“Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare…So far from Shakespeare’s being least known, he is the one person in all modern history fully known to us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Biographical Information

William Shakespeare approx. 1564-1616: Shakespeare, also referenced as simply “the Bard,” was one of the most influential poets of the 16th-17th centuries. World renown for his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare’s personal life is still a mysterious time, difficult for scholars to put together. Shakespeare was born and grew up in Stratford, and though there was a boy’s preparatory school there, no proof exists that Shakespeare ever attended it, or even went to university. Shakespeare’s father was a successful businessman, and often Shakespeare himself was described so for his wise investments and use of social skills to earn his wealth. Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582, and she bore him four children. The youngest and only son, Hamnet (whose name might have inspired Hamlet) died when he was eleven years old.

Proof of the man’s career as a writer and poet comes from many sources. He was listed as a co-owner of the famous Golden Globe theatre and was the target of criticism in Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Bought with a Million of Repentance, which attacked Shakespeare for having the nerve to compete with him and other playwrights of the era. In addition, he received the company title of “King’s Men” from James I, and afterwards became a favorite for entertaining the court. In his will, he named several actors, which serves as proof that he was involved in theatre. In suiting style, his gravestone bore a poetic curse:

Good friend, for Jesus´ sake forbeare
To digg the dust enclosed here!
Blest be ye man that spares thes stones
And curst be he that moues my bones.

Literary Works

General Information on Shakespeare's Sonnets

These sonnets are considered to have been written over a series of years (1591-1594) and then were complied together and published by Thomas Trope in 1609 (Luminarium). His sonnets always provoke great debates on the time period, authorization, coherent pattern, and overarching story line in the 154 sonnets. Some believe Shakespeare wrote the sonnets for his closest friends and they were never meant to be published (Schiffer 9). The other question is if there is a gender connected to the sonnets; some readers believe the sonnets follow the poet talking about a young male who could have been a potential patron.

The groupings of the sonnets subjects are clearly visible, the dark lady sonnets being about “a woman, dark in complexion and malign in influence.” These sonnets possibly contain the greatest examples of lyric poetry because of their subject; however the background information of them gives us no importance to their complete meaning. These sonnets are so important because they are about life and speak to all men of any time about the beauty in their lives and their relationship with happiness. “This does something to account for the breadth of appeal of the Sonnets as lyric poetry, for lyric poetry, in essence, is the voice of the human heart.” (An Introduction to Shakespeare- Hardin Craig).
Shakespeare’s Sonnets can be related to Plato’s ideal that the “perception of and adherence to the ideal, man progresses toward the perfection resident only there.”( An Introduction to Shakespeare- Hardin Craig). Shakespeare treats this idea and captures Plato’s ideal within a human creature.

On Shakespeare’s sonnets:

“If I were to use a single phrase to characterize Shakespeare’s strategy at its best, I would term it “the innocent insinuations of wit” – and if “innocent insinuations” suggests an oxymoron, this is precisely my purpose. The “innocent” is apparent only: on the face of it there is no guile in the words as they marshal themselves into syntax. But at their best the undercurrents in the sonnets seem to wind themselves into unforeseen unions of meaning that create constant surprises for us…” – Murray Krieger

Sonnets 1-50

“From fairest creatures we desire increase.” In Shakespeare’s early sonnets (1-15), a trope devoted entirely to marriage and procreation immediately emerges. The speaker uses the reasoning that someone beautiful has the duty to create more of themselves to leave behind when they die. With “When I consider everything that grows,” the speaker claims that he will return the object of the poem to perfection or youth (15). This continues in 18 and 38.

“A woman’s face…” (20) has caused much debate among scholars about Shakespeare’s sexuality. While it was not uncommon in the era for men to profess deep love for other men in a platonic fashion, Shakespeare compares and elevates the man above women in his eyes.

Sonnets 29 and 30 can be read as a man wallowing in jealousy and despair, only to be pulled out by a friend/lover.

“That thou hast her…” (42) is a situation where the speaker’s mistress and his best friend get together. Shakespeare uses the neoplatonic ladder of reasoning to explain the situation.

Sonnets 51-100

Reoccurring Theme in 51-100: Immortality. The idea is stressed in multiple sonnets (55, 60, 63, 64, and 65) and with the idea of immortality comes the thought of creating poems to remember the young man which will withstand time.

Another theme is beauty. Shakespeare describes the young man as the source of beauty (Ramsey 151). He clearly tells of this beauty in Sonnet 53 : “What is your substance, whereof are you made/That millions of strange shadows on you tend” (53.1-2) and : “Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit/Is poorly imitated after you” (53.5-6). This sonnet gets to the idea of semi-Platonic view of art. The speaker tries to imitate the man’s beauty through his poems but ultimately, his poems are inferior to his true image (Ramsey 151).

Sonnet Groups to Note: 67, 69, and 70 deal with the man’s reputation with Sonnet 68 serving as link from 67 to 69 (Ramsey 15). In 67 the first quatrain deals with the company the man keeps and then the sonnet moves onto the man’s fake beauty (aided through the use of cosmetics). Sonnet 68 solely deals with cosmetics and fake beauty. After this side note of sorts, Sonnets 69 and 70 return to the subject of the man’s company and reputation.

