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Historical Context in Shakespeare's Sonnets

To learn more about the historical context of the sonnets, visit our Guide to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Historical Context Examples in Shakespeare's Sonnets:

Sonnets 1–10

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"Thou art thy mother's glass..."   (Sonnets 1–10)

The idea of children as mirrors in which parents can see their own reflections ties in with the cultural expectations of Elizabethan England surrounding parent-child relationships. Sons were expected to be dutiful and to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, inheriting their titles and continuing their legacies. The speaker takes this idea a step further and posits that the fair youth’s child will be a vessel for both his legacy and his beauty, preserving his youthfulness so long as his descendants continue to have children of their own.

"Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth...."   (Sonnets 11–21)

One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), is often cited as a major influence on his works. Marlowe was well noted for depicting homosexuality and homoeroticism in his writings, taboo subjects in Elizabethan England. In order for works which featured homosexual relationships or sentiments to be palatable to the general public, writers often had to “disclaim” the content as morally transgressive by punishing homosexual characters within the narrative. Alternatively, they could include passages which assured readers that nothing “deviant” was happening by emphasizing the pure, platonic nature of the relationships and rejecting the idea of carnal contact. The speaker acknowledges these realities in his lament over Nature’s decision to make his beloved a man.

"remembrance of things past..."   (Sonnets 21–30)

Scottish writer, F. K. Scott Moncrieff, borrowed the phrase “remembrance of things past” for the title of his translation of Marcel’s Proust’s seven-volume novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

"slight air, and purging fire..."   (Sonnets 41–50)

Sustaining the themes of corporeality from the previous sonnet, the speaker touches on the four elements of Aristotelian physics, a predominant paradigm during the Elizabethan era. Sonnet 44 discusses earth and water; Sonnet 45 takes up air and fire. Air comprises thought and fire desire, while the other two elements of earth and water represent a corporeal, physical relationship. Without the four working together, the speaker is left incomplete and he feels melancholic and lonely.

"Before the golden tresses of the dead, The right of sepulchres, were shorn away, To live a second life on second head;..."   (Sonnets 61–70)

In the second stanza, the speaker criticizes the artificiality of cosmetics and wigs. He refers to the act of removing hair from corpses and turning it into wigs, with “sepulchres” being burial chambers. Instead of being sealed away with the corpse, the “golden tresses” were instead shaved and made into wigs to reside on a “second head.” Wigs made from the hair of the dead are also referenced in Act III, Scene II of Shakespeare’s 1596 play The Merchant of Venice: “So are those crisped snaky golden locks… / To be the dowry of a second head, / The skull, that bred them, in the sepulchre.” It is interesting to note that Queen Elizabeth I, especially in her later years, often wore wigs in order to replicate the red hair she had sported in her youth. Cosmetics were also widely used by the upper classes, regardless of gender. The speaker’s criticism of the artificiality of these products runs counter to the culture of the day and is possibly a criticism of the growing vanity of the peerage.

"   For I am shamed by that which I bring forth,..."   (Sonnets 71–80)

In a continuation of the sentiments of Sonnet 71, the speaker expresses shame at the thought of being remembered fondly after his death. He encourages the fair youth to forget about him when he dies and refrain from glorifying his memory. The speaker’s poetry—that which he “bring[s] forth”—is cast as a source of shame for both the poet and the fair youth. Sonnets 71 and 72 represent another instance of the speaker’s apparent insecurity over his poetic talent surfacing. The inconsistency of the speaker’s tone and attitude throughout the entire sonnet sequence serves to make him a complex and nuanced voice. It also also serves as a reminder that the sonnets may have been compiled without Shakespeare’s consent or input regarding their format or order.

"my rose..."   (Sonnets 101–110)

Roses held a special meaning in Elizabethan thought, beyond merely beauty or romance. In the 12th century CE, religious veneration of the Virgin Mary began spreading rapidly, and roses became associated with purity. They were also connected with the monarchy through the use of family crests. The “Tudor Rose,” the symbol of the House of Tudor, represented the end of the “War of the Roses” (1455-1485) and the reunification of the divided nobility. Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, adopted the rose as her personal symbol, combining her family legacy and the image of purity to cement her legacy as the Virgin Queen. By comparing his beloved to a rose, the speaker is associating the fair youth with beauty, purity, and nobility.

