Study Guide

Sonnet 60 What's Up With the Title?

By William Shakespeare

What's Up With the Title?

Technically speaking, Shakespeare's "Sonnet 60" doesn't have a title; we just know it by its numbered position in a series. As for the title of the book it comes from, it's somewhat unusual as well. The title page of the original edition says nothing more than SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. In other words, it tells you the poetic form that Shakespeare was working with. It's clearly banking on the name-recognition of its author, but doesn't give anything away about the themes or content of the work. But wait a second… is it possible that the form itself can tell you something about the work's themes and content?

Let's take an example from modern times. Let's say you were told about a form of music featuring harmonicas, fiddles, slide guitars, and performers wearing Stetson hats, cowboy boots, and rhinestones. You'd probably be willing to bet that the themes and content of the songs would have something to do with loneliness, wives leaving their husbands, ex-husbands finding solace in the bottom of a bottle, and life on the range, right?

As it happens, a few years before Shakespeare's sonnets were published, some very famous English poets had also published books of sonnets. The most famous of these books of sonnets, Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney and the Amoretti by Sir Edmund Spenser both centered on the theme of love.

So Shakespeare's readers, following the same logic as Shmoop did in our listening to country music, would probably have seen the title of Shakespeare's book and been able to guess (correctly) that it would be dealing with love. Of course, in this particular sonnet, the idea of love is pretty far in the background, but it is still there.

What's in a Number?

So much for the "Sonnet" part of the title. What about the "60"? Okay, we know, you've got to be thinking, what can we possibly learn from the fact that this particular sonnet is numbered 60? Well, maybe we can't learn a ton from this number, but we can still learn something—and something is always better than nothing, right?

First of all, it's important to know that Shakespeare's sonnets are divided into two main sections: Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to a young man, while Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a woman, known to scholars as the "Dark Lady." Clearly, the number 60 places the sonnet we're talking about in the first series, meaning it's addressed to the young man. That said, if you actually look at the poem, there doesn't seem to be that much specific information about the gender of the person the speaker is talking to (much less anything else about the addressee). So maybe the number isn't as helpful in this area as it would be with other poems.

But are there other areas in which it could be helpful? What about the number itself? We know the Sonnets go all the way up to 154, but even 60 is a heck of a lot of sonnets for one guy to write, if you ask us. If you think about it, the sheer number of sonnets Shakespeare wrote makes him kind of like those modern painters who returned over and over and over again to the same themes—like Monet, whose paintings of water lilies number in the hundreds (at least), or Mark Rothko, who painted hundreds and hundreds of rectangular fields of color floating in space. Like those artists, Shakespeare seems to have disciplined himself by returning obsessively, again and again, to the same artistic form, trying to find out all its secrets. Sonnet 60's complete mastery over the sonnet form shows that all this hard work definitely paid off.