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To begin with Shakespeare's history, not much is known of his past due to very few documents existing. For instance, it is unkown as to what date Shakespeare was born, but the earliest record of his existence is when he was baptized on April 26, 1564. He was born into a moderately wealthy family where his father, John Shakespeare, was a glove-maker and his mother, Mary Arden, was the daughter of a wealthy local landowner. Not only was his father a glove-maker though, his father would eventually join the highly esteemed town council which would eventually lead to his reveered position as high bailiff in 1568.(Leslie Dunton-Downer, Alan Riding 9,10)
William was the oldest of six, consisting of three younger brothers and two younger sisters. No documents exist that link Shakespeare to any school, though it is firmly believed that he attended primary and secondary school and that he most likely did not go to college. The very next document that exists on Shakespeare is the one where the Bishop of Winchester granted Shakespeare permission to marry Anne Hathaway. There is a rumor that exists involving his marriage of Anne Hathaway, and it is believed that Shakespeare and her had a very rushed marriage. Anne Hathaway is supposedly to have gotten pregnant before they were married, so they were quickly pushed into marriage to avoid bringing embarresment or shame to their family. This rumor leads to the assumption that Shakespeare and Anne never really got along during their life. The only other knowledge that exists of Shakespeare in his early life are the documents of his children being baptized in the Holy Trinity Church. (Leslie Dunton-Downer, Alan Riding 10)
After Shakespeare's early years, theres a span of time that ranges from 1585 to 1592 where virtually no information exists of what Shakespeare may have done. This period of time is called "The Lost Years", and while there are many rumors involving what Shakespeare did, there are no proven facts. The very next piece of inormation that involves Shakespeare is from 1592 where he is referenced as already making his mark as a playwright. Specifically, Robert Greene wrote to and warned three fellow playwrights of his that there was a steadily rising newcomer and that his name was Shakespeare.(Leslie Dunton-Downer, Alan Riding 10,11)
Not only does it appear that Shakespeare was getting noticed, it also appears that he was becoming highly experienced. His early plays were being presented at the Rose, London's most popular theater of the 1590's. Eventually though, the plague swept across London, forcing many theaters to start touring across the provinces. Shakespeare did not travel with them, instead he opted to try his hand at a little bit of poetry. He then went on to write Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, both of which he dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton.(Leslie Dunton-Downer, Alan Riding 11,12)
Immediately after, Shakespeare went on to write his now famous 154 sonnets. There are many rumors involving these 154 Sonnets. For instance, it is believed that not all 154 of them are really Shakespeare's. Another rumor involves whether or not his sonnets were printed with his guidance. Another big rumor is whether or not Shakespeare is gay. Many people contest over if he was or if he wasn't, and there's rumors that involve John Benson, the man who published Shakespeare's Sonnets, changing a few pronouns to try and avoid readers from thinking Shakespeare was homosexual. Most people tend to discredit Shakespeare's supposed homesexuality by pointing out that most men often referred to each other in loving terms during this time period. As Edward Hubler puts it "Shakespeare uses the phrase "my lovers gone" to indicate his dead friends, and the young man is told that if the sonnets endure he will live "in lovers' eyes". If we take "lover" to indicate homesexuality, we shall have to extend the homesexuality back into the past on the part of Shakespeare and project it into the future on the part of the young man. This creates a morass of homesexuality incredible in its proportions. The charge of homesexuality can neither be proved nor disproved on the available evidence, but the balacnce of probabilities discredits it"(15)
One more rumor, which is probably the biggest of them all, is if the sonnets were ever written for actual people, and who these actual people are. Speculation over who these sonnets could have possibly been written for has run rampant, and many generally believe that there are two people who he wrote them for. Sonnets 1-126 are written for a "Fair Youth", while sonnets 127-152 are written for a "Dark Lady". The last two sonnets are just written to the love god, Cupid. First, I will be discussing who this "Fair Youth" could possibly be.
