Shakespeare’s Sonnets are often breath-taking, sometimes disturbing and sometimes puzzling and elusive in their meanings. As sonnets, their main concern is ‘love’, but they also reflect upon time, change, aging, lust, absence, infidelity and the problematic gap between ideal and reality when it comes to the person you love. Even after 400 years, ‘what are Shakespeare’s sonnets about?’ and ‘how are we to read them?’ are still central and unresolved questions.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are composed of 14 lines, and most are divided into three quatrains and a final, concluding couplet, rhyming abab cdcd efef gg. This sonnet form and rhyme scheme is known as the ‘English’ sonnet. It first appeared in the poetry of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1516/17–1547), who translated Italian sonnets into English as well as composing his own. Many later Renaissance English writers used this sonnet form, and Shakespeare did so particularly inventively. His sonnets vary its configurations and effects repeatedly. Shakespearean sonnets use the alternate rhymes of each quatrain to create powerful oppositions between different lines and different sections, or to develop a sense of progression across the poem. The final couplet can either provide a decisive, epigrammatic conclusion to the narrative or argument of the rest of the sonnet, or subvert it. Sonnet 130, for example, builds up a paradoxical picture of the speaker’s mistress as defective in all the conventional standards of beauty, but the final couplet remarks that, though all this is true,
And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.