Shakspere’s Sonnets, The First Edition

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Shakespeare, William, Thomas Tyler, and Charles Praetorius. Shakspere’s Sonnets, The First Edition. Shakspere Quarto Facsimiles, with Introductions, Line-numbers, &c. London: Griggs, 1880.

Image source: University of Oregon Rare Books Collection

This 1880 photolithographic facsimile reproduces Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ title page. No evidence exists tying Shakespeare directly to the publication of his sonnets. We don’t know whether he chose the order of the poems.

As with Shakespeare’s plays, no evidence survives that Shakespeare was directly involved in the publication of his Sonnets  in 1609. We therefore don’t know if the intriguing order of the poems in the book was chosen by Shakespeare. Shakespeare does choose to make the poems unusually abstract. He cultivates ambiguity and difficulty in the language and in the relationships the poems depict. The sonnets do not offer much concrete description of their primary love object, the fair youth, besides dwelling on his beauty and elusiveness.


By 1880, photolithography was able to convey the feel of the original pages of the book, while adding features that frame a reader’s interpretive encounter with the text, such as the line numbering here.

This volume is an early photolithographic facsimile of the original 1609 quarto edition. Its publication in 1880 indicates how new technologies enabled, reflected, and stimulated interest in wider public and scholarly examination – but also mediation – of Shakespeare’s original publications. These images show photolithography’s ability to convey the feel of the original while providing aids to scholarly scrutiny, including line numbers for ease of analytic reading (not present in the original 1609 quarto).


Following Malone’s interpretation, the 19th century was eager to read the Sonnets for evidence of Shakespeare’s intimate personal life. The introduction to the facsimile volume assumes that the “Dark Lady,” as the sonnet mistress became known, was a real person and attempts to identify her. The poems are read as evidence of her virtues and her “blemished character” (image top right).

An excerpt from the introduction of the volume underscores the 19th-century desire to use these poems in order to learn about Shakespeare’s personal life, with the sonnets’ language sifted to itemize the characteristics, good and bad, of the Sonnets ’ female love object. Belief in the Sonnets ’ biographical frankness also underlay extensive efforts, seen here, to discover the real-world identity of this female love object known in the 19th century as the “Dark Lady.” Readings such as these presume that the Sonnets ’ abstract and sometimes discordant representations may be synthesized into a coherent, larger narrative.