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)
Early printed texts
Shakespeare's sonnets were first printed in 1609 in a quarto published by Thomas Thorpe. That edition is generally considered the authoritative text, and modern editors usually follow it as their source. Two of the poems in the 1609 sonnets (Sonnets 138 and 144) were published in the 1599 collection The Passionate Pilgrim; although the entire volume was attributed to Shakespeare, the collection is in fact a miscellany of poems by different authors. Some scholars, however, believe that the two sonnets by Shakespeare in that volume represent versions closer to Shakespeare's manuscript than the 1609 versions. The sonnets were republished in 1640 by John Benson in a form very different from the 1609 collection, including a different order and individually titled poems. The Folger edition of the sonnets, like that of other modern editions, follows the 1609 text.