This page considers principally the sonnets. Click here for my Shakespeare web page that in part considers:

Background: Study Guides for the Plays: The Plays (Partial list):
-Renassance Political theory -How to choose a text -Taming of the Shrew
-Renasisance Psychology -An Appreciation Guide -Romeo and Juliet
-Renaissance Cosmology -Shakespeare & Feminism -The History Plays
-Sidney's Apology -Using a Concordance -Measure for Measure
-Editing a scene in Macbeth
-Ulysses' Order/Degree speech -The Major Tragedies


Since the Renaissance began in Italy before reaching England, Petrarch (1304-1374) may be seen as a transitional poet dramatizing in his sonnets, Medieval and Renaissance themes. Consider Sonnet III:

Sonnet III

It was the morning of that blessed day
Whereon the Sun in pity veiled his glare
For the Lord's agony, that, unaware,
I fell a captive, Lady, to the sway

Of you swift eyes: that seemded no time to stay
The strokes of Love: I stepped into the snare
Secure, with no suspicion: then, and there
I found my cue in man's most tragic play.

Love caught me named to his shaft, his sheaf,
The entrance for his ambush and surprise
Against the heart wide open through the eyes,

The constant gate and fountain of my grief:
How craven so to strike me stricken so,
Yet from you fully armed conceal his bow!

Some considerations:

1-Highlight some biographical moments in Petrarch's life that might identify him as conflicted morally.
2-What Medieval themes are dramatized? What Renaissance ideas?
3-What is the setting?
4-find out who Laura was? Petrarch dedicated some 366 sonnets to her, noting: LAURA, ILLUSTRATED BY HER VIRTUES AND WELL-CELEBRATED IN MY VERSE, APPEARED TO ME FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY YOUTH IN 1327, ON APRIL 6 IN THE CHURCH
Note that she died on the same day in 1348.
5-What makes the setting so important? Where is the poet, and what was he intending to commemorate?

Click here for additional information: Petrarch (by R. Pay)



The most significant development in poetic literature during the Renaissance was the sonnet. Your project is in two parts:


Discover how the sonnet came to England--who introduced it and from where did it originate? Identify the two sonnet types, noting differences in form. (Remember that we have done one of the two types already in class.) Did one type evolve to the other? What poets were involved in the transmission of the sonnet from Europe to England? Don't forget you can go on-line from SJC home page to the WEB sites for Shakespeare, plus consult books in the library.

For each of the types, indicate the following:


Provide an analysis of one sonnet from each type to show:


The Mystery:

Some perennial questions...

1. Who is Mr. W.H.?

2. Who is the "friend" mentioned?

3. Who is the "dark lady"?

4. To whom are the sonnets dedicated?

The most significant development in poetic literature during the Renaissance was the sonnet. Your project is in two parts:


Discover how the sonnet came to England--who introduced it and from where did it originate? Identify the two sonnet types, noting differences in form. (Remember that we have done one of the two types already in class.) Did one type evolve to the other? What poets were involved in the transmission of the sonnet from Europe to England? .

For each of the types, indicate the following:


Provide an analysis of one sonnet from each type to show:



NOTE THAT THE FOLLOWING BIOGRAPHICAL-SONNET SUMMARY MAY BE OF USE, AND THAT THE SEQUENCE HAS BEEN REARRANGED TO TELL A 'STORY' This is a critical hypothesis, and does not necessarily reflect the reality of what may or may not have happened in Shakespeare's life.

Note that the recent biographies of Shakespeare offer evidence that the sonnets and plays indeed reflect significant autobiographical moments. See especially: Stephen Greenblatt: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 2005. Greenblatt also authored Hamlet in Purgatory which argues for a Catholic ghost. For a counter argument, see my Hamlet and The Daemons.

Older bibliographical sources: (Note how their views of the sonnets conflict...)

Bloom, H. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. N.Y.: Riverhead, 1998.

Campbell, O. The Sonnets, Songs and Poems of Shakespeare. N.Y.: Bantam, 1964.

Rowse, A.L. William Shakespeare: N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1963.

Schoenbaum, S. William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. N.Y.: Oxford University, 1977.


1--from Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet (an on line bibliography for the sonnets.) (click here)

2--the full texts of Shakespeare's sonnets (click here)

3--Shakespeare Web sites on the SJC page (click here)

Two perspectives follow: The first, and most recent, is Greenblatt's followed by Campbell's:

1. Greenblatt guardedly supports Southampton in the procreation sonnets: 1-17, (p. 230), but acknowledges the William Herbert perspective, but adds: " one has been able to offer more than guesses..." (p. 232). He believes in sum that perhaps both men may have been on Shakespeare's mind depending on what sonnets one reads.

