I think the official answer to the question of how many sonnets did Shakespeare write is 154, but I object! History confirms there were two separate volumes of Shakespeare’s sonnets published, one in 1609 and one in 1640, both contain 154 sonnets so its easy to explain that answer. I have two issues with the proclamation that 154 is correct. First – the sonnet structure is deployed throughout his plays, either in full or in part, time and again. If we include the sonnets contained within the 38 plays that Shakespeare wrote, it would add extensively to that list. And second, why do we believe that the 154 sonnets that were published are the only ones he wrote? Unlike his plays, in which many copies were published, edited and made public so they could be performed, there is evidence that the publishing of his sonnets in 1609 was done without his consent. The first edition was littered with errors, some of which have remained, which suggest he was not directly involved in oversight of its publishing. The sonnets content and in some cases the casual nature of the writing, although brilliant but not polished suggest these were private poems intended for his lover, lovers or friends. And because some of the content suggests he may have been bi-sexual and that if proven, could have landed him in prison adds further evidence that he may not have intended for the sonnets to have been made public.
But do we honestly believe that the 154 that were published are all the sonnets that Shakespeare wrote if these were private missives not intended for the public’s eyes and ears? Maybe these poems were his way of satisfying his fantasies privately and he never wanted them to be shared. Or, as prolific a writer as Shakespeare, maybe there were far more than 154 sonnets hidden about under pillows some place in England over his lifetime.
Anyone who writes sonnets can tell you part of the reason they write them is they are ONLY 14 lines. Sonnets still require a fair amount of work, but you aren’t writing Hamlet. I write sonnets as play, in part because I know if I get sick of the poem I am working on, I can quit, discard it and it isn’t like I have wasted six months on a draft of a screenplay I now hate. I have a feeling that Shakespeare wrote sonnets as a way to relax and possibly as a way to not discard some ideas that maybe didn’t fit into the play he was writing at the time. I think he wrote sonnets because he knew those he shared them with would enjoy them. He may have written them to get laid. And because poetry can have that desired effect on romance, my guess is its entirely possible that some of his best poetry died with the lucky lover who received it and no copy was left lying around to be discovered by whatever means the publisher acquired them. Regardless of what you believe about the conspiracy theories regarding the work attributed to Shakespeare possibly being penned by himself and others, despite no direct evidence that Shakespeare did not author everything attributed to him, it feels like the true answer to the question of how many sonnets did Shakespeare(s) write – is a lot.
One of the reasons that Shakespeare included the rhyme and meter of sonnets in portions of his plays are that 10 syllables is about what most people can say comfortably and project loudly in a theater on stage without taking a breath and second rhyme helps actors remember their lines. The lines from this section of Romeo and Juliet below are 14 lines, with a rhyming convention of ababcdcdeef(e like)fg. Is it a sonnet? I think so but I am one to bend the rules a bit on what is and isn’t a sonnet.
How would you classify the poem above by Rodney Jones? All the lines have 10, 11 or 12 syllables, its fourteen lines long, but is it a sonnet? There is no rhyme at all, its certainly not a traditional sonnet, but how you interpret its construction depends on how you think about the influence of sonnets on poetry over time. I offer these two poems up as evidence to the question as to how many sonnets did Shakespeare write in his lifetime? You decide…. Have you ever sat down and read all 154 in a row in one sitting? If you have, what jumped out at you as you progressed through the most famous sonnets of all time?
Romeo and Juliet (Act 1, Scene 5, line 104)
by William Shakespeare
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this:
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in pray’r.
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do,
They pray—grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purg’d.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urg’d!
Give me my sin again.