Friday, May 22, 2009

Public Reception of Shake-Speares Sonnets 1609 (Sonnets Part Three)

This may surprise you, but there isn't a single extant record of any contemporary critical response to the appearance of Shake-Speares Sonnets in May 1609. Nor any for the rest of 1609 or for decades to follow. This is odd for several reasons. For one, Shakespeare's other books of poetry, Venus & Adonis 1593 and The Rape of Lucrece 1594 had both gone to multiple editions by 1609. They were steady bestsellers. Surely there should have been a ready and appreciative market for the Sonnets. Additionally, there are perhaps a dozen authentic contemporary allusions to the V&A and Lucrece poems in printed works and diaries of the time. Yet, nothing similar exists for the Sonnets.

The only scrap that serves as even an acknowledgement that the Sonnets were available in 1609 is a back-of-an-envelope notation found among the Edward Alleyn papers. Dated June 19, 1609, in an ad-hoc list of items under the heading “Howshold Stuff” a copy of “Shaksper sonets fivepence" was noted. At best, this stands as the single surviving evidence that someone bought the Sonnets in 1609. At worst it is a forgery. You see, the envelope in question was discovered by John Payne Collier, who was notorious for forging allusions to Shakespeare on convenient blank pages of Elizabethan miscellany. Modern scholars consider Collier' s discovery (of Allyn’s alleged chit) to be an out-and-out fraud. The spellings are suspect. The handwriting is quite unlike the abundant examples of Alleyn’s pen. Moreover Alleyn, who did keep expense records, always labeled then "Howshold" or "Howshold charges." The phrase, “Howshold Stuff” seems borrowed from the induction of The Taming of the Shrew! The Sonnets appear to have slipped by unremarked.

Oddly, there was no second edition in this format. Perhaps the Sonnet craze was over, or the profound sadness of the Sonnets turned readers off. Yet a big reception was anticipated by publisher Thorpe who used two different sets of booksellers (as evidenced by the title pages of the two variant editions of 1609) to make the product easily available.

There is at least one bit of early criticism of the 1609 Sonnets that survives, though the comment cannot be accurately dated. It could have been a century later. In a copy of the Sonnets quarto once held by the Rosenbach Library/Museum in Philadelphia there is a handwritten annotation following Sonnet 154. It reads, “What a heap of wretched Infidel stuff.” The word "Infidel" is capitalized and double inked. It is thought that this unknown critic found the poems scandalously homoerotic.

My colleague, Marty Hyatt, informs me that the former Rosenbach copy of the Sonnets is now held by the Bodmer Foundation Library in Geneva. Here's a photo of Marianne Faithfull examining the unique copy.

And the next version of the Sonnets to appear, in 1640, was mangled in John Benson’s version of Poems written by Wil. Shake-Speare, Gent. Benson put the sonnets in a strange new sequence and altered a few of the love references to a boy or man. Some think Benson did this to obscure a story that was being told in the original sequence.

Edward Alleyn was the leader of the Lord Admiral's Men for many years. In the early 1590s he played the title role in Titus Andronicus. Alleyn is also thought to have played Hamlet in a 1594 performance that is recorded but remains off-the-radar in standard Shakespeare studies.

Alleyn's father-in-law was Philip Henslowe, the famous Elizabethan theatrical producer. Alleyn kept a voluminous diary and records, and yet, rather amazingly, he never mentions William Shakespeare the playwright. This glaring omission was probably the motivation for Collier’s fraudulent notation. Collier liked to try to fill in these mysterious gaps in the historical record.

copyright 2009 Robert Sean Brazil


  1. Thanks, Robert. It's a lot of fun to see what you dig up about 1609. Nice summary about the sonnets in these last three entries. I have a couple quick notes.

    The copy of the sonnets you mention from the Rosenbach Library is now in the Bodmer Foundation Library in Geneva. Here is a recent photo of Marianne Faithfull taking a look at it:

    Regarding Benson's mangled edition of poems, I think it's important to note how little re-gendering actually took place. See Margreta de Grazia, "The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994), pp. 35-49, also also reprinted in "Shakespeare's Sonnets, Critical Essays," edited by James Schiffer, 1999. Pronouns were only changed in sonnet 101 and the intention there may have been to distinguish better between the personification of 'truth' and the person of the beloved. Additionally, Benson altered one instance of 'boy' to 'love.' And in 3 of his supplied titles, he redirected 'fair youth' sonnets to a woman, but none of the sonnets involved is clearly to a male. Most indications of a masculine addressee remain. The very first sonnet printed has 11 masculine pronouns and Benson included sonnets 20, 106, and 110. So, as a whole, there doesn't seem to be much of an effort to re-gender the addressee.

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  2. Thank you Marty! I'm going to update the entry and give you credit for the correction. RSB

  3. Robert, you will forgive me for failing to comment on your blog until now, when I feel the need to mention a couple of facts that you might have included. Your narratives are both interesting and accurate, as well as attractively laid out and a pleasure to read.

    In your paragraph on Edward Alleyn's envelope, you suggest that no one now thinks it's genuine. But Hyder Rollins, the editor of the Sonnets Variorum (v. 2, p. 54) accepted it as genuine and, more convincingly, so do A. & J. Freeman in their 2 v. study of Collier in 2004---John Payne Collier: scholarship and forgery in the nineteenth century. They examined dozens of suspect Collier documents, and agreed that many were forgeries, but thought this one was OK. On the other hand, Sidney Race (Notes and Queries 195 (1950) 112-14) and Katherine Duncan-Jones (Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1998, 7) think it’s a Collier fake.

    Regards, Ramon

  4. Ramon and Robert: If the Alleyn notation about buying a copy of the Sonnets is accurate -- that is say if it's not a forgery -- then it becomes all the more odd (to me at least) that Alleyn does not mention Shakespeare in any of his writings, his diary, or any other notes in his library. If he actually purchased Shakespeare's Sonnets, wouldn't we expect at least a mention of him from Alleyn? He writes about many other contemporary writers and actors but not Shakespeare. His silence otherwise about Shakespeare might lend support to the forgery notion.



  5. hank anyone Marty! I'm going to update your entry and provide anyone credit history for your a static correction.World best ibeacon

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