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Shakespeare’s sonnets

William Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets probably in the 1590s, when theatres were closed as an outbreak of the plague prevented playwriters from staging their works. They were published in 1609 in a volume with a cryptic dedication to a mysterious “Master W.H.” – to whom the poet wished happiness and promised eternity through his sonnets. The collection as a whole does not follow the then fashionable conventions of sonnet sequences, that is, it is not intended to recounter a love story. In fact, the poems are addressed to different people. The first is a “fair youth”, the section, man who is considerably younger than the poet. Inside the section, sonnets 78-89 mention a Rival Poet (maybe a real person, maybe a poetic construct) who is seen as a competitor either for fame or for the patronage of the rich Young Man. In sonnets 127-152 a “dark lady” is always present, sometimes directly mentioned, sometimes simply hinted at. Even if over the centuries there has been much speculation about her identity, she may simply be a fictional character who never really existed. Even her “darkness” is ambiguous. It may refer to the colour of her skin, thus implying that she was of Asian or African descent, or it may be associated with her sex appeal that so deeply attracted the poet to her, which has led many critics to see her as a the embodiment of physical lust. In fact, the sonnets of this group make direct and explicit reference to sex and jealousy. Also the question whether the sonnets are widely debated. The Romantic poet William Wordsworth said that in this collection Shakespeare “unlocked his heart”. At any rate, whoever the sonnet may be dedicated to however “real” they may be, they stand as still able to communicate the pangs, the excitement and the delight of being in love even to contemporary readers.

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