Shakespeare’s sonnets have enjoyed extravagant praise for their transcendent beauty and exquisite verbal melody. They have been criticised also particularly for their inanity and structural faults. But even then the amount of critical writing devoted to the sonnets is shaken only to that on Hamlet. There is perhaps no collection of English poetry has been more widely known and praised than Shakespeare’s sonnets and certainly, no collection of English poetry has been more often misused.
The sonnets of Shakespeare are 154 in numbers. They are linked by a commonness of the poetic attitude towards life which gives unity to the diversity of themes. The themes are passionate love, aching jealousy, musings on the human fate, a meditation on the passage of time on earth etc. From every point of view and in every sense these sonnets show the poetic genius of the writer. The variety of themes, the lyrical appeal, the striking images and picture, the wealth of conceits, the felicity of the language and the melody of the verse, all are the richest poetic treasures of English literature.
As a literary form, the sonnets originated in Italy with the famous renaissance poet Petrarch. In the Petrarchan form, the sonnet is divided into two parts an Octave of 8 lines and a sestet of 6 lines with a pause in between. Each line in the Octave is interlocked by cleverly works out rhyme-scheme which is abbaabba, and the sestet is cdecde. In England, Thomas Wyatt wrote the first sonnet. Wyatt followed the Petrarchan form. The Petrarchan rhyme-scheme invented the English form of the sonnet. Shakespeare used this new English form which ultimately comes to be known as Shakespearean form. In the English, Shakespearean sonnet is divided into quatrains, three stanzas of four lines with a concluding couplet of two lines. The rhyme-scheme, in general, is abab cdcd efef gg with subtle variations according to the requirements of thought and emotion.
The whole sonnet sequence written by Shakespeare is divisible into two main groups, one consisting of sonnets (1-126); presumably addressed to the Earl of Southampton and the other consisting of- sonnets 127-152, presumably addressed to the “Dark Lady” identified as Marry Filton. But according to the theme treated in the ice, the sonnets can be divided into many subgroups like “marriage,” “friendship,” “love,” “self-love,” “the ravages of time,” “immortality and death,” “lust,” “professional rivalry,” etc. However, the most dominant themes are Shakespeare’s devotion to his patron-cum-friend, his hopeless passion for his mistress and the betrayal of both his friendship and his friend and his love by the mistress respectively.
The majority of sonnets are addressed to the first young friend who is urged to many reprimanded for sensual faults, warned against flatterers and rival poet and promised immortality in verse. It is significant that Shakespeare relegated the theme of love to a secondary place (only 28 sonnets).why did Shakespeare attach such importance to the theme of male friendship? They certainly wear autobiographical personal reason.He might really have experienced such deep passionate feeling for a friend. But yet by assigning worship and love, a secondary place, Shakespeare broke the long convention.
The satiric tone is a dominant feature of the sonnet addressed to the Dark Lady. Tradition required that a sonnet-sequence should open with a description of the Lady’s beauty. Shakespeare goes counter to the tradition in these respects also:-
“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red that her lips-red”
The beloved’s main appeal for the poet is her naturalness. She is not the heroine of the conventional sonnets, encumbered with the attributes of ideal beauty.
The sonnets embody Shakespeare’s total vision of life. They are memorable also for their intensity of emotion, then spontaneity and their musical effect. His sonnets have the simplicity of expression and are free from the bombastic and rhetoric. In short, the sonnets of Shakespeare are a highly romantic poem which touches the high water mark of English lyricism.