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The sonnets most commonly identified as the Rival Poet group exist within the Fair Youth sequence in sonnets 78–86.

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The sonnets to the young man express overwhelming, obsessional love.With the famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") the tone changes dramatically towards romantic intimacy.Sonnet 20 explicitly laments that the young man is not a woman.There have been many attempts to identify the young man.Shakespeare's language often seems to imply that the subject is of higher social status than himself. H.," Oscar Wilde proposed that some lines of the sonnets represent a series of puns suggesting that the sonnets are written to a boy actor called William Hughes; however, in his story Wilde acknowledges that there is no evidence for such a person's existence.In one other variation on the standard structure, found for example in sonnet 29, the rhyme scheme is changed by repeating the second (b) rhyme of quatrain one as the second (f) rhyme of quatrain three.

When analysed as characters, the subjects of the sonnets are usually referred to as the Fair Youth, the Rival Poet, and the Dark Lady.

The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to the young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation.

Other sonnets express the speaker's love for the young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker's mistress; and pun on the poet's name.

The final two sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the "little love-god" Cupid.

The publisher, Thomas Thorpe, entered the book in the Stationers' Register on : Whether Thorpe used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy is unknown.

The Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127–154) distinguishes itself from the Fair Youth sequence by being overtly sexual in its passion.