From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die....
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state....
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past....
When in the chronicle of wasted time...
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her, though I know she lies....
Shakespeare's sonnets have been dissected and speculated upon for profound and hidden meanings for years, but I think the best way into them for a novice is to consider them as Shakespeare having good fun—entertaining himself and his friends.
Even the most wrenchingly emotional poems are wrapped in clever wordplay. He's always the showman. Always the riddler and punster. At times modest, at times despairing, at times exulting, often lustful or loving, sometimes angry, sometimes bawdy, always down to earth.
My favourite is the one usually numbered 130, with such anti-sentimental lines as:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head....
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
After all this criticism of his lover's appearances, the poet concludes:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
You've got to love a guy like that. And his friends did apparently. Although the poems were collected and published in 1609 near the end of his stellar career as a playwright, they were likely written much earlier, mostly during the mid-1590s when Shakespeare was struggling to make his name. They circulated in hand-written copies among his friends and colleagues, or were presented to patrons for their edification and amusement. One was used to explain a gift of a book of blank pages. Many include double-entendres and satirical references to people or events his friendly readers would be familiar with, although the poems are still easily accessible by modern readers who might be stuck by only the most convoluted playfulness.
The published order of the poems is somewhat inconsistent but can generally be divided into several sections.
Sonnets 1-17: addressed to a beautiful, young aristocrat encouraging him to perpetuate his worth by marrying and having a son—the least interesting poems in the collection and unfortunately placed at the beginning. Skip these in your first reading to avoid being put off Shakespeare altogether, and come back to them later.
Sonnets 18-26: addressed to probably the same youth, expressing the poet's great affection for him. However, if you didn't know this historical fact, many of the poems can also be read as love poems to someone of the opposite sex, starting with "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate" and ending with "Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee; / Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me."
Sonnets 27-126: mostly thought to be addressed to a male patron, though the subject matter is wide, including his poor fortunes, love and his perceived inadequacies as a poet. Sonnets 78 to 86 concern a rival poet who has won the patron's preference.
Sonnets 127-152: the most discussed poems, concerning Shakespeare's mysterious "dark lady". Some are straightforward love poems but more are anguished over the woman's treatment of him. Several are addressed to an apparently successful rival for her love.
Sonnets 153-154: Two variations on a Byzantine epigram concerning love, which may not have been written by Shakespeare.
After the sonnets were published in 1609, they were generally ignored for two centuries, overshadowed by the plays. The Shakespearean scholar George Steevens wrote in 1793, "The strongest act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service." However the Romantic poets of the early 1800s revived interest in them. Today it's difficult to see how other generations could not have seen the sonnets' value.
Perhaps this is the fate of down-to-earth great works of literature: despite some popularity among early readers, they fail to impress the succeeding intelligentsia with their nonintellectual, non-precious style and are neglected until later lovers of literature rediscover them.
In any case, we have Shakespeare's sonnets now and they fulfil two of the most important criteria of greatness in lieterature.
They have become an enduring part of the culture (you'll recognize in the poems dozens of lines and phrases you are very familiar with but you may not have realized came from Shakespeare). And you can dip into them over and over again during your own life and get something new each time.
And enjoy all the way.