honor him at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he is buried.


Shakespeare’s sonnets are considered a continuation of the sonnet tradition that swept through the Renaissance from Petrach in 14th century Italy and was finally introduced in 16th-century England by Thomas Wyatt and was given its rhyming meter and division into quatrains by Henry Howard.When discussing or referring to Shakespeare's sonnets, it is almost always a reference to the 154 sonnets that were first published all together in a quarto in 1609. However, there are six additional sonnets that Shakespeare wrote and included in the plays Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Love's Labour's Lost. There is also a partial sonnet found in the play Edward III. But Shakespeare’s sonnets introduce such significant departures of content that they seem to be rebelling against well-worn 200-year-old traditions. Shakespeare explores themes such as the passage of time, love, infidelity, jealousy, beauty, mortality, lust, homo eroticism, misogyny and acrimony which also open new terrain for the sonnet form.

The primary source of Shakespeare’s sonnets is a quarto published in 1609 titled

Shake-speare’s Sonnets. It contains 154 sonnets, which are followed by the long poem "A Lover's Complaint". The first 126 are addressed to a young man; the last 28 are either addressed to, or refer to a woman. The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to the young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation. Other sonnets express the speaker's love for the young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker's mistress; and pun on the poet's name. The final two sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the "little love-god" Cupid.

In 1609 a single volume containing a collection of 154 single verse 14 line sonnets by William Shakespeare was published by Thomas Thorpe in London, England printed by George Eld, and sold by William Aspley and William Wright. On May 20, 1609, Thomas Thorpe was granted a license to publish "a Booke called Shakespeare's sonnettes". A volume that was dedicated to the mysterious, and still unidentified, Mr. W.H, and has since been translated into every major world language.


The sonnets fall into three clear groupings: Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to, or concern, a young man; Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to, or concern, a dark lady (dark in the sense of her hair, her facial features, and her character), and Sonnets 153-154 are fairly free adaptations of two classical Greek poem.

The "Fair Youth" is the unnamed young man addressed by the poet in the greatest sequence of the sonnets (1–126). The young man is handsome, self-centered, universally admired and much sought after. The sequence begins with the poet urging the young man to marry and father children (sonnets 1–17). It continues with the friendship developing with the poet’s loving admiration, which at times is homoerotic in nature. The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–152) distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence with its overt sexuality (Sonnet 151). The Dark Lady is so called because she has black hair and dun coloured skin. The Dark Lady suddenly appears (Sonnet 127), and she and the speaker of the sonnets, the poet, are in a sexual relationship. She is not aristocratic, young, beautiful, intelligent or chaste.Then comes a set of betrayals by the young man, as he is seduced by the Dark Lady, and they maintain a liaison (sonnets 133, 134 & 144), all of which the poet struggles to abide. It concludes with the poet’s own act of betrayal, resulting in his independence from the fair youth (sonnet 152).


Shakespeare's sonnets are structured as follows:

· 14 lines

· 3 quatrains and a couplet

· 10 syllables per line

· Iambic pentameter

· An a-b-a-b | c-d-c-d | e-f-e-f | g-g rhyme scheme.

Sonnets maintain the two-part organization of the Italian sonnet. In that case the term "octave" and "sestet" are commonly used to refer to the sonnet’s first eight lines followed by the remaining six lines. The sonnets are almost all constructed of three quatrains (four-line stanzas) followed by a final couplet. The sonnets are composed in iambic pentameter, the meter used in Shakespeare's plays. The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Sonnets using this scheme are known as Shakespearean sonnets, or English sonnets, or Elizabethan sonnets. Often, at the end of the third quatrain occurs the volta ("turn"), where the mood of the poem shifts, and the poet expresses a turn of thought.



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