2. He finds Shakespeare's addressing them to a man unusual since the convention mandated a women as the usual subject: "The palpable air of a young man in love with himself and, above all, the sexual ambiguity make the painting [of Southampton] - which had long been mistaken as the image of a woman- serve as a vivid illustration of the qualities Shakespeare was addressing..." (p. 231-232) {Instructor note: Da Vinci Code?}. This is the portrait that appears in Greenblatt's study:

3. Greenblatt, p. 233 ff, suggests perhaps a latent homosexual attraction. (Instructor note: This view has been strongly contested by other biographers.) Importantly, however, he notes, (p. 235) that in the Renaissance, bonding with a male, whether actual or 'platonic,' was considered more sublime than with a woman whose love was considered more fickle. See Sonnet 20.

4. Interestingly he note, the Sonnets are not addressed to his wife, but to one or both of the male patrons and the mysterious "dark lady." What does he feel subconsciously about his family?

The following (based on Campbell) is simply a hypothesis offering a biographical interpretation of Shakespeare's sonnets; it is not presented as a definitive interpretation and may be subject to dispute. The print and on line resources will offer differing interpretations.

There are two possible answers to the W.H.:

1. Henry Wriothesley (third Earl of Southampton)

2. William Herbert (third Earl of Pembroke)

Investigate these and find out which one is the more likely candidate and why. See the sonnet packet and sequence attached to this packet.

The dark lady has often been identified as Mary Fitton, a maid of honor to the queen.:

1. What are the reasons for this assumption?

2. What is her relationship to one of the men mentioned above?

SONNET SEQUENCE CHRONOLOGY (as suggested by Campbell)

It is conjectured that Shakespeare began to write the sequence in response to Pembroke's parents who wished him to marry a girl (Elizabeth Carey) at age 14. (This age was not uncommon for Elizabethan nobility).

Sonnets 1-17

The first group addressed to the young Lord William Herbert. These are called the procreation sonnets in which the boy is urged to marry so that his beauty may be preserved for future generations.

Sample sonnet 4:--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 18-26

This group enlarges the friendship between Shakespeare and the young man. It must be remembered that although the word "love" is used and there are some sexual references, it was not uncommon in the Renaissance for men to write of friendship in this sense, and it does not necessary imply homosexual connotations, although...

Sample sonnet : 18--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 127-132

Note that the chronological order is interrupted in order to provide the proper development of the story. The poet writes in praise of the dark lady, but comes to admonish his lust after the seduction takes place. He may not be aware at this time of the relationship between the dark lady and William.

See sample sonnet 130--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 27-47

After the poet has returned from a trip, he discovers the relationship between Herbert and the dark lady and is jealous. Sonnet 4O suggests that the young man had another sexual adventure with the dark lady; the poet manages to rationalize this by writing that since he and his friend ere really one soul in two bodies, the dark lady in reality is really loving him.

See sample sonnets 29 and 40:--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 133-142--locate on the Internet

Here the poet is especially upset with the dark lady, accusing her of attempting to seduce his friend William. This he certainly regards as an unnecessary seduction since apparently she is open to all men who want her. There are signs that despite what he feels for her in his heart, he must suffer for allowing his emotions to govern passion, and thus his spiritual recovery has begun, but not without thoughts of a frankly sexual nature:

See sample Sonnet 135:--locate on the internet, and note the puns on the word "WILL".

Sonnets 48-66--locate on the Internet

In despair, the poet writes of mortality and the disloyalty of friends.

See sample sonnets 55 and 58--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 67-108--locate on the Internet

The poet attempts to persuade his friend to abandon his wild ways, and will use his poetry to accomplish the task.

See sample sonnet 73:--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 143-152--locate on the Internet

The poet wishes her to show him kindness, but is still attempting to banish her from his thoughts.

See sonnet 146 and 147:--locate on the Internet

Sonnets 109-126:

The poet explains how the friendship with William can be secured:

See sonnet 126--locate on the Internet


I agree with his read of Sonnet 18. Regardless of what biographers might find in the future, the sonnet's transcendent power matters most. (p.238), and regardless of the identity of the men and women not direclty named, including his family, what matters is that the poetry has survived and presents ideas the poet obviously found significant. My Shakespeare class offered the following:

Self-respect an issue
Good political observer
Rebellious nature-neglected by father
Knew too much to be a high school grad. only
Obsessed with death--his son @ 11
Knew how to get around things: / rebellion / marriage
Male centered--resented women
Saw corruption up close
For Hamlet--the catholic viewpoint
Fits of depression
Hard worker / wanted money
Later--he knew he was good--knew how to please the crowd

I added the following:

Not a university educated professional
Romantic and pragmatic
Hard headed businessman
Made his own rules
Used sonnet conventions but added his own perspectives
Had to learn his craft
Conscious of his social status
Probably patriotic but saw the worst politics could present
Practiced Keats' "negative capability"
Angst regarding his relationships to family, friends, those at court of both genders--see the WILL SONNETS
Sonnet themes--love, sex, the passage of time, marriage reverberate in the plays--recall the Sonnet dialogue in Romeo and Juliet

Additional Resources:




The Theocentric perspective:

The following excerpt from The Book of Homilies (as quoted by Rowse, a biographer of Shakespeare) outlines Renaissance theo-political concepts:

Almighty God hath created and appointed all things in heaven, earth and waters, in a most perfect order. In heaven he hath appointed distinct and several orders and states of archangels and angels. In earth he hath assigned and appointed kings, princes with other governors under them in all good and necessary order. The sun, moon, stars, rainbow, thunder, lightning, clouds, and all the birds of the air do keep this order...Take away kings, rulers, magistrates, judges and such estates of God's order, no man shall ride or go by the highway unrobbed, no man shall sleep in his own house or bed unkilled...and there must follow all mischief and utter destruction both of souls, bodies, goods and commonwealth.

