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Shakespeare Had No Part in the Publication of His 1609 Sonnets

Photo: Title page of the 1609 Sonnets, from its Wikipedia page.


Clinton Heylin's So Long As Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets is a very quick and interesting read about Shakespeare's unauthorized (according to the author--and I agree with him) 1609 Sonnets.  He deals with the times very well, and with the publishers, printers and other authors of the time, too.  He tackles a lot of issues, a lot of theories, and a lot of the works of other critics, both old and current (including current literary critic Katherine Duncan-Jones, who he criticizes so brusquely, so often, and with such glee, that it seems personal), and does so with a breezy writing style and a lot of his own research and proof.  He writes more about how many critics are wrong about something (especially the fore-mentioned Duncan-Jones) than he does about what he's right about, but finally he takes a stand about why he thinks Shakespeare played no part in the publication of his sonnets in 1609. 


I don't like the method in which he does this, however.  He essentially summarizes the thoughts about a topic, then writes about what literary critics throughout the ages have written about that topic, then writes about why he thinks they're wrong about what they've written (again, especially Duncan-Jones, who he really seems to dislike personally), and then--and only then--writes about what he believes is correct, and why.


However, at that point, he states his case well, and the reader has a thorough understanding of the idea, the history of the idea, all the people surrounding that idea, what the critics have written about that idea, and finally what he thinks about that idea.  When you're done, you feel as if you've learned something, and you feel like you've just read from an authority, which I suppose you have.


And so to take it from there, listed below are my reasons for why I believe Shakespeare had no part in the 1609 publication of his sonnets.  If I can toot my own horn here a moment, I'll point out that I wrote all of these down after I read up to page 91, and that Heylin only writes about a couple of them.  The rest--for better or for worse--are all mine.


I believe that Shakespeare did not approve of, or participate in, the publication of his Sonnets because:


--He was in semi-retirement by 1609, rather late in the game to publish a book of sonnets.  Such a thing would've been done to jump-start a career at that time, not end one.  Shakespeare would be fully retired just four years after its publication.  He'd be dead within seven years of its publication.


--The sonnet fad had petered out in London by the late-1590s.  Shakespeare was a follower of fads; his thumb was very much on the pulse of his public.  He would not have published something a decade out of fashion.  If he'd wanted them published at all, he would have published all 154 of them by 1595.


--By the end of the 154 sonnets, he was clearly tired of them as a mode of expression.  Shakespeare was forever changing his writing styles, so much so that by 1609, his Problem Plays showed a roving creative mind that was at odds as to how it wanted to express itself.  By 1609, Tempest-time, he was WAY over the sonnets as a mode of expression.


--Though he embedded sonnets into his plays throughout his career, he last used them in his plays with seriousness of presentation in Romeo and Juliet, in roughly 1593.


--The Sonnets have a very (infamously) questionable Dedication that speaks more of its publisher and procurer than it does of its writer.  Or of Pembroke, or of Wriothesley, or of whomever.


--By 1609, the leading dramatist of London, a part-owner of the Globe, a very wealthy man and a very esteemed Gentleman, owner of two huge homes and two large tracts of land, and the favorite of all of the King's Men to the King himself, had no need at all of a sponsor, of an Earl of Anything, to support him, or to sponsor his writings.  But he would have in 1593, though not any later than that.  And he would not finish writing something by 1595 and wait until 1609 to publish them--if he wanted to publish them at all.


--In 1593, sonnets were hot; in 1609, they were not.  Shakespeare, who was very good at making money, at striking while the iron was hot, would've published all 154 of his sonnets--if he'd wanted to publish them at all--by 1595, in order to make as much money as possible from them.  Though a huge name by 1609, his sonnets would not have been, and indeed were not, a bestseller.  He would know that.  Though not one to turn away from money, he would not have needed it badly enough by 1609 to publish these sonnets.  But Thomas Thorpe was that desperately in need.  How did he procure these sonnets if Shakespeare didn't give them to him?  Nobody knows.  But they did not know each other well.  Thorpe was not amongst his friends.


--We're taught that the Sonnets, when combined, create a storyline created by three large groupings of them.  An older, wiser man urges a younger man, whom he obviously loves, and fantasizes about, and whom he is possibly having a relationship with, to procreate so that he can live forever (though the narrator insists that his art of writing will do this for the younger man as well); a convoluted affair between the younger man, the narrator, and a "dark lady," creates anguish for the narrator; the "dark lady" and the younger man leave the narrator stewing in his own bitterness and lust.


This is actually not the case.  There's no connected storyline here.  The three groupings are not seamlessly connected.  In fact, quite often, back-to-back sonnets are not connected.  Shakespeare would not have published them like this, in these groupings.  They are three distinct groups, one not having to do with the other.  And I'm not even convinced that there are three groupings here.  I'd bet that Thorpe put this together more than I would that Shakespeare did.


--Sonnets 1-17 strike me as a group of sonnets that a 1590s Shakespeare would have been hired to write so that whomever hired him could deliver them to the Earl of Pembroke, who slept around a lot, never wanted to marry, ignored his Queen's urging to marry specific women, who was apparently super-handsome and beloved by all (if you know what I'm sayin') and who finally married, though not happily, nor exclusively, by 1608.  It was a common practice for writers to get paid to write such things, as well as elegies, eulogies, songs for others' plays, etc.


