Scorn not the sonnet. Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart.
Only thirteen copies of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS survive, making it a very rare volume indeed. It was published
in 1609, although some of the stanzas may have been written as long before as 1592. Two of them, Sonnets CXXXVIII
and CXLIV, had already appeared in "versions" in the Passionate Pilgrim of 1599, according to Sir Edmund
Chambers. Chambers, who from his writings appears to be a no-nonsense scholar, seems to have mistakenly
popularized Roman numerals for the identification of the Sonnet stanzas. However the numbering in the original
Sonnet quarto was printed in familiar Arabic characters, such as 138 and 144; these correspond to Chambers' Roman
numeral notation. This example will serve as a warning: facsimiles of originals are the only ones suitable for careful
This book of Sonnets was a paperback having 80 pages; on the first 67 were printed the 154 Sonnets . At the end
were attached the ten pages of A Lovers complaint , "By William Shake-speare." Though that claim of authorship is
thus made in print, it is unacceptable, among most Shakespearean scholars, to insist that he wrote both titles. Many
proper judges of style and literary technique have determined that A Lovers Complaint is an inferior and spurious
work, one unworthy of the Master's pen, though it was appended to his book of Sonnets and the Bard is plainly
identified as the author.
Thomas Thorpe, an experienced publisher, registered the book at Stationer's Hall in London on May 20 of the same
year. It attracted very little notice, in fact almost none at all. An actor, Edward Alleyn, wrote in his household
accounts diary that he had bought it for five pence. It was not republished until 1640 when a mangled version was
done by John Benson. The complete text of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS was not reprinted until 1711. The late
Fifteenth and early Sixteenth Century in England was a remarkable period of literary renaissance yet the book fell
noiselessly upon that scene. There had been previous mention of "Shakespeare's Sugr'd Sonnets" and these were said
to have been privately circulated among his friends, but no other contemporary comment about this 1609 book
seems to exist. Shakespeare was, of course, a well-known actor and many of the plays attributed to him had already
been published in quarto size. Perhaps his Sonnets didn't sell well.
At the present time there has been accumulated an enormous bulk of literary criticism of the Sonnets which is
exceeded only by that devoted to "Hamlet." It has been suggested that this book of love-poems was withdrawn or
suppressed shortly after publication.
It also has been speculated that Thomas Thorpe somehow acquired the manuscript and had it printed without the
author's permission. Registration was the usual form of copyright then, and the first man to enter a book at
Stationer's Hall was granted permission to publish under that title and was thus recognized as the owner. Critics
have said that the book must not have been proofread by the author, or anyone else, because of the very many
errors to be found in the text; some appear to go beyond mere typographical blunders.
However the Shakespeare quartos of the plays published before 1623 also contained sundry serious misprints. Some
of them were corrected when the plays were republished in the 1623 Folio edition. They were not only corrected,
they were amended, rewritten and supplemented, and this seven years after Shakespeare's death in 1616. Yet other
plays to be found in the Folio were republished with most of the quarto typographical errors intact.
The following is a (hopefully accurate) list of the "Shakespeare" works first published, or republished, in quarto:
Date Title Author Named
1591 Troublesome Raigne of King John Anonymous
1593 Venus and Adonis (poem) William Shakespeare
1593 The Rape of Lucrece (poem) William Shakespeare
1594 Titus Andronicus Anonymous
1594 The Taming of a Shrew Anonymous
1594 First Part of the Contention Anonymous
1594 Second Part of Henry VI Anonymous
1594 Tragedie Richard Duke of York Anonymous
1595 2nd & 3rd Parts of Henry VI Anonymous
1595 *Tragedie of Locrine VV. S.
1596 The Taming of the Shrew Anonymous
1597 The Taming of the Shrew Anonymous
1597 Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet Anonymous
1597 Tragedie of King Richard 2nd Anonymous
1597 Tragedie King Richard third Anonymous
1597 Romeo and Juliet Anonymous
1598 History of Henrie the 4th Anonymous
1598 Famous Victories (Henry V) Anonymous
1598 Tragedie King Richard 2nd William Shake-speare
1598 Richard the Third William Shake-speare
1598 First Part of Henry IV Anonymous
1598 Loves labors lost W. Shakespeare
1599 Romeo and Juliet Anonymous
1599 First Part of Henry IV W. Shake-speare
1600 Cronicle History of Henry 5th Anonymous
1600 Second Part of Henry VI Anonymous
1600 2nd & 3rd Parts of Henry VI Anonymous
1600 Titus Andronicus Anonymous
1600 Henry V Anonymous
1600 Historie Merchant of Venice William Shakespeare
1600 Much adoe about Nothing William Shakespeare
1600 A Midsommer nights dreame William Shakespeare
1600 *Life of Sir Iohn Old-castle William Shakespeare
1602 The merrie Wives of Windsor William Shakespeare
1602 *Life of Thomas Lord Cromwell W. S.