Another sonnet group happens at the end of this reading, Sonnets 97-99. The theme in both 97 and 98 is absence; both first lines reference absence. But 97 cites absence like a winter and then moves on to discuss autumn (second quatrain) and summer (third quatrain). On the other hand, 98 focuses solely on spring and this one has flower imagery : “Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white/Nor praise the deep vermillion in the rose” (98.9-10). Finally, in 99 (also cited as the only 15 line sonnet in the sequence), the flower imagery stays and begins to compare the man to a flower. His hair is described as : “buds of marjoram” (99.7) and then goes on in line eight to say : “The roses fearfully on thorns did stand.” As Atkins said : “Line 8 presents a delightful image of an uncomfortable rose, relying on its thorns for protection, anxious to be elsewhere (rather than within the gaze of the hypercritical speaker)” (Atkins 249).

Sonnet 64: The imagery is very real in lines five and six: “When I have seen the hungry ocean gain/ Advantage on the kingdom of the shore.” The reader can clearly see the ocean coming onto the shore and knocking out everything in its path (including sandcastles). Time is out to take away the Beloved - there is really nothing we can do to stop that.

Sonnet 94: This is in the middle of a sonnet rant of the young man’s unchastity. The first quatrain speaks highly of chastity (Ramsey 162) : “Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow” (94.4) the most chaste person will have undoubted chastity. The couplet is the final nail in the coffin, the speaker condemns unchaste people : “For the sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds/Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” (94.13-14). The speaker is saying that even if someone seems virtuous, one sinful move could rot this flower, making it worse than the weeds (which would be sinful people to finish the metaphor).

Sonnets 101-154

Sonnet 105: “treads once again the very thin line between arcane humor and outright blasphemy, which has already been seen in Sonnets 34 and 52, and it continues in 108, which has an irreverent parody of the ‘Our Father’.”( Fair, kind and true are the words to describe his beloved which is comparable to the Holy Trinity. Commentators think that this sonnet is dull and repetitive, what do you think? Some think that he is responding to an accusation and/or that his love is not idolatrous because it is a worship of the Holy Trinity.

Sonnet 126: bids good-bye to the young male friend and is also different in its format. Filled with couplets instead of quatrains, this form shows a complete finality to the male friend.

The Dark Lady: This idea is introduced in Sonnet 127 and is given our full attention until Sonnet 152. The imagery and tone of the sonnets are filled with eroticism and romantic interest. It is believed that the Dark Lady is also the lady in Sonnets 40-42 that disrupt the previous sequence ideas and also disrupts the poets love for the male. Who is the Dark Lady? Much attention has been devoted to this information but there are few women who fit this bill that were involved in Shakespeare’s life. The most convincing argument is that the Dark Lady is Emilia Bassano Lanier also known as Aemilia Lanyer. In the introduction to the ‘Dark Lady’ we see the word “beauty” is found 6 times, the word “black” 3 within Sonnet 127.

Sonnet 138: “continues the contradictions of the previous one. In 137 his heart believes one thing, (that she is his alone), but knows that it is not true, while his eyes also, seeing a certain fact, refuse to acknowledge that it is true.” Sonnets 137 & 138 are sonnets that explore the connotations of the word “will”. There are seven meaning of the word “will” that commentators discovered: 1. Wish/desire, 2. Carnal desire/lust, 3. Auxiliary verb denoting future tense, 4. Willfulness, obstinacy, 5. Male sex organ, 6. Female sex organ, 7. Name for William.

Sonnets 153 & 154: are known as the Greek Anthology also as “Anacreontic” which brings the sequence to an end. These two are not part of the narrative but they work together to showcase “classic literary tropes” and deal with themes and images that are found in the previous sonnets. The final line of the sequence: “Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love” in Sonnet 154 gives the readers many ways to think of this idea but of course we are forced to wonder if Shakespeare purposely placed this line at the very end of 154 sonnets to say that even his sonnets cannot “cool” the feeling of love that he has.


1. Ciccarelli, Jon. Hudson Shakespeare Company. Web. <>.
2. Craig, Hardin. Eight Plays Selected Sonnets An Introduction to Shakespeare. 1990. Print.
3. Grey, Terry A. "Life and Times." 2009. Web. <>.
4. Grey, Terry A. "Shakespeare Criticism ." 2009. Web. <>.
5. Krieger, Murray. Essays in Shakespearean Criticism. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1970.
6. Oxford Dictionary. 2010. Web. <>.
7. Ramsey, Paul. The Fickle Glass: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Ams Pr Inc, 1979. Print.
8. Schiffer, James. Shakespeare's Sonnets: Critical Essays. Routledge, 2000. Print.
9. "Shakespeare Biography". Absolute Shakespeare . 2000-2005. Web. <>.
10. "Shakespeare's Sonnets". Oxquarry Books Ltd, 2011. Web. <>.
11. Shakespeare Summer Symposium. Web. <>.
12. Shakespeare, William, and Carl D. Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Pr, 2007. Print.
13. Shakespeare, William, and Stephen Orgel. The Sonnets. Penguin Classics, 2001. Print.
14. Image:
15. Poems from: Perseus Digital Library: William Shakespeare. W. G. Clark. W. Aldis Wright. The Globe Shakespeare. New York. Nelson Doubleday, Inc.

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