"We sicken to shun sickness ..."   (Sonnets 111–120)

In Elizabethan England, people would take medicines prior to getting sick as a preventative measure. Many of these preventive medicines were designed to induce vomiting in order to “purge” the system of toxins, causing people to feel ill. The speaker uses this extended simile to imply that he sought out new lovers in order to prevent himself from growing sick of the “ne’er cloying” sweetness of the fair youth. Furthermore, despite describing the youth’s sweetness as “ne’er cloying,” his sweetness is what led the speaker to require the “bitter sauces” of new company. In the context of the medical conceit, “bitter sauces” conjures images of unpleasant, but necessary, medicines.

" To this I witness call the fools of time,      Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime...."   (Sonnets 121–130)

The meaning of the final couplet of Sonnet 124 has been heavily debated. By a straightforward reading, this line recalls Sonnet 116, in which the speaker intoned that “Love’s not Time’s fool.” The “fools of time” are those who have been duped into fickleness by Time and who “die for goodness” by repenting their sins on their deathbed, despite having “lived for crime.” This may also be a reference to the rival poet, who was fooled by time into pursuing the temporary pleasures of money and fame rather than true love, which the speaker claims is eternal. However, many scholars believe that these lines, and Sonnet 124 as a whole, are a more specific reference to a contemporary political event, such as Essex’s Rebellion (1601) or the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, with the “fools of time” being those who were led to seek glory after Time duped them into believing that they were on the side of “goodness.”

"The better angel is a man right fair, The worser spirit a woman colour'd ill. To win me soon to hell, my female evil, Tempteth my better angel from my side, And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

The conceit of angels and devils guiding humans in opposing moral directions originated during the 1st century CE. The playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, employs the same conceit in his 1593 tragedy Doctor Faustus. In Sonnet 144, the fair youth is the angel, a being of purity and comfort. The dark lady is the “worser spirit,” who is so seductive that she has not only tempted the speaker to sin, but is now tempting his “angel” as well. Note that the battle between the angel and the devil plays out as the speaker watches on the sidelines. He has already been condemned to hell in the afterlife for lusting after the “female evil.” Now he is condemned to hell on earth since he has been abandoned by both of his loves.

"And sav'd my life..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Many scholars have theorized that Sonnet 145 is not written to the dark lady. Because of its anomalous meter and lack of relevance to the surrounding sonnets, Critic Andrew Gurr has postulated that Sonnet 145 was written by a young Shakespeare to his wife, Anne Hathaway. According to Gurr, the Early Modern pronunciation of the phrase “hate away” would have been almost identical to “Hathaway,” and the phrase “And sav’d my life” would have sounded like “Anne saved my life.” Critics who have adopted Gurr’s theory speculate that Sonnet 145 was written in Shakespeare's youth and included in the sequence by the publisher Thomas Thorpe, which accounts for the divergence in style. Other critics have proposed alternative theories, with some claiming that Sonnet 145 was written in an effort to lighten the mood, while others posit that Shakespeare did not write the sonnet at all.
ANDREW GURR; Shakespeare's First Poem: Sonnet 145, Essays in Criticism, Volume XXI, Issue 3, 1 April 1971, Pages 221–226.

"Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,..."   (Sonnets 141–154)

Notice the contrasts established between “loving sin” and “virtu[ous] hate.” The nature of love is a common theme in the sonnet tradition, which abounds with frustrated lovers bemoaning their lack of physical satisfaction. Typically, passionate speakers begin sonnets by expressing their devotion for their beloveds, only to be rebuffed in the name of virtue. The cold, beautiful beloveds were considered hateful for their chastity. The speaker parodies this tradition by casting the dark lady in the role of the chaste maiden who virtuously rejects her suitor. The inaccuracy of the comparison is cemented as the speaker accuses the dark lady of hypocrisy, telling her that they are both lustful adulterers and that his love for her is no less “lawful” than her “false bonds of love.” He urges her to take “pity” on him, emotionally and sexually, lest she end up alone and rejected by her other lovers.

" That she that makes me sin awards me pain...."   (Sonnets 141–154)

On the surface, the final line of Sonnet 141 refers tothe lady’s rejections and infidelities, which cause the speaker “pain” because he loves her. However, the use of the phrase “awards me pain” adds a potential religious context. It is a common conceit in the sonnet tradition for love to considered “sinful,” since it encourages amorous and unchaste thoughts. In orthodox Christian doctrine, sins needed to be confessed and repented. Though uncommon in practice, pain, whether self-inflicted or administered by others, was considered a way in which sinners could pay penance. By the logic of penance, the “pain” the dark lady “awards” becomes the speaker’s “gain.”

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