400 years young: The magic and mystery of Shakespeare's Sonnets

They were deemed passé when he published them. Yet this collection of 154 poems, romantic, revealing and rude, changed literature forever. Boyd Tonkin introduces his selection, while fans nominate their favourites.

A collection of sonnets? Forget it, Will: they died more than a decade ago. Oh, so you wrote most of them around that time, when you were a hip young upstart? And now you're peddling this retro vanity project around the scene? And you expect us to roll over because you're some hotshot actor-manager-entrepreneur sitting pretty as a senior partner with the King's Men and raking it in from two theatres, the Globe and the Blackfriars? Believe me, Will, no one cares any longer. They'll sink like a lead balloon. Go home and write some more of that experimental stuff for your posh new mates - Pericles, was it? Give me the Dream any day. Bottom! Puck! Now that's what I call comedy..."

In 1609, the publisher Thomas Thorpe issued Shakespeare's 154 sonnets in a handy quarto-sized edition, with a mysterious dedication to "Mr W.H.", their "only begetter", and the poem "A Lover's Complaint" printed as a coda. A come-hither line on the title page, "Never before imprinted", suggests that the Jacobean literary world had been agog to read these soul-baring revelations from a celebrity of the London theatre scene. Critics who treat the Sonnets as some sort of erotic autobiography in poetic disguise have been happy to swallow the notion of their publication as a scandalous kiss'n'tell, with Thorpe sometimes even cast as a pirate who purloined the manuscript.

The reality was, in all probability, less thrilling. We know from a reference in 1598 to "sugared sonnets among his private friends" that Shakespeare had been practising the form over many years. Two sonnets, 138 and 144 in the 1609 edition, had surfaced in a 1599 anthology, The Passionate Pilgrim. The vogue for sonnet sequences that told the story of a tormented love affair, with lofty mystical and symbolic overtones, had already peaked by the mid-1590s. Authors such as Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and Samuel Daniel (whose collection was entitled Delia) had led the 14-line charge.

By 1609, this fashion had long passed. Far from appearing as a titillating inside-track report on the private passions of a bigwig from the London stage, the Sonnets would have looked old-hat. No one even bothered to reprint them until 1640. Imagine some middle-aged monster of stadium rock going to his manager today with the idea of a perky Britpop concept album, mid-1990s style. Underwhelming, to say the least.

Yet Thomas Thorpe and his printer, George Eld had struck gold. Shakespeare's Sonnets have, over four centuries, become the pattern and paragon of intimate lyric verse. Into (with a couple of exceptions) the same simple rhyme scheme and standard division into three four-line quatrains and a final couplet, he packed an entire universe of love, lust and longing. All the emotions that lovers, rivals and the witnesses to others' passion overtly feel sing out with a compressed intensity. More remarkably, so does the ambiguous shadow-side of love the melancholy of fulfilled desire, the murderous rage of jealousy, the fear of hurt that comes with overpowering want.

For every blissed-out "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" comes a disgusted outbreak of "Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame/ Is lust in action". ("Spirit" is semen, among other meanings.) Each tear-tugging tribute to the beloved's fortifying memory ("For thy sweet love rememebered such wealth brings,/ That then I scorn to change my state with kings") has to be weighed against some cynical riff that takes deceit and treachery for granted: "When my love swears that she is made of truth,/ I do believe her though I know she lies." Here "love" embraces hate, loathing, aggression, narcissism, predation, self-pity, suspicion, fury and grief. As in the Sonnets, so in life.

However universal the passions they dissect, the sequence has several unusual even unique - attributes. This bard of flesh and soul also knows English law inside out ("summer's lease hath all too short a date"). His tangled mini-dramas of desire and disappointment play out not in some abstract heaven strewn with gods and myths but a city of law courts, docks, playhouses, taverns, warehouses, whorehouses in effect, Shakespeare's London. The first 126 poems are addressed to a young man, the "fair youth" of Shakesperean legend. No one knows whether this figure had any real-life counterpart. Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, have been since Regency times the most-favoured candidates. Still less do we know if the passionate friendship recorded so commonplace in Renaissance life and literature - had a physical dimension. We can't say yes; equally, we can't say no.

The poet advises the lovely youth to marry and procreate; flies into a rage when he seems to have an affair with the writer's mistress; frets when the youth gets close to a rival poet; 'fesses up to a fling with another lover; laments the yawning gap between his great age and the beloved's youth; celebrates the triumph of love ("an ever-fixed mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken") and the verse that immortalises it over the ravages of "devouring time". Then, from Sonnet 127 onwards, a brunette and possibly dark-skinned mistress, the equally mythic "dark lady", takes centre-stage.

As with the fair youth, the evidence-free roster of real partners never stops swelling. Emilia Lanier born Aemelia Bassano to a migrant family of Venetian musicians features most often in modern speculations. Again, we know nothing about her and Shakespeare, although she did enjoy an extraordinary life. In the poems, this practised minx has been around the block, and then some or rather, it excites the poet to feel teased and tricked by some sultry mocking tramp. The more she plays the bitch, the hotter our smitten poet grows even though he's "anchored in the bay where all men ride". Then, in the final pair of poems, the sequence retreats into a pretty but conventional conceit about Cupid and Diana's nymphs. As elusive in the finale as they have proved throughout, the Sonnets end with the sort of stuff that minor scribblers once churned out before old Shakespeare belatedly came along and galvanised this dormant form with a truth, wit and fire that made it new, and made it last.

What's your favourite sonnet? Let us know in the comments section below.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas