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Shakespeare's Sonnets

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Shakespeare's Sonnets

Shakespeare. Sonnets. London, 1609

Shakespeare. Shakespeare's sonnets. London, 1899

Shakespeare. The Songs and Sonnets of William Shakespeare. London, 1915

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

Sonnet 18, lines 1–4

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past

Sonnet 30, lines 1–2

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her though I know she lies

Sonnet 138, lines 1–2

Few collections of poems intrigue, challenge, tantalize, and reward us as do Shakespeare’s Sonnets, all written in the English sonnet form. It is not just the beauty and power of individual sonnets that engage us, but the story that their sequence seems to tell about Shakespeare's love life, whenever one reads the Sonnets in the order in which they appear in the 1609 Quarto.

It goes something like this: The first 17 sonnets advise a beautiful young man to marry and produce a child. The next 109 sonnets urge the poet’s love for him and claim that the poems will preserve his beauty. The supposed narrative concludes with 28 sonnets to or about a "dark lady."

Evidence that puts the narrative in doubt seems to matter very little. Most critics and editors agree that the sonnets are only linked within specific clusters; they were written perhaps over many years and perhaps to or about different people. Only about 25 specify the sex of the beloved.

Yet such facts surrender to the narrative pull of the 1609 collection. The persona of the poet and the sequence of emotions are so strong that few editors can resist describing the Sonnets in terms of their irresistible story.

Adapted from the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2004, 2006 Folger Shakespeare
  From the Collection

1609 quarto edition of the Sonnets

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Teaching Sonnets

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