Scandalous Sonnets

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Unusual sonnets: Shakespeare wrote his sequence of linked sonnets just after the popularity of this form had diminished. His sonnet sequence would have seemed striking and unusual to readers when it was published in 1609. Shakespeare flouts the most important rule of sonnet sequences: that they describe a unique desired person. Surprisingly, the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnets addresses two separate love interests: a beautiful young man who seems to treat him with indifference and a woman whose appearance and morals the speaker is quick to criticize.

Rarely read: Early assemblers and editors were slow to include the Sonnets in Shakespeare’s “Works.” Heminge and Condell did not include the Sonnets in the First Folio of 1623 (see “Shakespeare’s Folios”). This was probably not because of dissatisfaction with the content of the Sonnets, but might have had to do with copyright issues or with Heminge and Condell’s claims on behalf of Shakespeare as a playwright. Heminge and Condell also did not include Shakespeare’s narrative poems, Venus and Adonis  and The Rape of Lucrece, which were by far his most popular published works (and whose profitable copyrights were therefore likely difficult to secure). As a result, the Folios of the 17th century presented Shakespeare exclusively as a playwright, producing a momentous and long-lasting shift in his literary profile.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the sonnets were published rarely and in a substantially altered form. In 1640, John Benson published a collection called Shakespeare’s Poems, which reordered the sonnets into small groups and mixed them with other poems and songs by Shakespeare and other authors. The poems were grouped under thematic headings of Benson’s invention. These headings read the poems as reflecting multiple narratives about multiple characters. The headings often implied a heterosexual context for the poems by assuming the addressee was female, where the 1609 sequence implied a male-male pairing or did not specify gender. The sonnets were not treated as an integrated group or sequence. Subsequent publication of the sonnets followed the format of Benson’s edition. In the 18th-century Shakespeare editions, the sonnets were often included in supplementary volumes in Benson’s new order and with his headings, alongside texts whose Shakespearean authorship was seen as “doubtful.”

Sonnets as biography? In 1780, Edmund Malone reissued the sonnets in their original 1609 sequence as part of a supplement to the Johnson-Steevens edition of 1778. For Malone, the Sonnets  gave insight into Shakespeare as an individual. Unlike Benson, who had often identified the speaker of the poems as a generic, third-person “lover,” Malone mined them for biographical light he felt they shed on Shakespeare, reading their first-person “I” as Shakespeare’s own disclosures. With Malone’s reprinting of the Sonnets  as an integrated work and his strong argument that Shakespeare’s authorship of the volume was not disputable, these poems were newly seen as an important part of Shakespeare’s “Works.”

In his interest in the Sonnets  as a record of Shakespeare the person, Malone was not an outlier. Spurred by veneration of Shakespeare and by a culture that valued novelistic representations of self, readers and scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries often wanted to learn more about Shakespeare the person. Like Malone, many hoped to find evidence of Shakespeare’s personal life in the Sonnets. The poems’ “I” – wholly conventional for sonnets – made this tempting, as of course Shakespeare’s plays offered no such first-person frame. Yet if these later readers hoped that the Sonnets  might relate Shakespeare’s own experiences, they could be troubled by what they found. The Sonnets ’ male love object, their “black” female love object, their cross-class pairing of speaker and fair youth, and their verbal strangeness and abstraction could all challenge or disturb different readers for different reasons.

This section contains an early replica of Shakespeare’s original Sonnets, Benson's rearrangement of them in his Poems: Written by Wil. Shakespeare. Gent., and two of the earliest editions of sonnets, along with the editorial misgivings they prompted.