So long as men can breathe and eyes can see, people are going to be arguing about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. On this the 400th anniversary of their publication, Clinton Heylin’s book gives us a roadmap of how we got here, though there’s no reason to think that we’re any closer to the truth now than we were then.
What surprised me most, although I suppose it shouldn’t have, is that Shakespeare is not in this – like, at all. For those that are unfamiliar with the history of the sonnets, they were published in 1609 by a man named Thomas Thorpe, and the question ever since has been, “Who’s Shakespeare to him, or he to Shakespeare?” We have no records, so we have to guess. Were they stolen? Heylin uses the expression “publisher/pirate” quite frequently, and many of the commentaries on publication use variations on the expression “came into possession,” whatever that means.
So while other books on the sonnets will take the text and look at “What did Shakespeare mean by this?” Heylin’s book asks the question more like “Who printed it, in what sequence and grouping, and how did this change how future generations interpreted what Shakespeare might have meant?”
Most of the setup for the “Shakespeare didn’t want these published” argument comes from the fact that there are multiple and obvious mistakes in the initial printing, something that would not have happened if the author was working alongside the publisher to see the finished result. I have to admit, it’s a pretty logical point, and I don’t know the answer. Perhaps it’s true that the mistakes just weren’t as big a deal as Heylin suggests, and Shakespeare didn’t care all that much.
From there it becomes a history lesson in sonnet interpretation (once you get past some fighting and suing each other over who had the rights to publish what, and who stole from whom). When did the Dark Lady come into the picture, and what are the different theories about her identity? Which editors took the position that Shakespeare was gay, and which felt obliged go with the “nonono, that’s just how men talked to other men in Shakespeare’s day” interpretation? I remember hearing that one in high school ;). I never really bought that one, because you can read some of Shakespeare’s own dedications (like the one at the front of Venus and Adonis) and you can see just how flowery he did get, and how very different it is from the outpouring of love found in the sonnets.
Speaking of dedications, just who was “W.H”? The sonnets are dedicated to these mysterious initials, and the book spends significant time right off the bat discussing the possible theories, most notably Pembroke (William Herbert) and Southhampton (Henry Wriothesley). If you’re already saying “Hey wait, that second guy is an H.W., not a W.H,” then you’re starting to get a glimpse at what this detective story is all about – maybe it was a typo or a mistake? Or maybe a secret code! Heylin, by the way, seems to come down pretty strongly on the Pembroke side. I don’t recall him ever actually stating his belief on the subject, but the argument does stick in my brain as being pretty lopsided in favor.
[ Here’s my query : Do we know for certain that Shakespeare wrote the dedication, since we don’t even know if he wanted the sonnets published? Perhaps Thorpe wrote it himself? If that’s the case, then shouldn’t we be asking who WH is to Thorpe, rather than to Shakespeare? Some people see “we’ll never know the answer” as a challenge – others, like me, see it as an opportunity to say “then let’s stop asking the question, shall we?” ]
I have books on Shakespeare the man, and I have books on the sonnets themselves. I think it’s a worthy addition to anybody’s book collection to look specifically at the editing of the sonnets like this. We may never know exactly what Shakespeare meant, but at least we can take a realistic look at what cases have been made, who made them, and why. Only then can you really decide for yourself whether you’ve found the answer than sounds right to you.