Shakespeare Criticism: Volume 164 was published last Friday, 8 August. This volume contains essays and criticism of Hamlet, Richard III, and The Sonnets. Below is the opening passage to The Sonnets entry.
For additional information on the critical history of the sonnets, see SC, Volumes 10, 40, 51, 62, 75, 121, and 152.
Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets are ostensibly love poems, although they address a variety of topics, including time, mortality, creativity, and the transcendence of death through poetry, as well as more obvious themes such as procreation, sexual desire, and romantic jealousy. The circumstances of composition and publication are somewhat enigmatic. All but two of the sonnets first appeared in print in Shake-speares Sonnets, a quarto volume published in 1609. At least some were written long before that date, however. Two of the sonnets were first published in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), an unauthorized poetry compilation attributed by the publisher to Shakespeare but actually containing much work by other poets. Additionally, the clergyman Francis Meres referred in his book Palladis Tamia (1598) to Shakespeare’s circulation of “sugr’d sonnets among his private friends,” though it is not definitively known whether these were the same sonnets that were published in 1609.
It is also unknown whether the 1609 quarto was published with Shakespeare’s involvement or authorization. The dedication to the book is signed not by the author but by “T. T.” (presumed to be the English publisher Thomas Thorpe), who addressed “Mr. W. H.” as the “onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets.” The historical identity of this dedicatee has occasioned a great deal of scholarly conjecture, and the fact that Thorpe, rather than Shakespeare, wrote the dedication has often been cited as evidence that the collection was published without the author’s approval. Proponents of this view have also frequently pointed to the poor condition of the text itself, which is rife with obvious errors, perhaps suggesting that Thorpe was not working with an authoritative text prepared by the author. The volume concludes with A Lover’s Complaint (1609), a longer narrative poem not written in the sonnet form. Some scholars have expressed doubt as to Shakespeare’s authorship of this final poem, but in most cases, it is regarded as authentic.
Critical arguments about the provenance of the quarto have had significant ramifications related to the interpretation of the sonnets, particularly because many of the poems are interrelated. The entire sequence has often been read as a single continuous narrative or group of narratives tracing the vicissitudes of the speaker’s relationships over a long period of time. The widespread belief that the sonnets are at least partly autobiographical is likewise relevant to readings of the sequence as a deliberate chronology. This notion is made problematic by the fact that the ordering of the sonnets may reflect Thorpe’s editorial decisions rather than Shakespeare’s intentions, but no definitive evidence exists to validate or challenge this possibility. The issue of editorial meddling is less controversial in regard to the second edition of the sonnets, a 1640 volume published by John Benson. Benson’s version rearranges the sonnets, adds titles, and elides the poems’ homoerotic elements by replacing male pronouns with female ones. Once regarded as an authoritative text, Benson’s version of the sonnets is now widely condemned as a bowdlerization.
The structures of the sonnets themselves generally adhere to the poetic form of the English sonnet, also called the Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet, although Shakespeare did not originate the form. This type of sonnet is an English variant of the long-established Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet. English sonnets are written in iambic pentameter and consist of three quatrains followed by a couplet, with a typical rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg. A few minor variations to this structure occur in Shakespeare’s sonnets. For example, Sonnet 99 contains an extra line, while Sonnet 145 is composed in tetrameter. The latter variation—coupled with the poem’s perceived low quality and the incidence of a possible pun on the name of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway—has led some scholars to hypothesize that the sonnet is a very early work written during the poet’s youthful courtship of Hathaway. As with most other suppositions regarding the sonnets’ possible autobiographical qualities, however, no direct evidence for this conjecture exists . . .
For the full 100-page entry of The Sonnets, see Shakespeare Criticism: Volume 164. The academic advisor to this entry is Christine E. Hutchins of Hostos Community College, City University of New York.