1602 Henry V Anonymous
1602 Richard III William Shake-speare
1603 Tragicall Historie of Hamlet William Shake-speare
1604 Tragicall Historie of Hamlet William Shake-speare
1604 First Part of Henry IV W. Shake-speare
1605 *The London Prodigall VV. Shakespeare
1605 Richard III William Shake-speare
1605 Hamlet William Shakespeare
1607 *The Puritaine W. S.
1608 Chronicle Historie King Lear M. William Shak-speare
1608 Richard II William Shake-speare
1608 Henry V William Shake-speare
1608 First Part of Henry IV W. Shake-speare
1608 *A Yorkshire Tragedy VV. Shakspeare
1609 Historie Troylus and Cresseida William Shakespeare
1609 Pericles, Prince of Tyre William ( ) Shakespeare
1609 Romeo and Juliet Anonymous
1609 Romeo and Juliet (2nd quarto) Anonymous
1609 Troilus and Cressida William Shake-speare
1609 Shake-speares Sonnets Shake-speare
1611 Titus Andronicus Anonymous
1611 Hamlet William Shake-speare
1611 Troublesome Raigne of King John W. Sh. . .
1612 Richard III William Shake-speare
1613 First Part of Henry IV W. Shake-speare
1615 Richard II William Shake-speare
1619 Henry V Anonymous
1619 2nd & 3rd Parts of Henry VI Anonymous
1619 Pericles William Shakespeare
1619 *A Yorkshire Tragedy William Shakespeare
1619? The Merchant of Venice W. Shakespeare
1619? A Midsummer Night's Dreame William Shakespeare
1619? The Merry Wives of Windsor W. Shakespeare
1619? K.Lear M.William Shake-speare
1622 Troublesome Raigne of King John W. Shakespeare
1622 Richard II William Shake-speare
1622 First Part of Henry IV William Shake-speare
1622 Othello William Shakespeare
Those marked "*" were not written by Shakespeare according to Sir Sidney Lee, Edmund Chambers and other
orthodox scholars. The six plus "Pericles," a play which is also regarded with scholarly suspicion, were omitted from
the first and second Folios, but included in the third and fourth. Those questioning whether Shakespeare wrote any
plays at all have remarked upon this. Three of the plays that are now declared to be spurious have the full name of
William Shakespeare on their title-pages, while two others are stamped with the name "VV. Shakespeare". Why this
clear evidence is not accepted by conventional Stratfordians, the arbiters of "stylistic difference," as certain proof that
he wrote them is not satisfactorily explained. So far as the remaining quarto plays are concerned the appearance of
Shakespeare's name, or even of no name (anonymous), is regarded as compelling evidence of his authorship.
And why were the plays published anonymously until 1598? In 1597 Queen Elizabeth had objected vigorously to the
play of "Richard II," claiming that it was traitorous; she asked Francis Bacon who wrote it. His devious reply has
been mentioned in a previous chapter. The following year the play was published with Shakespeare's name upon the
In Nicholas Rowe's Life of William Shakespeare , this is said about the Earl of Southampton, a close friend of Francis
"There is one Instance so singular in the Magnificence of this Patron of Shakespeare's, that if I had not been assur'd
that the Story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his Affairs,
I should not have ventur'd to have inserted, that my Lord Southampton, at one time, gave him a thousand Pounds,
to enable him to go through with a Purchase which he heared he had a mind to."
Had Lord Southampton also "heared" that the actor Shakespeare "had a mind to" reveal the source of his
Sir Sidney Lee says:
"On May 4th , he purchased the largest house in the town, known as New Place [in Stratford]. It had been built
by Sir Hugh Clopton, more than a century before; it had fallen into a ruinous condition. But Shakespeare paid for it,
with two barns and two gardens, the then substantial sum of sixty pounds" [@].
If an old twelve-room house, two barns and two gardens (farms if they had barns) cost only sixty pounds in 1597,
what must a thousand pounds have been worth in today's inflated dollars? And why was this gift made almost
contemporaneously with the first appearance of William Shakespeare's name on a quarto of one of the plays?
