If you read all 154 of Will Shakespeare's Sonnets in chronological order from start to finish, the sequence unfolds like one big juicy story (okay, soap opera). We're talking love triangles, torrid affairs, friendship drama, betrayal, jealousy, professional rivalry, and so on.
But don't go thinking you have to read them all in order. Each one of the sonnets can definitely be read by itself and there's plenty of drama packed into each one of them. Take Sonnet 29, for example. It's all about a dude (our speaker) who feels like a complete loser and social outcast (even God doesn't want anything to do with him) until he suddenly remembers the "sweet love" of some unnamed mystery person. Just thinking about said "sweet love" is enough to make our speaker feel like he's having some kind of religious experience.
So, just what kind of "sweet love" are we working with here? Love between friends? Romantic love? Familial love? It's up for debate. Readers and literary critics have been fighting about it for the past, oh, 400 years or so.
That's because Sonnet 29 is part of a sequence (#s 1-126) that's all about the speaker's intense relationship with a young man, who just so happens to be smokin' hot. (It's so hot that the speaker spends the first 54 sonnets trying to convince his pal to go get married and have some babies who will grow up to be just as good looking as their dad.) Literary critics usually refer to the young man as "the Fair Youth," and they generally assume that Sonnets 1-126 are all addressed to him.
Now, this is important so listen up: there is no specific evidence in Sonnet 29 that tells us whether or not the speaker is addressing a man or a woman. Got that? Good.
Even so, there's been a lot of controversy about whether or not this particular poem (along with a lot of others) is about sexual or romantic love between two men. There's also been a ton of speculation about whether or not this sonnet (along with all the rest) should be read autobiographically. Our take here at Shmoop? We're siding with Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, who points out that the speaker of the sonnets is like a fictional character in a play. In other words, we don't bother trying to read Sonnet 29 as if it's Shakespeare's confession in a secret diary. But if you're really craving a conspiracy theory, go check out this NPR podcast.
Shakespeare originally shared his sonnets with a small, private group of friends, fellow writers, and potential patrons (investors) in the 1590s, and it's not clear that he ever meant for them to be made public. How do we know this? Because in 1598, a smart alecky guy named Francis Meres referred to the poems as "Shakespeare's Sugared Sonnets among his private friends." Yeah. That's not a compliment. It's like giving the collection a title or a nickname like Shakespeare's Sappy Sonnets.
Even though the poems circulated in the 1590s, they weren't made public until 1609, when a shady dude named Thomas Thorpe got his grubby hands on them and published them in a collection called SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. By the way, SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS were probably published without Shakespeare's permission. (Poets had zero copyright back in the day. Bummer for Shakes and Co.)
Why Should I Care?
Why should you care about some dusty old sonnet that was written over 400 years ago by a guy who cranked out (at least) 153 other sonnets that basically have the same form and structure?
Seriously. What makes Sonnet 29 so special?
Think of your iPod playlist. We're sure you've got dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of songs that you absolutely love. We're also guessing there's one very special go-to song that you listen to over and over again when you're: completely bummed out / feel like you've got no friends / are beating yourself up because you bombed your last test / think you are totally unloved and alone. You know the song we're talking about because everybody's got one, even our girl Bridget Jones.
Well, Sonnet 29 is the sixteenth-century version of that song, Shmoopsters. That's because Uncle Shakespeare totally gets what it's like to be down in the dumps and to feel like the biggest loser on the planet. But he also gets how just one great friendship can turn everything around and make you feel like the luckiest person in the world.
Think about it. When we read the first 8 lines on Sonnet 29, we can totally imagine any lonely and depressed teenager moping around in bed with the curtains drawn closed, watching terrible 1980s TV reruns and ignoring the three-day-old pizza boxes scattered around. There's probably a big "DO NOT DISTURB ME—I'M BUSY MOPING" sign on the door, too.
We could go on, but we think you get the idea. Because hey, we've all been there, right? But Shakespeare doesn't just leave us hanging with a bunch of emo lines that sound like something Hamlet would say. When we get to line 9 of the sonnet, things change dramatically and our Speaker's emotional roller coaster takes a turn for the better. Why? Because he remembers that he's got a friend who loves him. Suddenly, we can imagine our boy on his feet, dancing around on top of that big, stinky heap of laundry that's been piling up on the bedroom floor. He's singing like a "lark" about how happy he's feeling and how great it is to be alive. And we can't help but feel like it's pretty great to be alive, too. That's because we've all been down in the dumps before and we know that our relationships with our BFFs are one of the things that make life worth living. So, yeah. That's just one reason why we can all still relate to Sonnet 29 almost 400 years later.