We’re all familiar with Shakespeare the playwright, but how much do you know about his poetry? During his lifetime the Bard wrote several narrative poems, but perhaps most intriguing are his sonnets. 

Published in 1609 Shakespeare’s Sonnets contains 154 poems which deal with universal themes such as love, beauty, passion and mortality. The timeless nature of these works mean that the sonnets remain immensely popular today. But there is much speculation about the inspiration and events which surround the collection.

The sonnets themselves are written from the position of a narrator who addresses a series of topics commonly understood to take the form of three characters. These are the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady, and the Rival Poet.

The Fair Youth features in sonnets 1 – 126, during which he is urged to marry and have children in order that his beauty be immortalised. The language used here is noted for its romantic tone and this has led academics to speculate whether the relationship between the narrator and the youth is intended to be sexual. There is also some debate around the inspiration for the Fair Youth. Some believe him to be Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, whilst others argue for William Herbert, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke.


The Dark Lady is portrayed as an overtly sexual character, whose physical passions are used in contrast to the metaphysical love described in the Fair Youth sonnets. Appearing in sonnets 127 – 154, her name is inspired by her flowing black hair and dark skin tone. Again there is some speculation about the real-life inspiration for the Dark Lady, and the list includes Mary Flitton, maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth I, and Emilia Lanier who was the first English woman to take a career as a poet.

“So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this and this gives life to thee” (Sonnet 18)

As the name suggests, the Rival Poet is understood to be a competitor of the narrator for both fame and fortune. Appearing in sonnets 78 – 86, the poet is thought to be inspired by some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, possibly Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe or George Chapman.

It is not certain at what point during Shakespeare’s life the 154 sonnets were written or whether they are autobiographical. It’s also not clear whether the author actually gave publisher Thomas Thorpe permission to print the collection. If not, then Shakespeare’s Sonnets could be considered the product of theft or piracy.

The 1609 edition contains a dedication to Mr W.H., a figure whose real identity has puzzled scholars for centuries. There are many theories about who this person is and the list includes William Herbert to whom the First Folio is dedicated, Henry Wriothesley, whose initials when swopped clearly read as W.H., and William Hall, a printer who had worked with Thorpe on several publications. One view is that the dedication is really nothing more than a good old-fashioned typo and the initials were intended to be those of the author, Mr William Shakespeare. 

Learn more about Shakespeare in 2016 with our programme of events and activities.

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