Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Shake-Speares Sonnets Registered -- May 20, 1609
On May 20, 1609, a book published as SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS was entered in the Stationers' Register. This is essentially the earliest known date involving the publication of one of the most mysterious books in the world, Shakespeare’s 154-sonnet sequence, which was bound with another poem, A Lover's Complaint. There may be as many theories about the Sonnets as there have been analyses of the Sermon on the Mount. We know that Shakespeare's sonnets existed in manuscript form at least eleven years before 1609. Francis Meres' 1598 book, Palladis Tamia, was a compendium of common wisdom and literary critique. In discussing English writers, Meres offered,
"As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c.”
We have no idea how many sonnets were featured in the privately-circulated edition known by Meres. But the following year, 1599, two of these Shakespearean sonnets (#138 and #144) were printed in an anthology, The Passionate Pilgrim. There is massive debate and disagreement on the question of whether or not the full-sequence of 154 sonnets had been completed by 1598, or whether it was a smaller set. Sonnet 107, with the line “The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured” and mention of “Tyrants crests and tombs of brass,” etc., is thought by many to relate to the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Many readers agree that topical allusions in the Sonnets end in 1603.
At Stationers' Hall, if you were a licensed freeman of the Guild (whether printer, publisher, bookseller, or bureaucrat), one could copyright a book, or manuscript, or even just a book-title, for a sixpence fee. By comparing the surviving entry-book records with extant books one can draw some conclusions about the process, though there are always exceptions. Sometimes manuscripts were registered in advance of publication. Often, the book was printed first, and the actual book was brought in for copyright/registration.
William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon did not bring in the Sonnets for copyright registration. He was in Stratford in 1609, involved in country matters, including a long, protracted lawsuit against the tradesman Addenbrooke. Other poets profited from their publications. Even playwrights like Ben Jonson, who may not have owned certain plays after they were sold to the companies, still could sell their poems to publishers without restriction. It is a great unsolved mystery why Shakespeare did not attempt profit from his Sonnet book. Nor did he sue to stop or recall the publication. Furthermore, it is hard to understand why the Stratford man would allow the deeply personal, romantic, and erotic content of the Sonnets, some of which can be read as sexually ambivalent, to appear in print. The dedication mentions that the poet is ever-living. “Ever-living” means deceased—a denizen of eternal heaven. These complications have led careful readers for several centuries to doubt whether the Stratford man could really have been the author. If, however, the Sonnets author was deceased (as was the Earl of Oxford in 1604) we can understand how publishers might have gotten hold of a private manuscript, were able to print it without complaint, and any potential scandal was deflected with the author being dead, as well as veiled behind a brand name.
While many scholars and bibliographers of English Renaissance printing assume that the Sonnets book was printed after the May 20 registration, that date may actually represent the culmination of the printing process, not the outset.
I'm pretty sure that in the case of the Sonnets, the book was printed before May 20.
The entry in the Stationers’ Register reads:
May 20  "Thomas Thorpe -- Entred for his copie vnder the handes of master WILSON and master LOWNES Warden, a Booke called Shakespeares sonnettes, vj."
When the entry refers to a Book and the title entered by the clerk matches the known book, the printed book may predate the copyright. In a subsequent post I will give examples of Stationers entries that refer to manuscripts and those that indicate a finished book was brought to the Hall. Elizabethan censorship was supposed to be in advance --- a thorough vetting of each potential book. In practice, this was hardly ever done. The cases of censorship we have on record almost always involve the alteration of a previously allowed book, or a recall of extant copies. However, we have copies of even banned books. In 1599 the Bishops order in London called in all books by Nashe and Harvey for destruction. Yet copies of those books still exist.
Since the Sonnets existed in manuscript before 1598 and were already in print by May 20, 1609, it is quite possible that sample copies of the Sonnets could have been seen by elite readers in spring 1609.
Enigmas of the Sonnets include:
1. Who is "Mr. W.H.," the dedicatee, and "onlie begetter" of the Sonnets?
2. Do the Sonnets tell a story of the poet's life experience?
3. If the Sonnets are autobiographical, do all 154 sonnets relate to a single story / motif or to several?
4. If one accepts certain personalities in the sequence, the beloved, the Dark Lady, the rival poet, the "fair youth" or "lovely boy," then the temptation is strong to find real people to fit the templates.
by Robert Sean Brazil copyright 2009
More Sonnets analysis to follow!