- Historical context to Shakespeare’s Sonnets
- The identity of W.H.
- Shakespeare and the Sonnet
- The main characters
- Poetic brilliance
- Denis Lehane, Patrick Kenzie, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Shakespeare’s “Sonnets”, published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, are the most famous non-theatrical work by William Shakespeare. The 154 sonnets deal with love and death, with contemplation of the human beauty and the passage of time. Some consider the “Sonnets” to be the most beautiful collection of love poetry ever written. The “Sonnets” were for many years considered to be a minor part of Shakespeare’s work. They regained fame with the rise of Romanticism in the 18th Century.
Historical context to Shakespeare’s Sonnets
It is very likely the “Sonnets” were composed several years before their publication in 1609, therefore placing them as a work of the 1590s, when Shakespeare already was at the peak of his career. It is also possible Shakespeare did not want the work to be published and that he saw the “Sonnets” as a private work to be circulated amongst friends. Manuscript circulation was seen as a very different and acceptable way of publicising your work at the time. Did he feel his “Sonnets” were too personal? This question takes us to the enigma of the “begetter”…Got to top
The identity of W.H.
In the frontispiece of the 1609 edition it says: “To the only begetter Of these ensuing sonnets Mr W.H. of all happiness and that eternity promised by our ever-lasting poet wisheth the well-willing adventurer in setting forth. T.T.”.
T.T. stands for the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, but the identity of W.H. has puzzled literary historians ever since. And the most famous probably is the great Oscar Wilde who expressed his theory in The portrait of Mr W.H., where he explains that W.H. was in fact Willie Hughes, a boy actor specialising in woman’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays, and who would have been Shakespeare’s lover.
There are numerous theories about the identity of Mr W.H. Some say it is the person to whom the Sonnets are dedicated, ie William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (to whom Shakespeare later dedicated his first Folio), Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, or Willie Hughes. The other theory is that these initials correspond to the person who actually got the manuscript for Thorpe, and the third theory is that W.H is the unfortunate result of a simple typo, far from uncommon in those times.Got to top
Shakespeare and the Sonnet
It is Giacomo de Lentini who is credited with having invented the poetic form of the Sonnet in the Thirteenth century. But then it is Francesco Petrarca who brought the Sonnet to its most accomplished form in the Fourteenth century (although some French literature lovers might argue it was rather Ronsard). Then, in the early Sixteenth century both Thomas Wyatt and Thomas Howard popularised Petrarchan sonnets, leading to a so-called Sonnet craze in the late Sixteenth century, period during which Shakespeare “succumbed” to the style, and wrote his own 154.Got to top
The main characters
Shakespearean scholars claim that the main character, the one to whom those “Sonnets” are addressed (126 of them) , is a young man, the Fair Youth, and that it becomes evident in Sonnet 20, where he openly laments the man is not a woman. If it is the case, then there is much speculation about Shakespeare’s homosexuality. As for the other characters, the subsequent Sonnets (from 127 onwards) are addressed to the Dark lady, for whom the passion seems to be less romantic or potentially platonic, but of a more aggressive sexual nature. The Dark Lady is called as such because of the description of her dark hair and complexion. Then there is the Rival Poet, mentioned in Sonnets 78-86, another poet with whom the author asserts his poetic rivalry.
Some argue that Shakespeare not only emulated Petrarchan Sonnets but also parodied them by inverting the genders, ie love poems addressed to a young man rather than a young woman.Got to top
The “Sonnets” are almost all following the same pattern, three quatrains followed by Iambic pentameter. The rhyme follows abab cdcd efef gg or abba cddc effe gg. Contrarily to what is often said, Shakespearean sonnets are therefore quite unique. For example, in France, the commonly accepted pattern is always two quatrains followed by two tercets with different rhymes, in reality closer to Petrarchan origins than what Shakespeare has done.
Of course, what strikes the reader is the remarkable homogeneity of the entire work. Passage of time, evanescing beauty, the relation of love and death, and less obviously, the sexual ambiguity of human love, all eternal themes which explain the ever enduring appeal of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Some of those poems have outgrown the entire collection of 154 sonnets, and have become more famous than the collection itself, at the risk of occulting the admirable coherence of the entire work which we were mentioning before.
Such is the famous sonnet 18 with “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath too short a date…”. Who would dare to comment on this? We don’t know of any poems which express unconditional love in such an uplifting way.
We also like the sonnet 29: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I let alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate…”. And it ends with the Iambic pentameter, something to turn the reader of constant sorrow speechless: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings”. A poem for those who need the relief of writing and writing, the solitude in order to release their most distressed states of mind before overcoming them and bouncing back.
And sonnet 43: “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see, For all the day they view things unrespected; But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee, And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed…All days are nights to see till I see thee, And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.”Got to top
Denis Lehane, Patrick Kenzie, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets
For those who are not yet familiar with Les Éditions de Londres, we like many literature genres, and that includes crime novels. In particular, we have always been great fans of James Ellroy and Denis Lehane amongst many others. What is the relationship with the “Sonnets”? At the end of “Sacred” by Denis Lehane, Pat kenzie finds the “Sonnets”, which were given to him by an FBI agent…, and he starts reading them in Maine (not far from Portland, I believe…) whilst he is reeling from the woes of life with Angie: “while Angie showered or slept, I read most of the poems, and though I’d never been a big fan of poetry, I took a liking to Shakespeare’s words, the sensuous flow of his language. He certainly seemed to know an awful lot more than I did- about love, loss, human nature, everything really.”
© 2013- Les Éditions de Londres