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Shakespeare's Sonnets: Q & A

For more answers, please see the explanatory notes for each sonnet or the links to the right.

Which literary devices does Shakespeare use in the sonnets?

We see many examples of literary devices in Shakespeare's poetry, such as alliteration, assonance, antithesis, enjambment, metonymy, metaphor, synecdoche, oxymoron, and personification. For a discussion of Shakespeare's use of figures of speech and specific examples from the sonnets, please see the article How to Analyze a Shakespearean Sonnet.

Do we know how true the 1609 Quarto is to Shakespeare's sonnets?

We will never know for sure how "true" the 1609 Quarto is to Shakespeare's originals. Some scholars doubt Shakespeare's authorship of sonnets 145, 153, and 154, which are considered poorer in quality than the others. But this is likely simply due to Shakespeare's lack of poetic inspiration (he was human, after all).

Can you tell me the form of a sonnet?

A sonnet is in verse form and has fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. Shakespeare's sonnets follow the pattern "abab cdcd efef gg", and Petrarch's sonnets follow the pattern "abba abba cdecde." All the lines in iambic pentameter have five feet, consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. For a more detailed look at iambic pentameter with examples, please click here.

I was wondering if we know the specific time period in which Shakespeare wrote his sonnets.

The sonnets were composed over an unknown period of time, probably between 1591 and 1598. Scholars have tried to date the sonnets by looking at hints within the poems themselves, but there is no consensus. For a detailed examination of this topic, please see the article, The Date of the Sonnets.

Who is Shakespeare's dark lady?

Twenty-four of Shakespeare's sonnets are addressed to a woman. We have little information about this woman, except for a description the poet gives of her over the course of the poems. Shakespeare describes her as 'a woman color'd ill', with black eyes and coarse black hair. Thus, she has come to be known as the "dark lady." There are scholars who believe that the dark lady could be one of three historical women: Mary Fitton, a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth; Lucy Morgan, a brothel owner and former maid to Queen Elizabeth; and Emilia Lanier, the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, patron of the arts. Some also consider William Davenant's mother to be the dark lady, but only because Davenant claimed to be Shakespeare's illegitimate son. To find out what the poet thinks about the dark lady, please see the analysis of Sonnet 130, Sonnet 144, and Sonnet 147.

Were Shakespeare's sonnets about his love for another man?

Shakespeare's early sonnets are indeed about his love for another man. But whether this means without a doubt that Shakespeare was gay is a different matter. It was not uncommon for men in Elizabethan England to express their deep love and affection for male friends. Moreover, the only sexual relations mentioned in the sonnets are between the poet and his mistress (for more on this please see the commentary for Sonnet 138). Of course, it is just as likely the poet could not express overtly his sexual desire for the young man due to societal stigma. For a look at the nature of the poet's feelings for the young man, please see the commentary for Sonnets 1-29 and, in particular, the analysis of the hotly-debated Sonnet 20, in which the poet refers to the young man as "master-mistress of my passion."

Do we know the order in which Shakespeare wrote his sonnets?

Many scholars have tried to find a logical order in the sonnets but none of them have been completely successful. The events in the sonnets are barely outlined. We can make an educated guess, but we will likely never know for sure. For a detailed examination of this topic, please see the article, The Order of the Sonnets.

What were the two long narrative poems Shakespeare wrote that were published between 1592 and 1594? During those years Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece were published.


How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Sonnets Q & A. Shakespeare Online. 20 Nov. 2009. < >.

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Sonnet Notes ... Sonnet 75 opens with a seemingly joyous and innocent tribute to the young friend who is vital to the poet's emotional well being. However, the poet quickly establishes the negative aspect of his dependence on his beloved, and the complimentary metaphor that the friend is food for his soul decays into ugly imagery of the poet alternating between starving and gorging himself on that food. The poet is disgusted and frightened by his dependence on the young friend. He is consumed by guilt over his passion. Words with implicit sexual meanings permeate the sonnet -- "enjoyer", "treasure", "pursuing", "possessing", "had" -- as do allusions to five of the seven "deadly" sins -- avarice (4), gluttony (9, 14), pride (5), lust (12), and envy (6). Read on...


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