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.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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