Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Although Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets were published in 1609, ten years after As You Like It is believed to have premiered, scholars believe that these poems were written earlier—between the early 1590s and early 1600s. While plenty of scholarship has been devoted to Shakespeare’s mastery of the poetic form itself, the biographical history that may have inspired these poems has fascinated historians as well.

Sonnets 1-126 are believed to have been addressed to a handsome younger man. There has been much debate over how scandalous (or not) these poems would have been to readers of the time. People in Shakespeare’s time did not define their sexuality in the same terms that we do today and in “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets” Robert Matz recognizes the need for “caution that contemporary categories of or judgments about sexual desire may not cohere with past ones (Matz 478).” It is possible that Shakespeare’s sonnets 127-152, the subject of whom is believed to be a “dark mistress,” may have been just as scandalous as the ones to the young man. As Margeta de Grazia (via Matz) notes “it is sonnets to the woman, not the man, that are scandalously full of illicit sexuality—not to mention lying and betrayal (Matz 483).”

So what happened that the poems became filled with “lying and betrayal?” Scholars have some theories. One popular belief is that the handsome young man, the dark mistress, and the poet may have entered into a love triangle that sparked jealously in the older man. (In 1597 Shakepeare would have been 33, which PBS points out was considered middle aged given the short life expectancy of the time).

Who the players in this triangle were (besides Shakespeare) is a point of contention, but one popular theory is that they were Emilia Lanier–the beautiful illegitimate daughter of one of Henry VIII’s musicians, who became mistress to many men in Queen Elizabeth I’s inner circle, and William Herbert, son of a patron of the arts and eventual Earl of Pembroke. The theory is that Herbert’s mother Mary likely commissioned Shakespeare to wrote poems dedicated to her handsome son in honor of his seventeenth birthday. The dedication in the sonnets to a “Mr. W.H” only reinforces theorists’ suspicions. He, Shakespeare, and Lanier ran in the some of the same social circles and it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed…


“A Short History of the Sonnets”
Dr. Michael Delahoyde “Shake-peare’s Sonnets”
Robert Matz “The Scandals of Shakespeare’s Sonnets”
PBS “In Search of Shakespeare”


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