Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Storytelling: Poetic Performance and the Lyric Voice

Caitlin Larracey


The questions Shakespeare’s Sonnets ask and the questions they invite are, from a critical perspective, innumerable and often unanswerable. The questions can be as fundamental, though nevertheless perplexing and imperative, as whether the sonnets constitute a sequence as they exist in manuscript today. Moreover, often scholars debate what questions should be asked or are even valuable to ask; for example, criticism that searches for the “real” young man and Dark Lady seeks to find autobiographical facts or experiences within a literary piece that is not required to provide such information, although its existence as a lyric piece certainly provokes such questions. Similarly, that the text provides a story that may in fact be, but not necessarily is, autobiographical incites doubt. When examining the sonnets, however, in terms of storytelling in combination with the lyric voice and the idea of performance (ever so crucial to Shakespeare), a narrative emerges that reveals a sequence. In analyzing the sonnets as a sequence, it is crucial to incorporate a variety of critical approaches to the sonnets as such, including traditional formalist, feminist, and queer theory readings. While recent criticism has addressed an interpretation of the sonnets as a story, although not necessarily a self-contained story that ties up (or should tie up) all loose ends, the criticism does not address the idea of storytelling in tandem with the lyric snapshots of poetic performance that Shakespeare provides. Often the criticism treats the three concepts as exclusive. If there is a narrative, the poems cannot be lyrics, and if there is a sequence, they cannot be individual performances. Yet, by examining specific sonnets throughout the collection (as ordered by Thomas Thorpe), as instances of a drama that unfolds between the characters of the speaker, the young man, the Dark Lady, and others (Time, the rival poet, etc.), and as dramatic lyrics that are further instances of Shakespearean performance, the story of Shakespeare’s Sonnets reveals a sequence of poems illuminating, questioning, and demonstrating the power of love to weaken, but ultimately strengthen, humanity through the power of poetry.


Shakespeare’s Sonnets; Narrative; Lyric

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