In an Early Modern English literary culture that prized imitation--the ability to master and play with convention--sonnets were written for a number of purposes. They were exercises in literary expression, or written to nonexistent women, or to women the sonneteer was not in love with.
Changes of mood and scene were characteristic of sonnet sequences. The sequences in turn allowed writers to shift perspective from one sonnet to the next, to juxtapose images and ideas, to follow a train of thought from one sonnet to another, or to disrupt it and, in so doing, to leave questions unanswered. The very form of the sonnet sequence was apt for writers exploring contrary states of desire.
Understanding the speaker in terms of impersonation allowed for critical distance; the reader was invited to take a sceptical view of the speaker’s treatment of his Lady or his abject subjection to her.
Spenser and Shakespeare radically altered accepted convention. Their idiosyncratic re-working of the sonnet sequence, while still within the best tradition of imitation, and their skilful employment of the persona convention, produced a dazzling literary experiment.
Spenser’s Amoretti shows his speaker’s conflicted “sacred” and “sensual” desire. This thesis argues that the poet establishes a game format, since the Lady was already won. The verse then redirects the Petrarchan model toward a Protestant meditation upon marriage.
The thesis then argues that Shakespeare’s Sonnets combine both novelty and tradition. They infuse the sonnet sequence with unexpected scepticism and satire, bawdiness and bitterness. The poet creates a dramatically inventive sequence, one that traverses a remarkable range of issues, from nature to time, immortality, mutability, procreation, death, idolatry, service, friendship, beauty, truth, writing, and love. While Shakespeare’s speaker often displays a note of disillusionment, cynicism, or exhaustion, the sequence remains an extraordinary testament to the vitality of imaginative writing and the dazzling wit of its author.
Both poets move far away from Petrarchan convention, but both move in separate directions so that the two sequences are emphatically different from each other. Spenser rejects courtly Petrarchan fictions in favour of Protestant marriage;
Shakespeare is temperamentally unsuited to (or just uninterested in) the idealization Petrarchism involves. Yet both contribute substantially to the development of the sixteenth century love lyric.