--Shakespeare was also not one to beat a dead horse, or to repeat something over and over without even the slightest of thematic change.  Yet all sonnets 1-17 say is: "Give birth so you don't die," and nothing more.


--Shakespeare was a hugely profitable and popular writer by 1609.  He would not have given any writing to Thomas Thorpe, who already had one foot in bankruptcy and the other in ineptitude.  His writing would've gone to the best publisher and bookseller (as one was commonly both) in London.


--The Sonnets are infamously uneven.  Some are eternal masterpieces.  But #145 is clearly an earlier sophomoric, badly-conceived, melodramatic, juvenile effort, probably written for Anne Hathaway (as her name is punned within it) before they were married, when Shakespeare was about 19.  By 1609, at age 45, he would have blanched to see it in print, for all of super-critical London to see.  This would be like me seeing my high school stories in print.


--The Sonnets, as I mentioned, do not have an arrangement that Shakespeare would have devised.  The last two sonnets, called the "Cupid Sonnets," have nothing at all to do with the previous 152 sonnets.  Numbers 29 and 30 are clearly companion pieces, mirror-images of each other.  But #129 is a bitter and violent purge of self-hatred and regret, about a narrator who lusts uncontrollably for a "dark lady," and is in a self-created Hell because of it.  #130 is an amusing over-exaggeration of a woman's physical imperfections, too numerous to be taken seriously, the point being that their love is special because it's not based on a superficial physicality.  In other words, there's no lust involved.  These simply do not go together.  The genius who intertwined the complexities of the double-plot of King Lear, and who combined pitch-perfect self-examination with a revenge plot in Hamlet, did not put these sonnets together.


--#126, alone of all 154, are six pairs of rhyming couplets--12 lines, not 14--and therefore also does not have the same rhyme scheme as the others.  It's a well-written experiment, not meant to be included with all the rest.  #99 has 15 lines, not 14, as line 5 is extraneous.  Further proof that the Sonnets were published without Shakespeare's supervision--and certainly without his approval.


These are the reasons why I believe that Shakespeare played no part in the 1609 publication of his sonnets.

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Very interesting piece! There

Very interesting piece!

There are some, of course, that "William Shakespeare" had no part in writing his plays...

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That's true, Katherine.  But from my experience reading and researching this kind of thing for the last eon, I have found that those who don't believe that Shakespeare wrote his own plays believe this because they don't understand the true nature of genius.  Shakespeare didn't go to university like Jonson and others did, but his grammar school education is far and away better than any elementary, junior high and high school education today--combined!  Genius just is--it just manifests itself.  It doesn't need a university education.  Einstein, after all, never graduated high school.  Neither did Edison, Lincoln, Socrates, etc.

Doubters also comment on how prolific this supposedly inarticulate farmer was--and so how could he have been so prolific?  Well, first of all, Shakespeare's father was a glover, a respectable job then, and also a mayor-like person in Stratford, which itself was an important city and not the backwater that people say.   His mother came from the Ardens, a very prestigious family nearby.  Shakespeare's wife was also from a good family.

Also, he wrote 40+ plays, 154 sonnets, and some elegies and other printed material.  A lot?  Sure.  But not by Elizabethan England standards.  The really prolific guy back then wrote hundreds of plays, usually in colloboration.

Shakespeare didn't just write.  He was part-owner of the Globe Theatre, and possibly also of the Blackfriars.  He owned property in London and in Stratford.  He bought a coat of arms for his father.  He left a lot of property, money and belongings to his daughters and their husbands and children.  (He infamously left their "second-best bed" to his wife, a common practice at the time.  The best bed was used for visitors, so the "second-best bed" would be the one used by the couple themselves.  Since the man was the owner and host of the house, the best bed would go to someone who would own the home.  Therefore, the best bed probably went to one of Shakespeare's son-in-laws.)  Anyway, he wasn't just some country bumpkin.

Lastly, the best proof is that his friends and business associates at the time testified to his greatness.  Those who put the 1623 Folio together spent a lot of their own money and even more of their time to put that together.  They wrote of his greatness, and for his laid-back, friendly and fun personality.  Playgoers at the time wrote of his plays and performances.  Some even wrote about his specific performances, as Adam in "As You Like It," and possibly as Hamlet's father's ghost.  His performance in Ben Jonson's Sejanus was heavily remarked upon.

And Shakespeare was very popular and well-respected in his own lifetime.  King James II sought him out, along with the rest of Shakespeare's acting group, and liked them so much that he sponsored them himself, changing the group's name from Lord Chamberlain's Men to the King's Men.  Critics of the time wrote jealous things about him, one of them calling him an "upstart crow."  He leaves money for gold rings for a few of his friends from the theatre.  An imposter would not do that!

As you can see, this is a bit of an issue with me!  Just a little bit of research proves his existence, from Stratford-Upon-Avon to London, and then back again.

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I am not claiming that

I am not claiming that Shakespeare did not write his plays... But I like to keep an open mind about it.  My thoughts are not based on history but on the varying styles his plays are written in.  I don't suppose we shall ever know.  

May I suggest a book with a rather unappealing title but truly rivetting contents, calle The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Martin Keatman and Graham Phillips?

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Thanks for the book suggestion.  I'll see if it's at my library.  And sorry for the diatribe--that was just a gestation aimed at naysayers and conspiracy theorists in general.  As you can see, that's a HUGE peeve of mine!

Nerdy, I know.