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Order and Classification


There are 154 sonnets included in the Collected Works of William Shakespeare, and there have been many efforts in the past to organize and classify them. This section will describe several of these efforts. My primary reason for this is that this high level classification of the sonnets will be useful when determining which sonnets may be treated as "groups" for purposes of extracting a single lyric from a group of sonnets. It will also aid in understanding the meaning and purpose of the entire body of work.

The major division in the sonnets appears to follow sonnet 126 (which actually has a 12-line poetic form different from all the other sonnets). The section I sonnets (1-126) are addressed to "the Young Friend," a male friend of the Poet; the section II sonnets (127-154) are addressed to "the Dark Lady," the Poet's (and, in this case, Shakespeare's) mistress.

[Lowers65] tells us that Gottlob Regis, in 1836, was the first person to propose a set of logical groups for the sonnets; "he was followed two years later by C.A. Brown (Shakespeare's Autobiographical Poems, London, 1838)." Brown's theory has been the most popular; for Brown, writes Lowers, "the sonnets are really six 'poems' - five addressed to Shakespeare's friend, each ending with an envoy; the sixth addressed to the poet's mistress." Brown's categorization of the sonnets is as follows:

1. To his friend, persuading him to marry (1-26)
2. To his friend, who has robbed the poet of his mistress (27-55)
3. To his friend, complaining of his coldness, and warning him of life's decay (56-77)
4. To his friend, complaining that he (the friend) prefers another poet's praises, and reproving him for faults that my injure his character (78-101)
5. To his friend, excusing himself for having been sometimes silent, and disclaiming the charge of inconstancy (102-106)
6. To his mistress, chiefly on her infidelity (127-154)
The concept of an envoy is discussed in [Turco86], where the author says that it was "originally the concluding half-stanza of verse forms such as the ballad or the chant royale. One of its traditional functions was to provide the denouement for what had been said in the body of the poem, or to apostrophize it and send it on its way to its intended audience." It may also serve as a "dedication." [Lowers65], turning to a different Shakespeare scholar (Gollancz), identifies the following sonnets as "envoys" - 26, 32, 42, 55, 75, 96, 99, 126.

Main Themes

[Lowers65] also lists a number of "dominant themes" which appear in the sonnets:

Immortality through offspring (1-26)
Immortality through verse (18, 19, 38, 54, 60, 63, 65, 81, 100)
Immortality through love (21, 22, 25, 62, 100, 123)
Compensation (25, 29, 37, 30, 31, 66)
Love in Absence (27, 36, 39, 47, 49, 50, 51, 57, 97, 99, 113)
The Farewell Sonnets (87 - 93)
The Dark Beauty
Love Turned to Lust (129, 135, 136, 141, 142, 143)
Religion (146)

[Wilson66] discusses the issue of twelve sonnets which he refers to as "unauthorized," which are included in the canon. His use of the term "unauthorized" is in reference to the possibility - which we cannot confirm - that at some point Shakespeare had authorized a select set of the sonnets, in a specific order, for publication. These additional sonnets - numbers 33, 34, 35, 40, 41, 42, 48, 57, 58, 61, 92 and 93 - are ones which Thorp, the publisher of the 1609 edition, had collected and inserted into the collection.

[Wilson66] also makes reference to an article published by Prof. Brents Stirling in 1964, in a volume entitled Shakespeare 1564-1964, which proposes a solution to the problem of the order of the sonnets in section II (sonnets 127-154). Stirling's suggestion is that the order of these sonnets was originally disturbed by an error in binding Thorp's original 1609 publication of the sonnets - apparently the sonnets were not numbered in that version, and so the individual sheets got out of order in the printing process. Stirling suggests a new, corrected, order for the section II sonnets, and at the same time proposes three groupings of those sonnets, based on the new order:

My Mistress' Eyes - 140, 139, 153, 154, 130, 127
Poet, Friend and Mistress - 144, 143, 135, 136, 131, 132, 133, 134
Perjury of Eye and Heart - 137, 141, 142, 149-152, 129, 146

...and additionally identifes 128, 138 and 145 as "independent" sonnets that don't fit into these sequences. Wilson suggests that, "with Stirling to guide them, readers should be able study the sonnets in the order in which Shakespeare wrote, and will find the results so illuminating as to more than repay the small trouble involved..." He points out that "...[doing] so gives me, at any rate, a very different impression of the attitude of the Poet to his Mistress from that previously entertained."

Maintained by: Charles Wolff
Last Updated: 6/5/98