William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets in a six-year period, most likely between 1592 and 1598. Thanks to a commonplace book written by Francis Mere (1565-1647), a rector who ran a school in the small village of Wing, Rutland, scholars can establish a chronology of several Elizabethan poets, including Shakespeare. In the book, titled Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598), Meres refers to Shakespeare famous sonnets: “The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his [sugared] sonnets among his private friends.” The sonnets didn’t stay private for too long, since enterprising printer, Thomas Thorpe, published the sonnets (along with the poem, The Passionate Pilgrim) in 1609 — after Shakespeare died, and most likely without ever obtaining the Bard’s permission.
Most student guides to the sonnets break them up into three distinct groups: sonnets 1-126 are referred to as the “Fair Youth Sonnets”; sonnets 127-152 are referred to as the “Dark Lady Sonnets”; and sonnets 153-154 are referred to as the “Greek Sonnets.” One of the most comprehensive guides to the sonnets is Shakespeare Online, which neatly summarizes the overarching themes of the sonnets: love, the brevity of life, the transience of beauty, and the trappings of society. But when you carefully read the first group, are all of them really written to or about a young man?
For the definitive answer we turn to Shakespearean scholar and prolific writer on all things Shakespeare, Stanley Wells. Wells recognizes that some of the sonnets are certainly addressed to a male, as evidenced by references and pronouns; and it is clear that sonnets 127 to 152 address a female. However, is it entirely clear that the first 126 sonnets were written about a male? Wells doesn’t think so; he posits: “[Many] of the first 126 could be addressed to, or written about, either a male or a female. Many scholars, including some who should know better, write as if all these poems were addressed to a male, and, moreover, to the same person. In fact this idea is no more than a deduction based on context.” So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, one can consider this case closed.
Read related posts: When Was Shakespeare Born?
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Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
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Best Editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets
For further reading: Is It True What They Say About Shakespeare? by Stanley Wells (2010)