The Title Page
Pages of works by other sonneteers are given below for comparison.
The title page is unusual in that it hyphenates the name Shakespeare and also because it uses the genitive of the name, equivalent to 'SHAKESPEARE HIS SONNETS' in the language of the time. Mostly books of sonnets were dedicated in the title to a beloved, as for example Sonnets to Delia, by Daniel, or Sonnets to the fairest Coelia, by Percy. Or they were given an elaborate, often mythological title, such as Sidney's Astrophel and Stella or Barnes' Parthenophil and Parthenophe. Title pages of all these works and others are shown below for comparison. Often the author's name is absent or given only as initials. None of them put forward the author's name with such defiance and boldness as does this one. And the ascription to Shakespeare is repeated at the head of each separate double page spread throughout the work. (See the reproductions of Q given on the text facsimiles page).
The hyphenation of the name possibly emphasises the presentation of the work as a defiance of convention, the first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of the sonneteering tradition which had imprisoned so many poets over the centuries. The writer brandishes his spear against this stultifying tradition by writing sonnets to a man with whose beauty he is infatuated, and to a woman whom he simultaneously lusts after, frequently sleeps with, or wishes that he could do so, and mostly despises. Nothing could be farther removed from Petrarch's chaste sonnets to Laura , or Sidney's to Stella, the idols of whom were both unaproachable goddesses who kept their admirers at a safe distance and spoke only to their spiritual senses. Here, on the contrary, the poet allows love to coexist with and depend on sexuality and he tries to look honestly at the consequences. By making us look at this interdependence in a distinctly non-traditional (some would even say abnormal or perverted) setting, he forces us to gaze deeply at our own pre-conceptions and to examine once again what we understand by love. Paradoxically, one of the lasting consequences of this approach is the emergence of a realisation that a much deeper spirituality exists, a sense that love survives even the most destructive aspects of sexual passion, survives even the pillage of beauty and all that makes us human, and bears it out even to the edge of doom.
The tradition that the sonnets were pirated by the publisher, Thomas Thorpe, and never intended by Shakespeare for publication, is dependent more on the exigencies of social history than on any known fact. In the past it was bolstered by the need to prove that Shakespeare could not seriously have loved a man, was not tainted by homosexuality or eroticism, and by the necessary belief that if he did err, it was in the lusty irresponsible days of his youth, before he became a mature writer. Even well known homosexuals, such as Auden and Rowse, have promoted this view, perhaps with the unconscious (or conscious) intent of covering their own tracks, rather than with any malicious objective of distorting history.
We do not in fact know what Shakespeare's sexual orientation was, but there is no doubt that in the Elizabethan world sodomy would have been regarded as an almost unspeakable crime. To present a sonnet sequence in which five sixths of the poems are passionate declarations of the love of an older man for a younger man was, to say the least, a challenging and dangerous approach to a description of love. The fact that the sonnets were ignored for centuries afterwards, and rarely reprinted, testifies to the challenge that they present and the disturbing effect they have had on the historians of literature.
Additional support for the view that Thomas Thorpe had no right to publish the sonnets is derived from the unspoken tradition of bardolatry, within which lurks the belief that Shakespeare did not care too much about his fame or immortality or posterity. It is presumed that he made little or no effort to publish his works, and it is presumed also that the survival of many of his plays is only due to the industry of Heminge and Condell, the publishers of the first folio, long after the author's death, rather than to his own foresight or energy.
But there is no historical support for this belief, and the only documentary evidence that we have, in the form of his will, shows that he was very much concerned with the survival and bequeathement of his property even as far as the seventh generation hence. He was not indifferent to posterity, or indeed to his wealth and fame while he lived. Reasons for his failure to publish much in his own lifetime may have been that he was too busy, or that he did not consider it to be profitable, or that he deferred the final publication of his own works to a date when he might have leisure to attend to it. It is extremely unlikely that he knew beforehand the date of his own death, and his plans for his own version of a first folio might well have been intermitted by the drinking bout which legend tells us was the cause of his taking off.
The presentation of this first edition of the sonnets seems to demand the near presence of the author. Apart from the care that has gone into the overall arrangement of the sequence and the placing of individual sonnets, the title page emphasises his name, and the page headings thereafter repeat it. We may if we wish assume that this was a marketing technique employed by Thomas Thorpe, but it is far more likely that it was something agreed in advance by author and publisher. What is of paramount importance is that the need to consider that this edition might have been pirated would never have arisen had the sonnets been of a conventional type. It is only the dubious and disturbing nature of the love that is portrayed in them that has fostered the belief that Thomas Thorpe was some sort of brigand publisher making free with all men's work. In fact, as far as we know, he was a respectable man who saw through the press works by Jonson, Chapman, Marston and others, and it is quite likely, owing to his importance as a publisher of dramatic works, that Shakespeare knew him fairly well.
It is also argued that the uncorrected nature of the Sonnets is proof that Shakespeare had nothing to do with their publication. But apart from some obvious errors such as in 146 the text is adequate, and not inferior to the standard of works of the period. The final proof reading may not have been possible owing to it being a bad plague year, which forced most Londoners who had any income to decamp, and Shakespeare probably spent much of the year at Stratford or staying elsewhere with friends. He would not have been in London in the summer of that year to oversee the publication.
To summarise: Most publications of sonnets distanced themselves from living persons either by concealing the author or by mythologising the subject. Shakespeare's sonnets differ in being directly and forcefully attributed to him, and in having the plain title of 'Sonnets', thus interposing no barrier of allegory or fiction between himself and the reader. The pretence that he never wished to have them published is based on spurious considerations of reputation, both that of Shakespeare and English Literature in general. Neither of these considerations apply today, and perhaps for a brief moment of history we are freer to look at the sonnets with an untarnished eye than any previous generation in history. There is every reason to suppose that they are presented as the author intended them to be. Whether or not he dared or wished to add to his fame by them is a moot point. But their content is such that he must have thought as he looked over many of the lines, that future generations would look at them with wonder, and that when he and the beautiful youth were buried in dust, the sonnets would survive as a worthy monument to his name.
- Never befor imprinted
- Not exactly true, since sonnets 138 and 144 had been printed in The Passionate Pilgrim, an apparently piratical work published by Jaggard in 1599. However it seems safe to assume that the remaining 152 sonnets had not been published before.
- By G. Eld for T. T.
George Eld was a printer whose workshop produced many of the titles of the day.
Thomas Thorpe (T.T.) the publisher of the sonnets made an entry in the Stationer's Register on 20 May 1609:
'Tho. Thorpe. Entred for his copie under the handes of master Wilson and master Lownes Wardenes a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes vjd.'
It is not known precisely when in 1609 the book came out.
- And are to be sold by William Apsley.
- William Apsley was a bookseller whose shop was situated in St. Paul's Churchyard at the sign of 'The Parrot'. Some of the known copies of the Sonnets were sold by John Wright, whose shop was farther to the north at the door of Christchurch nearest to Newgate. (See KDJ Intro. p. 37).