On the Changing Focuses and Motifs of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth Sonnets

The length of Mr. William Shakespeare’s 52-year life was much like his plays: it saw many characters come and go, with many shifts in setting and mood. Just as these leave an impression upon the many readers of his works, so too did the actual happenings leave an impression upon the author. The ever-changing life of the Tudor penman was a large influence upon many of his works, with several of the characters in his plays being based upon real men and women. One should not think, however, that the men and women whom Shakespeare knew in his lifetime influenced only his theater works. In fact, the vast majority of his 154 sonnets were written with specific people in mind. Reading the Sonnets, one clearly notes typical Petrarchan themes of adoration, praise, and admiration of the beauty of the subject. Contrary to many of Petrarch’s themes, however, the first 126 of the 154 Sonnets are addressed to a young man. This “Fair Youth” as he has been named, is thought to be the man for whom the Sonnets were written, as is found in the tortuously vague dedication in the first print of the Sonnets, citing a Mr. W. H. The identity of this Mr. W. H. has been the subject of many a debate since first the prose was published. Though the exact identity of this person remains uncertain, his profound influence upon Mr. William Shakespeare was certainly profound and dynamic. Over the course of these 126 works, Shakespeare gives us insight as to the tumultuous and fickle nature of his relationship with the Fair Youth, through a handful of motifs.

The first of these themes, found in the first 18 Sonnets, concerns the author and his wanting for the Fair Youth to procreate. The author, so captivated and moved by the beauty of the Fair Youth, implores the man to preserve his beauty in posterity, so that it might not decay with time. Throughout this series, time takes a central role as an almost personified enemy of the beauty of youth; Sonnet 12 offers a portrayal of time similar to that of cloaked death, an image which became popularized during the bubonic plague outbreaks of the late medieval era. It states plainly that the only protection against time is posterity – “And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence save breed to brave him, when he takes thee hence.” The second theme to appear in the Fair Youth Sonnets is the comparison or association of the aspects of the fair youth to those of the seasons. Beauty, vigor, and vitality are often associated with spring and summer in this series, and the ever-famous Sonnet 18 (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’) is the best example of this. We see also in these sonnets an association of aging with autumn and winter, being bleak, cold, and lifeless. Rather interestingly, Sonnets 78-86 concern the introduction of a competitor for the Fair Youth’s affection, his skill with prose, and Shakespeare’s jealousy thereof. Much like the Fair Youth, the identity of this competitor or “Rival Poet” is still in question to this day. What can be said is that these poems temporarily shift focus from the fair youth to the competitor, and describe Shakespeare’s want for fame, patronage, and love. The rest of the Fair Youth Sonnets are typically descriptions of the speaker’s emotions throughout the highs and lows of the love of the Fair Youth, often describing longings and physical distress which frequently occurred throughout the affair.

-J.H.L.P. Vandewinckel

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