Shakespeare's 154 sonnets appeared in 1609 in a quarto edition compiled by Thomas Thorpe. It is not known how long the poems had been in circulation. Some at least were known over a decade before, when sonnet cycles were fashionable. Francis Meres in 1598 talks of Shakespeare's 'sugred Sonnets among his private friends', and William Jaggard's poetic anthology The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599 contains versions of Sonnets 138 and 144. Thorpe's text was full of misprints, suggesting that Shakespeare had no hand in it. Whether the printed sequence reflects the author's intentions is a matter of speculation.
The dedication to the Sonnets, written by the publisher T.T. (Thomas Thorpe), raises one of the most enduring riddles of the whole canon:
What does the dedication, with its curious punctuation, spacing, and ambiguous syntax, mean? Who was W.H.? Many names have been suggested, notably the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (with initials reversed), William Herbert the 3rd Earl of Pembroke (though both of these are unlikely to have been addressed as 'Mr'), and Sir William Harvey, the third husband of the Countess of Southampton. The sonnets usually have a predictable structure: 14 lines of 10-syllables, organized as three abab quatrains with a final rhyming couplet. But there are three exceptions.
Sonnet 99 has 15 lines. An extra line, with an unusual rhythm, precedes the first quatrain, making the rhyme-scheme ababa:
The forward violet thus did I chide:
'Sweet thief, whence didst thou steal thy sweet that smells,
If not from my love's breath? The purple pride
Which on thy soft cheek for complexion dwells
In my love's veins thou hast too grossly dyed.'
The first line is really outside the structure of the poem. It is the only sonnet to begin with a reporting clause introducing some direct speech.
Sonnet 126 has only 12 lines, of six couplets. In the original 1609 Quarto edition, two pairs of empty italic parentheses mark where the final couplet should be.
Her Audite (though delayd) answer'd must be,
And her Quietus is to render thee.
The reason for their presence has occasioned much debate. Some think that they symbolize a silence, as a kind of farewell or 'envoi', as it is the last poem in the sequence devoted to the 'fair youth.
Sonnet 145 is in 8-syllable lines. Sonnet performer Will Sutton thinks it is best performed as a present-day rap.
Some think that the final couplet is a punning reference to his wife, Ann Hathaway (= 'hate away')
‘I hate’ from ‘hate’ away she threw,
And saved my life, saying ‘not you’.
The words were pronounced more alike then than they are now. The th sound in the middle of a proper name could have been pronounced as t, and the vowel of hate would have been more like present-day het. Moreover, the d of and was often not pronounced (it is often written an' in contemporary texts), suggesting a second pun on Ann.
Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to a young man; 127-52 are addressed mainly to a 'dark lady', the writer's mistress.
The final two sonnets are versions of a Greek epigram. The woman has been called 'the dark lady' because of the repeated references to her colouring and character:
1. In the old age black was not counted fair... (127, line 1)
2. Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black (127, line 9)
3. If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head (130, lines 3--4)
4. In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds (131, lines 13)
No woman has been identified, but several have been proposed, notably:
1. Mary Fitton, a lady-in-waiting at Queen Elizabeth’s court
2. Emilia Bassano Lanier, the daughter of a court musician from Venice, and the mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Shakespeare’s company patron
3. Lucy Morgan, abbess of Clerkenwell and a courtesan
4. The wife of John Davenant, vintner at the Crown Tavern, Oxford, whose son William claimed to be Shakespeare’s illegitimate son
5. The wife of John Florio, Italian secretary to the Earl of Southampton
There is also the possibility that the lady could have been a literary creation, a composite.