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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. Where Was It Headed? Who Was It For?

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UPR chapter.

I was doom scrolling through Instagram Reels one day when I came across a video of Dame Judy Dench reciting a sonnet on the Graham Norton Show. The host of the program asked her to do so because it was almost like “having a Shakespeare jukebox in the house.” When she started speaking you could hear a pin drop. The words she was reciting, even though they belonged to the past, felt so relevant and fresh coming from her. She made Shakespeare sound as if he was still writing today.

Sonnet 29 By: William Shakespeare

“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

    For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

    That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

After listening to her rendition of Sonnet 29, I started to investigate the context of it as I was incredibly curious. Before I could begin, I had to understand what a sonnet was, and it turns out that they are fourteen-line poems with specific rhyme schemes. There are two main types of sonnet: the Italian sonnet and the English sonnet (which is also called Shakespearean). Once I understood what this type of poem was, I wanted to understand where it came from, and what drew William Shakespeare to write this beautiful piece of art. When I would read his work in high school, the themes I would pick up were those of death, despair, and only at times love. I needed to know what inspired that love in him. 

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Modern portrait of William Shakespeare

I quickly came to find out that he wrote a collection of 154 sonnets, most of which were about love. This collection was published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe and dedicated to a Mr. W.H.: “To The Onlie Begetter Of These Insuing Sonnets. Mr. W.H.”

Efforts have been made to find out the identity of this W.H., but none are completely solid yet. With that said, the sonnets are dedicated to someone, which made me think that maybe Shakespeare really WAS in love when he wrote them. Probably not with W.H. though, because that was the dedication from the publisher, a misconception a lot of people share. However, I wanted to find out more. 

As I kept reading about these sonnets I was extremely surprised, because according to the Folger Shakespeare Library, Shakespeare was apparently writing to a young man in the first 109 sonnets: “These poems of advice modulate into a set of sonnets which urge the poet’s love for the young man and which claim that the young man’s beauty will be preserved in the very poems that we are now reading. This second set of sonnets (Sonnets 18–126), which in the supposed narrative celebrate the poet’s love for the young man, includes clusters of poems that seem to tell of such specific events as the young man’s mistreatment of the poet, the young man’s theft of the poet’s mistress, the appearance of ‘rival poets’ who celebrate the young man and gain his favor…” Therefore, Sonnet 29 falls into that category of poems dedicated to this young man and, quite frankly, it’s not surprising:

“Haply I think on thee, and then my state 

(Like to the lark at break of day arising

from sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remembered

such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with Kings.” 

I’m assuming that in the 1600’s, those words didn’t just appear out of the blue, so there had to be some feeling behind them. This poem focuses on the actual power that love holds. Shakespeare was writing this from a place in which he had nothing else to live for (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”) and the only thing holding him together was the beauty of whomever he was writing to; and what a gift, to be able to write so beautifully about the most powerful feeling a human could experience. I’d imagine that type of vulnerability was not easy to come by in the men of the 1600’s, so, to me, it’s admirable. 

Source: Pinterest

In closing, I’m so grateful I found some information about Sonnet 29 and who it was, supposedly, intended for. In the title, I wrote the question “Where Was It Headed?” and I now know it reached every corner of the world, with millions of people, centuries later, reading it and relating it to their type of love. I never thought I would actually like one of Shakespeare’s sonnets this much, but I have to say I fell in love with this one in the process of writing this article. I also never imagined I’d find out as much about William Shakespeare as I did, but it turns out that he was actually more interesting than I thought he was. I would love to keep researching him and his work. He was a genius, and people like him are who I want to learn from. 

Hello! I'm Carmen, currently studying Advertising and Gender Studies in the University of Puerto Rico- Rio Piedras campus. I love advertising but what i love most is getting to write about thing I'm actually passionate about like music, cinema, self-acceptance and the beautiful place I call home.