The Principal Characters of Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Principal Characters of Shakespeare's Sonnets

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One of the many intriguing aspects of Shakespeare's Sonnets is the identity of the principal characters within them, of which there are three:

- The Young Man

- The Dark Lady

- The Rival Poet

Nowhere in the Sonnets are these people explicitly identified and their anonymity has spawned much debate as to who these people could have been. The content of the Sonnets that refer to these people however, undoubtedly show that these were indeed real, living people and not imaginary inventions by the author for the sake of literary exercise.

Many poets of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age wrote verse to others and did not refrain from identifying who they were addressing. Some poems were clearly dedicated to the addressees, such as Spenser's Prothalamion which is dedicated "in honovr of the dovble marriage of the two Honorable & vertuous Ladies, the Ladie Elizabeth and the Ladie Katherine Somerset, Daughters to the Right Honourable the Earle of Worcester and espoused to the two worthie Gentlemen M. Henry Gilford, and M. William Peter Esquyers". And Spenser makes clear that the poem is about the Somerset ladies within the poem itself by punning on their names in the 4th. stanza:

"But rather Angels or of Angels breede:
Yet were they bred of Somers-heat they say".

Where poems were not explicitly dedicated to the addressee their identity could still be found in the poem's verse, such as in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella:

"Doth euen grow rich, meaning my Stellaes name" and

"Rich in all beauties which mans eye can see;
Beauties so farre from reach of words that we
Abase her praise saying she doth excell;
Rich in the treasure of deseru'd renowne,
Rich in the riches of a royall heart,
Rich in those gifts which giue th'eternall crowne;
Who, though most rich in these and eu'ry part

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Which make the patents of true worldy blisse,
Hath no misfortune but that Rich she is."

Here, Sidney expresses his dismay at his lover's marriage to another man which made her Lady Rich.

Perhaps Shakespeare's principal characters were left anonymous as they were still living at the time of the Sonnets' publication and their identification would have been problematic for them. But perhaps we can still identify the characters from the material if we study them close enough.
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