Sonnet 107 is rarely discussed in classrooms because it takes quite a lot of unravelling, which I tried to do thanks to the helpful NAEL notes. The sonnet begins with the metaphor of the terrible events that everybody fears are going to come – but they don’t come and everybody can breath a sigh of relief. It could refer to two years: 1596, which was Queen Elizabeth’s “climacteric” year, being her sixty-third year of life. It does not refer to her menopause (which presumably happened a bit earlier) but to a concept of Renaissance astrology, which believed this year of life to be particularly ominous. But the Queen lived, she made a peace treaty with France and nothing bad happened. Or it could refer to the actual year of her death, 1603, and the succession of James VI, always a fraught moment in a monarchy, especially when the heir is not simply the eldest son but a distant cousin, as in James’s case. True, he was the first in the order of succession, but there could be other potential candidates. But the succession went smoothly, James made a peace treaty with Spain and all the fears were dispelled. This rather long introduction explains the opening metaphor: my love is constant and does not succumb to my own fears or those shared by the whole society, especially since all the bad things we feared did not happen. Now I am revived and look with optimism to the future. I know I can live in my rhymes forever and so can you too.
Sonnet 110 seems to reflect with regret over the poet’s previous love life. It’s true I’ve been round the corner a few times, made a fool of myself or debased myself, learnt to be cynical. But now all is done, and all the bad relationships taught me to value true love. I shall never look for another love because I have you, the next best thing to heaven.
Sonnet 116 was made famous by the film version of Sense and Sensibility – it is the one which starts with the paraphrase of the line from the marriage service: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments”. The love which changes when the object of love changes is not true love. It is like a fixed star in the firmament, guiding ships, and does not alter when the object of love changes due to age. If it is not true in my own case (nicely ambiguous – the speaker does not specify whether he or the addressee should be inconstant), then I have never written nor anyone has ever loved.
Sonnet 126 is an oddball – it consists only of 12 lines and they rhyme in couplets, so it can be hardly called a sonnet at all. It is also the last sonnet in the cycle directed to “the lovely boy” and some read it as the indication of the end of the relationship. In the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets the two missing lines were marked with parantheses, as if to indicate that there are two lines which were – crossed out? too painful to be written? left out on purposes for the readers to project their feelings and thoughts onto them? The lovely boy seems to grow more beautiful with time (like Dorian Gray), while all his lovers, including presumably the poet, grow older and less attractive. The poet claims that Nature decided to keep him young in order to preserve her masterpiece. But even Nature cannot do this forever. She will be forced (Shakespeare again uses here legal terms such as “audit” and “quietus”, i.e. settlement) to surrender the lovely boy to time as well. The last words are actually “her quietus is to render thee” and some critics argue that what is in the “missing” final couplet is the object to the verb “render”, or perhaps the answer is that “she will have to render you nothing”. If we read sonnets 126 and 127 together, they could be interpreted as the reproach directed at the lovely boy, who falls out of love with the aging speaker, but should remember that in the end he is going to grow old too.
Sonnet 127 introduces the new object of love, the Dark Lady. As the sonnet points out, she is not a conventional beauty, blonde and fair-skinned. But what is the point of fair skin when it can be faked with cosmetics? Black is the new orange… I mean, black is the successive heir to beauty and beauty (equalling fairness) is declared a bastard. Shakespeare was a good student of history, so he was probably aware of the fact that Henry VIII declared at various points in his life his both daughters to be bastards, including Queen Elizabeth, who BTW with her reddish hair (which could be described flatteringly as golden) and fair skin (in her later life covered with a heavy layer of lead powder, with which she hid her pock marks) was herself, at least in her young years, quite close to the Petrarchan ideal. So the point is the poet prefers an honest brunette to a fake blonde. His mistress has black eyebrows and black eyes, which look to him like mourners over those who, though born pretty enough, try to fake their way to the socially accepted ideal through cosmetics. Her eyes, in fact, are so beautiful that everyone says this is what the ideal of beauty should look like.