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Shakespeare's Poems

Learn about Shakespeare's famous sonnets and other poems

Shakespeare is widely recognised as the greatest English poet the world has ever known. Not only were his plays mainly written in verse, but he also penned 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a few other minor poems. Today he has become a symbol of poetry and writing internationally.

For the bard of all bards was a Warwickshire Bard

— David Garrick, 1769

Shakespeare's Sonnets

154 of Shakespeare's sonnets are included in the volume Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609. They are followed by the long poem 'A Lover's Complaint', which first appeared in that same volume after the sonnets. Six additional sonnets appear in his plays Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Love's Labour's Lost.

Shakespeare's sonnets generally focus on the themes of love and life. The first 126 are directed to a young man whom the speaker urges to marry, but this man then becomes the object of the speaker's desire. The last 28 sonnets are addressed to an older woman, the so-called 'dark lady', who causes both desire and loathing in the speaker. However, several of the sonnets, if taken individually, may appear gender-neutral, as in the well-known 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' from Sonnet 18. The linear, sequential reading of the poems is also debatable, since it is unclear if Shakespeare intended for the sonnets to be published in this way.

While he may have experimented with the form earlier, Shakespeare most likely began writing sonnets seriously around 1592. What is now known as the Shakespearian sonnet is the English sonnet form Shakespeare popularised: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter (a ten-syllable pattern of alternating unaccented and accented syllables). The rhyme scheme breaks the poem into three quatrains (four lines each) and a couplet (two lines). 

Shakespeare changed the world of poetry not only with his prolific use of this new form, but also in deviating from what was standard content. Instead of romantic fiction, written to an unattainable ideal woman, Shakespeare writes to a young man and a dark woman, who may or may not be attainable, and who arouse conflicting feelings in the speaker.

Shakespeare's Narrative Poems 

Shakespeare published two long poems, among his earliest successes: Venus and Adonis in 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. These poems were dedicated to his patron the Earl of Southampton.

Venus and Adonis was Shakespeare's first-published work. Modelled after the Roman poet Ovid, it is a re-telling of the classical myth: Venus, the goddess of love, falls for a young mortal who dies after being attacked by a wild boar. Shakespeare interprets the myth comically as well as tragically, for Adonis continually resists Venus's desire. The poem is considered an experiment in delicate eroticism.

The Rape of Lucrece is also a long poem based on Ovid, but rather more serious, and based on history rather than myth. The story is the rape of Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, by Tarquinius Sextus, son of the Roman king Tarquinius Superbus. Devastated and filled with shame, Lucretia stabs herself to death. The poem comments on the problems of masculine violence and institutionalised attitudes towards feminine chastity.

Another of Shakespeare's poems 'The Phoenix and Turtle' was commissioned to be included in a collection by Robert Chester called Love's Martyr (1601). The Oxford edition of the complete works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) also includes as Shakespeare's various poems, some songs, and epitaphs.

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