The ideal, however, is not often the reality. The following passages from various plays indicate both the ideal and the deviation from it:

Shakespeare's applications:

fromRomeo and Juliet in which Romeo speaks to Juliet:

Her eyes discourse, I will answer it.
I am too bold, 'Tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heavens,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spears till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in a heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

from The Merchant of Venice:

...Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young eyed-cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close in, we cannot hear it.

[In The Merchant, Portia's three suitors must chose one of three chests--of gold, of silver, or of lead--to win her hand. The suitor choosing the chest with her picture will marry her. Each chest has an inscription:]

The first, of gold, which this inscription bears:
"Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire."
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
"Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt,
"Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."

The first suitor chooses the gold chest and reads the following message:

All that glitters is not gold...
Gilded tombs do worms infold...

The second suitor chooses the silver chest and reads the following message:

Some there be that shadows kiss;
Such have but a shadow's bliss
There be fools alive iwis
Silvered o'er and so was this...

The third suitor whom Portia loves chooses the lead chest and sees her picture: [While he is deciding, the following song is heard...]

Tell me, where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engend'red in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lie
Let us all ring fancy's knell
I'll begin it--Ding, dong, bell
Ding, dong, bell.

Bassanio, the suitor says, "So may the outward shows be least themselves; the world is deceived with ornament." This view is confirmed when he chooses the lead chest:

You that choose not by the view
Chance as fair and choose as true...

from Julius Caesar in which Brutus debates whether to kill Caesar:

Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

from Macbeth:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair...

[A note from the Rowse's biography of Shakespeare:

"Have we not seen precisely that happen in our own day? The facts, and the truths, of political society do not alter, only the methods and the colouring. But is it rare to find a poet who understands: poets are apt to be natural Platonists, whereas Shakespeare may be described intellectually as an Aristotelian."]

THE IDEAL HOWEVER IS NOT ALWAYS THE REALITY: The order can be disrupted, and Shakespeare deals with this disruption in both the comedies, tragedies and histories and in all phases of his career:


Evil in a Shakespeare play often emerges from obscure causes but grows with powerful effect, destroying much of the good in the process. In Hamlet, the title character offers one possibility that can serve as a prototype for the other tragedies:

So oft in chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By their overgrowth of some complexion
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much overleavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery or fortune's star,
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

Macbeth, the title character in his play, offers another possibility. When confronted with agents of the supernatural, the witches [reference the ghost sheet], who foretell Macbeth's future, are challenged by Macbeth's friend, Banquo who says...

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow, and which will not...

This view of evil, unlike Hamlet's, suggests evil having an external dimension, one based on the following Medieval and Renaissance theories of creation:

God's mind has in it from all eternity everything that will be created in time. These may be called ideas of forms of X (trees, stars, people etc.).

God creates matter called prime or first matter which is created by in a disorganized fashion. Existing as part of this matter are the "germs" or SEEDS of that which is to be created. These seeds correspond to the forms in God's mind, and creation is the act of uniting form and matter.


God creates continuously from within. He already has created within prime matter the germ of all possible beings.

What is created happens (to us) over time and depends on:

1. nature (God's will)

2. what God allows demons and their agents (witches) to do/not do...

Analogy: a pregnant mother : unborn child :: world pregnant : unborn ideas

Often, evil paradoxically comes form the good, and good from evil, so Banquo asks if the devil can speak true! The doctrine, taken from a historical event involving equivocation, suggests that demons and the witches as their agents will appear to tell the truth, but for the purpose of entrapment or damning a soul.


In the Renaissance revenge was forbidden as belonging to God, but with an important qualification. Private revenge was always wrong--if the individual were to retaliate for a wrong, but public revenge was considered allowable in which the agent acted as God's minister or representative to right a wrong for the public good.


This passage from Timon of Athens dramatizes the relationship between FATE and FORTUNE. Note how it reflects both Medieval and Renaissance views:

Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill
Feigned fortune to be throned. The base of the mount
Is ranked with all deserts, all kind of natures
That labour on the bosom of this sphere
To propagate their states. Amongst them all
Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fixed,
One I do personate...
Whom fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her...
When fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents
Which laboured after him to the mountain's top
When on their knees and hands, let him slip down
Not one accompanying his declining foot.