All the most popular guesses as to who this youth could be are derived from the collection of Shakespeare's poems titled Shake-speares Sonnets, where it was dedicated to a Mr. W. H. One guess as to who Mr. W. H. stands for is William Harte, Shakespeare's nephew. This is generally considered to be wrong mainly due to the age at which Harte was at the time of the sonnets presumed writing. There is no confirmed date of when the sonnets were written, but many believe they were most likely written in the 1590's, and if they were, then William Harte could not have possibly been old enough for these sonnets to have been written for him.(Edward Hubler et al. 11)
Another guess is W. Hughes, which is based off of a line in Sonnet 20 that reads "A man in hue, all 'hues' in his controlling." This is not a very popular guess due to no visible connection between any W. Hughes and Shakespeare. There does exist a fictional story titled The Portrait of Mr. W. H. written by Oscar Wilde, where it is revealed that Willie Hughes is the youth. The story was only written for entertainment purposes, it contains no arguments or facts. (Edward Hubler et al. 11-12)
A very popular guess is Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southhampton. Unlike William Harte, Henry was a reasonable age of 20 when Shakespeare would have written the sonnets for him. Henry was also the patron of many poets at the time, and Shakespeare is rumored to have been one of them. The biggest reason as to why Henry Wriothesley is a large contender for the "Fair Youth" is because of Shakespeare's dedication of his Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece poems to him. There's only one problem with Henry Wriothesley, and that's that his initials are H. W., not W. H., but that could easily be just a typo in the dedication towards him.(Edward Hubler et al. 12)
Another widely popular guess is William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke. Like Henry, he is "rich, sensual, and a patron of literature". He also has visible ties to Shakespeare, for Shakespeare's first collection of plays was dedicated to him. The biggest drawback for this guess is that Henry would have been around 13 when the sonnets are believed to have been written, which doesn't fit. People that believe that William Herbert is the "Fair Youth" also tend to believe in a later date at which the sonnets were written. (Edward Hubler et al. 13)
Now as to who the "Dark Lady" is, there are also many speculations, perhaps even more due to the ambiguous description of her. To start off, there's Queen Elizabeth. This theory also tends to suggest that if she really is the "Dark Lady", then all 154 sonnets were most likely written for her. There's also another theory that suggests that some were wriitten for Elizabeth, some were written for Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, and some were written for his daughter, Susanna.(Edward Hubler et al. 16-17)
A popular guess is Elizabeth Vernon. This suggestion depends entirely on whether or not it is belived that Henry Wriothesley was the "Fair Youth". This is mainly because Henry had an intrigue with Elizabeth, which fits what happens in the sonnets. Henry and Elizabeth also eventually marry in May of 1598.(Edward Hubler et al. 17)
Another popular contender is Mary Fitton. Lke Elizabeth Vernon, Mary as the "Dark Lady" depends entirely on whether or not William Herbert was the "Fair Youth". Mary was one of the Queen's maids of honor, and she eventually winds up getting pregnant with Herbert, which could also possibly fit the story of the sonnets. She is also the main character in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by Bernard Shaw, which is another piece of fiction about the identity of the "Dark Lady".(Edward Hubler et al. 18)
One more possible guess is Anne Hathaway. In particular, Sonnet 145 is believed to have been either written for her, or one of the fake sonnets that people believe never were written by Shakespeare. In line 13 of that sonnet "Hate away" could be seen as a pun on Hathaway, so it would read "I hate from Hathaway she threw". Most people tend to believe that this is just an early love peom written from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, and somehow found it's way into the Sonnets.(David West 442)
There's also the rival poet of the sonnets. The list of people who could potentially be the rival poet is almost virtually every single popular poet at the time, and even a few lesser known ones. A few specific examples of who it could be is Samuel Daniel, which comes from Sonnet 85 where it describes the rival poet as one who writes with a "gold quill" and "In polish'd form." Another example is George Chapman, which comes from Sonnet 86 which describes his writing as "the proud full sail of his great verse". As you can see, the descriptions of the rival poet are so broad that it could be virtually anyone.(Edward Hubler et al. 18-19)
Now onto the structure of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Shakespeare did not invent the structure of his sonnets, but he did popularize it to the extent that it is now called the Shakespearian Sonnet. The content of Shakespeare's Sonnets are primarily three quatrains and a couplet. It is also composed in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is also usually abab cdcd efef gg. The exceptions to these rules being sonnet 99, which consists of 15 lines; sonnet 126, which consists of six couplets, two blank lines, and rhymes in couplets; and sonnet 145, which was written in iambic tetrameters.(David West 306, 384, 441)
So what makes these Sonnets so popular? Some believe it's how different they are from such traditional Petrarchen love sonnets. Such as in Sonnet 130, he parodies beauty. Shakespeare goes against the tradition of calling loved ones as the most beautiful people in the world, and instead opts towards criticizing everything about his loved one. He tells her that her perfume doesn't compete with the smell of roses, that her eyes resemble nothing like the sun, and that her voice is nowhere near as pleasant as music. Yet in the end, he claims that his love for her is as great as any woman praised by false comparisons. In Sonnet 129, he even talks openly about sex, making fun on those that lust after it, and in Sonnet 151, he goes so far as to wittily imply the act of having sexual intercourse into his poem.