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