Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit.
(Sonnet No. 26)
How to do justice to the legacy of literary history's greatest mind – moreover in such a limited review? Forget Goethe's "universal genius" and his rebel contemporary Schiller; forget the 19th century masters; forget contemporary literature: with the possible (!) exception of three Greek gentlemen named Aischylos, Sophocles and Euripides, a certain Frenchman called Poquelin (a/k/a Molière), and that infamous Irishman Oscar Wilde, there's more wit in a single line of Shakespeare's than in an entire page of most other, even great, authors' works. And I'm not saying this in ignorance of, or in order to slight any other writer: it's precisely my admiration of the world's literary giants, past and present, that makes me appreciate Shakespeare even more – and that although I'm aware that he repeatedly borrowed from pre-existing material, and that, all conspiracy theories regarding his identity aside, even the precise extent of his body of work(s) isn't conclusively established (yet?), either. For ultimately, the only thing that matters to me is the brilliance of those works themselves.
The precise dating of Shakespeare's sonnets – like other poets', a response to the 1591 publication of Sir Philip Sidney's "Astrophil and Stella" – is an even greater guessing game than that of his plays: although Nos. 138 and 144 (slightly modified) appeared in 1599's "Passionate Pilgrim," most were probably circulated privately, and written years before their first – unauthorized, though still authoritative – 1609 publication; possibly beginning in 1592-1593.
Format-wise, they adopt the Elizabethan fourteen-line-structure of three quatrains of iambic pentameters expressing a series of increasingly intense ideas, resolved in a closing couplet; with an abab-cdcd-efef-gg rhyme form. (Sole exceptions: No. 99 – first quatrain amplified by one line – No. 126 – six couplets & only twelve lines total – No. 145 – written in tetrameter – and No. 146 – omission of the second line's beginning; the subject of a lasting debate.) Their order is thematic rather than chronological ...