How Many Sonnets Did Shakespeare Write?

The Fair Youth Sonnets are among The Bard's most famous

How Many Shakespeare Sonnets?
How Many Shakespeare Sonnets?. Photo © Lee Jamieson

In addition to his plays, William Shakespeare is known for writing an exhaustive volume of sonnets, but do you how many The Bard penned during his lifetime? This overview of Shakespeare's sonnets will not only provide you with an estimate but also highlights the major themes and collections of his poems.

An Exhaustive Output

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets from approximately 1592 to 1598.  They were collected together and published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe.

 Along with the sonnets, The Bard's long poem, "The Passionate Pilgrim," also appears in the collection. The identity of the person Shakespeare dedicated the poetry collection to remains uncertain, as just the initials W.H. appear in the dedication section. It is widely believed, however, that these initials refer to William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. That's because Shakespeare's first folio is dedicated to the earl as well. The dedication states:

                      TO.THE.ONLIE.BEGETTER.OF.
                        THESE.INSUING.SONNETS.
                      Mr.W.H.   ALL.HAPPINESSE.
                           AND.THAT.ETERNITIE.
                                  PROMISED.
                                       BY.
                        OUR.EVER-LIVING.POET.
                                WISHETH.
                          THE.WELL-WISHING.
                            ADVENTURER.IN.
                                 SETTING.
                                  FORTH.

                                                 T.T.

Three Primary Groups of Sonnets

Shakespeare's sonnets can be broken down into three groups. They are as follows:

  1. The Fair Youth Sonnets (Sonnets 1 – 126)
    Composed in iambic pentameter, this group of sonnets address a young man with whom the poet has a deep friendship. The narrator of the poem is taken with the young man's beauty. He encourages the fair youth to have children, so as not to deprive the world of his genetic blessings for generations to come. But the fair youth appears disinterested in this prospect, which might indicate that he's reluctant to have sexual relations with a woman. And by fervently urging the young man to reproduce, the narrator may be attempting to disregard his own same-sex attraction to the youth.
     
  1. The Dark Lady Sonnets (Sonnets 127 – 152)
    In the second sequence, the poet becomes infatuated with a mysterious woman. Her relationship with the young man is unclear, but the sexual passion the narrator feels for her is unconcealed. He is much more forward about his desire for her than he is about any latent desires for the fair youth. The Dark Lady is described as having dark hair and tan skin, hence, her name.
     
  2. The Greek Sonnets (Sonnets 153 and 154)
    The final two sonnets are very different and draw upon the Roman myth of Cupid, to whom the poet has already compared his muses.

Were the Sonnets Autobiographical?

Shakespeare's sonnets have led to all sorts of speculation about his life, including his sexual orientation. But because historians know very little about his life, other than that he grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, married Anne Hathaway and had three children with her, it's unwise to assume the narrator of his poems reflects Shakespeare's personal views or life experiences. Might there be some overlap? Of course. Since no one knows where the fiction of his sonnets ends, and the reality begins, however, it would be wise not to read the poems as if they are autobiographical works.

Read them in the same vein as you would read Shakespeare's plays, such as "Othello" or "Julius Caesar."