Shakespeare love sonnets are intensely personal and address the deep issues of life. Love is dealt with most comprehensively. Critics over the centuries have been fascinated by the two main subjects of the love sentiments – the ‘fair young man’ and the ‘dark lady.’ Scholars have explored the Elizabethan times and Shakespeare’s sonnets to try and identify these two figures and there are several theories, although there is some consensus around the identity of the young man. He seems to have been the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron between 1592 and 1595.
It is natural for the imagination to roam over these two living, breathing figures, who Shakespeare knew so intimately, but it is just as interesting to look at the whole body of sonnets to see what insights Shakespeare offers us about the role of love in life.
As usual, through personal messages, humour, observations of the everyday, and so on, Shakespeare reaches depths in bits of language that have become quotable truths about human life, including love. When we look at in that way we can see descriptions of three different contexts in which love operates. In doing so he depicts a multi-faceted image of love.
Love in Shakespeare’s sonnets does not have a single definition, but rather, an intangible collection of characteristics that, together, make up a powerful force that defeats all obstacles. Taking just three of the sonnets – 116, 130, and 147 – love is depicted as an overwhelming force that triumphs over time, the physical world, and reason, respectively.
In sonnet 116, love is given an identity as an immortal force, which overcomes age, death, and time itself. Love is depicted as an invincible force that defies time as well as time’s effects on beauty and youth, changes such as wrinkles and old age. Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks/Within his bending sickle’s compass come (Lines 9 and 10). Love, unlike the physical being, is not subject to decay. In sonnet 130 the force of love is displayed through physical beauty. In that sonnet, Shakespeare expands his definition of love to include an image of love as a force that overcomes social pressures. In sonnet 147, the speaker’s reasonable mind is overridden by emotions that arise from his love and desire for his absent partner.
The Fair Young Man in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Returning to the fair young man and the dark lady, we see the depiction of different types of personal love. Sonnets 1-126 seem to be addressed to an unnamed male friend, younger than Shakespeare. The intensity of feeling and the language imply a sexual love, but that is to impose our modern perceptions of sexuality on the poems.
Even the most masculine of men were not afraid to express a view of their feelings for other men and admiration of their beauty, unlike the fear modern men have of being thought to be homosexual if they did that. Speculation about Shakespeare’s sexuality is a red herring.
In those sonnets, 1-126, we see a growing friendship with the young man and the development of an intensity of feeling. In sonnets 1-17 Shakespeare seems concerned with the desire to urge the young man to marry and reproduce. Then, as the friendship develops and the poet comes to love the young man intensely, we see feelings of grief caused by the poet’s separation from him.
They live in different worlds: the young man is a nobleman and that, in itself, is cause for a certain kind of separation. Moreover, the young man is idle and wanton, whereas Shakespeare is a hard-working actor, writer, and businessman, and that, too, is a major difference in lifestyle and another level of separation.
However, these sonnets reveal a deep love for the young man, admiration of his exceptional physical beauty, and, perhaps, the payment of dues to a benefactor. Whatever the reasons are, the sonnets provide us with some of the finest expressions of love in the English language.
The Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Then there is the dark lady, referred to as ‘black.’ Here again, the word is often taken literally to mean black, as in African. But it is likely that she is a non-blonde – perhaps an English brunette or a Mediterranean woman. Some scholars have suggested that she never existed but that Shakespeare invented her to express sexual emotionsranging from intense sexual passion to sexual distaste in sonnets 127-152. It seems that we will never know the truth. The sonnets depict a painful and erotic relationship in which the poet remains attached to his mistress through a combination of love, and even stronger lust. But he is often revolted by her. Sonnets 127, 128 and 130 give taunting compliments to the Dark Lady. And in sonnets 129, 146, 147 and 152 he bitterly rejects her.
Whatever the scholarly speculations about the love sonnets are, the fact remains that a reading of them offers the most comprehensive and universal treatment of love in the English language.