The sonnets are a collection numbering 154 poems dealing with themes such as the passage of time, love, beauty, and mortality. They were probably written over a long period of Shakespeare’s life up until 1609, when they were first printed. The first 17 poems, traditionally referred to as the “procreation sonnets”, are addressed to a young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it on to his descendants.
The other sonnets: express the speaker’s love for a young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; appear to criticize the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguity toward the speaker’s mistress; and make a pun on the poet’s name. The final two sonnets are allegorical recreations of Greek epigrams referring to the “little love-god” Cupid. Shakespeare’s sonnets were strongly influenced by the Latin poet Horace.
In 1593 and 1594 the London theaters were closed because of plague. Shakespeare turned to poetry and published two narrative poems on erotic themes, “Venus and Adonis”, and “The Rape of Lucrece”. In “Venus and Adonis”, a youthful Adonis rejects the sexual advances of Venus; but in “The Rape of Lucrece”, the virtuous wife Lucrece is raped by the lascivious Tarquin. Inspired by Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, the poems show the guilt and moral confusion resulting from uncontrolled lust. A third narrative poem, “A Lover’s Complaint”, presents a young woman who laments her seduction by a persuasive suitor. “The Phoenix and the Turtle” mourns the deaths of the legendary phoenix and his lover, the faithful turtle dove.