Dr. Carl Atkins is the author of Shakespeare's Sonnets: With Three Hundred Years of Commentary as well as a prolific commenter here at ShakespeareGeek, both while holding down a day job as a medical doctor. Instead of a typical author interview with press blurbs and bio questions we decided to do something different – Carl’s going to guest blog a series for us based on *your* questions.
Question: I never really appreciated until recently the mystery over the actual publication of the sonnets. Can you tell us a little bit about who this Thorpe fellow was, and how you think he got his hands on the sonnets? Who do you think W.H. is?
(* Note from Duane – if you’re not familiar with the so-called “mystery”, here’s the short form – the sonnets were published in 1609, not by Shakespeare, but by a man named Thomas Thorpe. This of course has led to the question of the relationship between the two men – did Shakespeare want them published, or was it against his will? If he did not want them published, then why, exactly? Was he hiding an illicit relationship? Additionally, they contain a dedication to a Mr. W.H, which only adds fuel to the fire as people have forever tried to guess who that might be…)
Given the publication practices of the time, I am not sure I would call the publication of The Sonnets mysterious. Much has been made of their being published without Shakespeare's consent, but we do not even know that for a fact. There certainly are signs that he did not see them through the press. They do not appear to have been carefully proofread. They have no author's dedication (although this was by no means universal). But in Shakespeare's day an author's rights were pretty much limited to selling his manuscript to a printer. He might negotiate the right to see it through the press and have a say over corrections, but he might also merely be left to complain about the sorry state of his printed copy. There is no evidence that Thorpe's publication of The Sonnets was a problem for Shakespeare. There is no contemporary record of any complaints.
The same cannot be said for The Passionate Pilgrim, which raised the ire of Thomas Heywood, whose poem was printed in the volume by Jaggard and passed off as Shakespeare's. Contemporary accounts record Heywood's complaint and his note that Shakespeare was also put out by the incident. So although Shakespeare may not have authorized the printing of The Sonnets, it is also possible that he did and just didn't make a big deal of it. We certainly cannot know whether he gave the manuscript to Thorpe or whether Thorpe obtained it some other way, whether it was in a form in which it was intended to be printed, whether Shakespeare cared that Thorpe printed it (if he did not authorize it), and what the heck Thorpe's dedication is all about.
I long ago gave up trying to decipher Thorpe's dedication. Not that I didn't try like the rest. It is just an enigma. And it is completely fruitless guessing at the identity of W. H.: William Herbert, Henry Wriothsley, Willie Hughes, Who-the-Heck. In the end, it really doesn't matter. As one commentator noted, it more profitable to read Shakespeare than Thorpe. The only good that has come of Thorpe's dedication is Oscar Wilde's short story,
"The Portrait of Mr. W. H."
How have the sonnets been treated differently in the last few centuries? Can you give a couple of examples of the sort of issues that were the focus back then, compared to now?
Very interesting. Initially, The Sonnets were ignored. When they were re-discovered, it was Benson's bastardized edition of 1640 that was first found. It was not until Malone's edition of 1780 that editors returned to the original text of 1609 (Lintott was the only early exception in 1711).
But even then, they were often viewed with disdain as inferior works. They often were excluded from collections of the complete works. George Steevens's reason for leaving them out of his 1793 edition is often quoted: "the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service." Because of this, early commentary was often scant and mostly centered on elucidating individual words or phrases which might be obscure.
There was also some misguided wrangling over emendation of words and punctuation due to a failure to abide by bibliographic principles which only later became better understood (and still now are not often applied uniformly). To my mind, a landmark edition was that of Tucker in 1927, as he was the first to truly analyze The Sonnets from the point of view of their poetry, looking into such things as imagery and metaphor for the first time. The next giant leap was the New Variorum edition by Rollins in 1944, which culled all the commentary which came before. Rollins was heavily indebted to his previous two variorum editors, Boswell (1821) and Alden (1916). Rollins added very little of his own commentary and the volume is filled with concerns about whether Shakespeare authorized The Sonnets, when they were written, the question of autobiography, the identity of the Fair Youth and the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet and many other trivialities that seemed to be important at the time, but that scholars now do not take seriously.
Modern editors have little to say about the authorship question and rarely try to identify characters. They spend more effort on explaining the meaning of sonnets and exploring their imagery and effects--in essence, their poetry.
About the Author
This book brings together the scholarship of dozens of the most brilliant commentators who have written about Shakespeare's Sonnets over the past three hundred years. This edition adds the significant work done by modern editors to the most important commentary culled from the two variorum editions of the last century. Atkins presents a straightforward edition without jargon with the simple goal of finding out how the poems work and how they may be interpreted. He is the first to collate the modern texts so that differences among them can be fully appreciated and compared. His discussion of meter and verse is more substantial than that of any other edition, adding particular dimension to this text. Those coming to "The Sonnets" for the first time and those seeking a fresh look at an old friend will equally find this edition scholastically rigorous and a pleasure to read. Carl D. Atkins is a practicing medical oncologist in New York.
Got a question for the author? Send it in and we’ll see if we can get it in the queue!