Some of the topics considered in The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets include
- Are the sonnets autobiographical?
- Why did Shakespeare choose to write most of his sonnets to a man?
- How and why do the sonnets written to the “young man” differ from those written to the “dark lady?”
- How does the form of the sonnet shape its meaning?
- Why was the sonnet so popular a kind of poetry during Shakespeare’s day?
- Why were Shakespeare’s sonnets for nearly two hundred years some of his’ least admired work, and then why did they become popular?
The book also provides literary analyses of popular sonnets such as 18 (“Shall I compare thee”), 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”), 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) and 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) and many others.
Throughout, The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets offers a sense of what these beloved poems might have meant to Shakespeare and his contemporaries–meanings that have often become lost to time. For though the sonnets are among Shakespeare’s most famous works, they remain in many way unknown. Beautiful and moving in themselves, the sonnets also provide a window onto a time and place in which familiar things and ideas–including poetry, love, marriage, ambition, homosexuality and heterosexuality–had strikingly different meanings than they do today.
With the sonnets as a focal point, The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets engages a wide variety of subjects, including the relationship of the sonnets to Shakespeare’s plays, the literature and culture of the Renaissance court, Renaissance views of sexuality and gender, and the place of literature in the world. The book seeks to recapture for contemporary readers the meaning of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the Renaissance and over the past 400 hundred years.
Each section of The World of Shakespeare’s Sonnets shuttles between the poems and their lost history, which it explores through engaging stories and writings from Shakespeare’s day to the present. For example, the book shows what the popularity of the sonnet at the Renaissance court had to do with the new fashion of the handkerchief there, while its discussion of the sonnets’ homoeroticism ranges from the love letters passed between King James and the Duke of Buckingham to what contemporary college students count (or don’t count) as sex. Along the way readers will also discover:
- The relationship between the sonnets and the tipsy excess of Renaissance rhetorical style (the book gives as an example one writer’s 130 plus variations on the phrase “I was happy to receive your letter,” including gems such as “All else is utterly repellent compared with your letter” and “your pen sated me with delight”)
- Stories of how Renaissance courtiers such as Sir Walter Ralegh used love poetry to create their glamorous personas and lament their personal disappointments
- The connection of the sonnets to the revisionary history of sexuality that informed Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 supreme court case that declared US anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional
- Seventeenth-century women’s surprisingly modern responses to Renaissance anti-female stereotypes
- And why one eighteenth-century critic, reflecting the general opinion of the time, praised the sonnets’ exclusion from a collection of Shakespeare’s works (“For where is the utility of propagating compositions which no one can endure to read?”)