[……] Shakespeare partly follows the Petrarchan fashion by employing the octave-sestet thematic pattern but more often tends to use his three quatrains to state and develop his theme, while his rhyming couplet either clinches ( fixes, settles) his argument or reverses the whole trend (tendency, direction of thought) of the first twekve lines.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are the poems of a dramatist. He wrote each as he would a speech in one of his plays. The tones of the speaking voice, its rising and falling inflections, are always present. The rhyming- scheme he employs lends itself more easily to this kind of vocal composition than does that of the Petrarchan sonnet, as any sensitive reading aloud or good recording will demostrate. Aside from their closeness to the rhythms of the speaking voice, the sonnets are dramatic in that they are conceived as varied responses to given situations, responses which reveal something of the character of the speaker. Much discussion of Shakespeare’s sonnets tends to centre less on the technical and artistic achievement they represent than on their biographical implications- In a famous poem Wordsworth ( Romantic poet and literary critic) declares that in the sonnets “Shakespeare unlocked (disclosed) his heart". Beginning from such premise, generations of commentators have been tempted to supplement the meagre (poor, scarce) factual information about Shakespeare’s life by reading in the sonnets the record of the poet’s personal relationships, his conflicts, problems and sorrow. It does not need much ingenuity ( cleverness) to discover a ‘story’ in the sonnets if they are read as a sequence. We have the poet’s adoration of the young friend who, along with the poet’s mistress, betrays him; the rivalry between the poet and another writer (presumably George Chapman) for the patronage of affection of the young friend; the poet’s farewell to the latter; his varied addresses to his mistress; his reflections on old age, death, the joys and sorrows of love, on poetic immortality, his disillusionment, his turning to religion
It is important to bear in mind that Shakespeare’s favourite themes are also those of a host of contemporary writers in the sonnet form, and that it is difficult to find a single Shakesperian sonnet dealing with time, decay, death, love, friendship or poetic immortality that cannot be closely paralleled in some contemporary work. This can to a large extent be accounted for by the fact that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were drawing heavily for themes and formulations on the work of Ovid and Horace.
Shakespeare is incontestably the greatest English master of the sonnet form. The best of his sonnets have a richness of texture, a metaphorical density, an inevitabl4e rightness of phrase, a classic perfection, to be found nowhere else.
[abridged from Patrick Murray, Literary Criticism, Longman Group Ltd., 1981 ]