First, a bit about the sonnets themselves.
First published in 1609, the sonnets are inescapable in their influence and yet widely misunderstood. Some of Shakespeare’s lines—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”—have entered popular culture as shorthand for romantic sentiment. However, contrary to popular belief, the majority of Shakespeare’s sonnets are not addressed to a woman, but to a young man. Indeed, the first 126 sonnets of the sequence are written to a young aristocrat for whom the poet harbors an obsessive, unrequited love. Scholars are unclear on whether the sonnets are autobiographical, and if so, who the real-life fair youth might be.
Shakespeare owes his form to the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, along with Sidney, Wyatt, and other famous English poets. The sonnet was a popular poetry form in England by the time Shakespeare wrote this sequence, but Shakespeare’s work still stands as the English exemplar. He plays with common sonnet tropes, taking questions of unrequited love and the power of poetry to their limits. In these 14-line love poems, Shakespeare ruminates on the deepest literary themes: the fleeting nature of human life, the redemptive power of love, the transcendence and futility of the artistic endeavor.
However, besides Shakespeare's usual genius fodder, not much actually happens over the course of the 154 sonnets. For most of the sequence, the speaker confesses his unrequited love for the Fair Youth and traces his own fluctuating feelings about love, death, and legacy. As the sonnets draw to a close, the speaker shifts his attentions to a “Dark Lady” with whom he shares a more lustful relationship. Then, it ends abruptly. Nothing is resolved and any questions readers may have are left unanswered.
What is even more puzzling about the fame surrounding this sequence is that Shakespeare appears to have had no hand in distributing the poems or arranging their publication. The printer Thomas Thorpe took it upon himself to assemble the poems for the first time in 1609. As a result, the arrangement, typesetting, and punctuation of the sequence all distance us from Shakespeare’s original vision.
The obscure publication history, repetition of a popular form, and seemingly banal narrative raise the question: Why are these sonnets so popular? Cynics may claim that it is due only to the poet’s fame. However, the careful reader will find that there is something captivating about these sonnets. Shakespeare manipulates language, form, and imagery to engage and bewilder audiences. With breathtaking metaphors and poignant conceits, these sonnets show the Bard at his best. So, why has this odd collection of 154 poems endured? Why has it become the most popular and widely read English sonnet sequence of all time? That’s for you, dear reader, to decide.