Characters and Themes
The speaker never identifies himself. He is an adult man of lower social rank who writes poetry for a rich, young patron. Some scholars believe that the speaker is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth believed that the sonnets are autobiographical, saying that “Shakespeare unlocked his heart” in them.
The Fair Youth is a beautiful young man who belongs to a higher social class than the speaker. In keeping with the experience of unrequited love which defines the sonnet tradition, the youth is depicted as indifferent to the speaker. Sometimes he gives the speaker love and affection, and at other times he ignores the speaker. The nature of the speaker’s relationship with the Fair Youth remains unclear. Readers should be aware that the events in the sonnets are filtered through the speaker’s perceptions, which may create a distorted version of the youth’s character.
Time is a frequent character in the sequence. The speaker personifies Time as a violent enemy, because Time robs youths and lovers of their beauty and reduces the world to dust and ruin. The character of Time is, in many ways, drawn from the Greek figure Chronos, father of the Olympic gods and deity of destruction and renewal.
A rival poet shows up between Sonnets 78 and 86. The rival competes with the speaker for the Fair Youth’s attention. However, the rival’s identity is never revealed. Many scholars think the rival is based on one of Shakespeare’s contemporary writers, such as Christopher Marlowe.
The Dark Lady appears after Sonnet 126. She and the speaker share a grounded, physical relationship. Their sexual union sparks shame, guilt, and regret in the speaker. Later on, the speaker playfully describes the Dark Lady’s lack of beauty in touching terms. The speaker also meditates on the deceptive nature of beauty more generally.
At first glance, the sonnets are about the speaker’s infatuation with the Fair Youth. However, the speaker often uses the sonnets as a way to discuss larger themes and ideas. Because of this, each sonnet is both a love poem and a meditation on human life.
The Passage of Time
The speaker is concerned with time, decay, and aging. These topics of mortality trouble him more because of his infatuation with the youth. He personifies Time as a villain. He maps mortality onto the youth’s eventual fading beauty and the reason the youth needs his poetry.
- - Crumbling monuments
- - Breaking waves
- - Changing seasons
- - Glass Mirrors
- - Scythe or Sickle
- - Doom or Judgment Day
The Cycles of Love and Death
The speaker has a complicated relationship with death. On one hand, death will take away his beloved youth. On the other hand, he recognizes that only death gives meaning to his love and life. His beloved is only beautiful because his beauty will fade. Therefore, the speaker uses multiple metaphors that signify the passage of time and rebirth that comes from death.
The Power of Poetry
The speaker uses his poetry as a defense against the forces of Time. He argues that poems can “distill” youth and beauty in their lines and preserve them for all time. At times he makes this claim using bad rhythm or rhyme, which undermines his argument.
The Deceptive Power of Beauty
In Renaissance England, many people believed that youth and beauty were symbolic of one’s inner purity. The speaker challenges this idea. He sees beauty as a deceptive veil that hides internal wickedness. The speaker views the youth’s relationship with the rival poet as a type of betrayal that reveals his internal corruption. When he introduces the Dark Lady at the end of the sequence, he focuses on her lack of beauty as a sign of her fidelity and worth as a partner.
The Presence of the Physical World
Throughout the sonnets there is tension between the physical world and the spiritual world. The speaker discusses abstract concepts such as love, time, and beauty. He compares these abstract concepts to physical objects and systems. In some cases, this causes him to slip into class and financial metaphors. In other instances, he uses these physical comparisons to distinguish his love for the youth from base physical love. They share a “marriage of true minds” rather than a simple physical connection.