Poets, critics and readers have been wishing Shakespeare’s sonnets a happy 400th birthday. They are considered to be among some of the greatest love poems in English literature and have given such lines to the English language as ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’ (Sonnet 130) and ‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/I all alone beweep my outcast state’. (Sonnet 29).
Many readers have detected the outlines of a story as they read through the Sonnets. The early ones address his patron who is a beautiful, powerful young aristocrat. The young man betrays their friendship when he has an affair with the poet’s mistress and witholds his patronage from him, deciding to bestow on it on a rival author.
Among the great themes of the sequence of sonnets is that of time and its ravages: ‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced /The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age’. The transitory nature of love also preoccupies the poet:’ Against that time when thou shall strangely pass/And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye’.
During the course of the sequence the subject matter moves from the “lovely boy” to the “dark lady”. There has been a lot of speculation about the identity of both boy and lady but no conclusions have been reached. The critic Jonathan Bate in a recent excellent article warns about reading too much of Shakespeare’s biography into the Sonnets noting that it is possible that the characters who appear in them are invented and that it is better to enjoy the poems than spend too much guessing about who was whom.
You can listen to Sir Ian McKellen and others reading the Sonnets on the BBC Radio 3 website.