Well, for some reason, the various antecedent title-deeds for this house and its barns and gardens, upon which the
new owner's title crucially depended, were kept in the seller's possession and not delivered until the Bard sued the
deceased seller's heir six years later. It has been suggested that these earlier conveyances were retained (as a kind of
mortgage) so as to insure the performance of some clandestine bargain.
Following the publication of "Pericles" in 1609, Shakespeare a year later returned permanently to Stratford and lived
until 1616. Seven years after he died twenty new plays were published in the First Folio. When were they written?
The Stratfordian scholars presume, as they very often are obliged to do, that he must have written them before he
died. If so, such plays were of great commercial value. Why did he not publish them instead of suing his
Warwickshire neighbors for a few shillings? Litigants so greedy as that are, in my experience, in dire circumstances.
What had he done with the rest of the thousand pounds-- made other bad loans, a few shillings at a time, at usurious
Richard Grant White (Life and Genius of William Shakespeare , c. 1900) was a strong admirer of the poet. However
when confronted with Shakespeare's litigious record in the Stratford courts, he wrote:
"The pursuit of an impoverished man for the sake of imprisoning him and depriving him both of the power of
paying his debts and supporting himself and his family, is an incident in Shakespeare's life which it requires the
utmost allowance and consideration for the practice of the time and country to enable us to contemplate with
equanimity-- satisfaction is impossible. . .The biographer of Shakespeare must record these facts because the literary
antiquaries have unearthed and brought them forward as new particulars of the life of Shakespeare. We hunger and
receive these husks; we open our mouths for food and we break our teeth against these stones."
This William of Stratford, we are asked to concede, was the man who wrote The Merchant of Venice .
We shall be concerned, for the time being, not with the quality of the Sonnets but with the first two leaves thereof. A
page is one side of a leaf and there are two, just two, blank pages in the Sonnets . These vacant spaces follow the
title-page and the Dedication. In Robert Giroux's The Book Known as Q , he takes exception to such waste. He says
(p. 164): "[These are] the only blanks among the cramped eighty pages-- while the Sonnets run on, page after page, in
annoyingly crowded fashion" [@]. Giroux, a publisher himself and familiar with the printing of the afterward folded
large sheets (signatures) with which two, four or more pages of a book were then bound, says that this appears to be
intentional. He thinks, or perhaps suspects, that some emphasis was intended for these two pages, or at least for the
He says, but does not particularly notice, that the words of the Dedication are separated by "full stops," the
punctuator's method of adding points-- the periods. Thirty of such points appear, in a most unnecessary sort of way.
Still, he does characterize it as "peculiar."
So far I can tell, from scattered readings, it is unique. No book of that time had such an emphasized dedication, or
any similar strange ornament on its pages. The compositor must have had plenty of quad in his font of type, for
white spaces to set between the words, without filling in the lines with so many bothersome periods.
Giroux quotes from Northrop Frye about the wording of the Dedication; it is "one floundering and illiterate
sentence...no more likely to be an accurate statement of fact than any other commercial plug." Giroux examines the
various explanations and the critics' apologies for the senseless wording of the Dedication. He concludes, "No, this
rendering won't do, and it was chosen from scores of others to illustrate the peculiar fact that there is no
interpretation that does not have a flaw."
On p. 163 of his book Giroux prints the Dedication to the Sonnets .
He introduces it in this way:
"The peculiar punctuation of the thirteen lines-- as much as the ambiguity of the word 'begetter'-- makes a circular
and unsolvable puzzle out of the strange concoction that Thorpe signed 'T.T.' 'T.T.,' a poor stationer with good taste
earned a niche for himself in literary history, as the author of an enigmatic dedication destined to become the most
notorious red herring in English literature, and as the publisher of William Shakespeare's Sonnets ."
Lytton Strachey wrote in 1905:
"He is a bold man who sets out in quest of the key which shall unlock the mystery of Shakespeare's Sonnets . In that
country the roads make heavy walking, and 'airy tongues that syllable men's names lure the unwary traveller at
every turn, into paths already white with the bones of innumerable commentators.
"Yet the fascination of the search seems to outweigh its dangers, for each year adds to the number of these sanguine
explorers, while it engulfs their predecessors in deeper oblivion. . .its solution seems to offer hopes of a prize of
extraordinary value-- nothing less than a true insight into the most secret recesses of the thoughts and feelings of
perhaps the greatest man who ever lived.
"The belief that the Sonnets contain the clue which leads straight into the hidden penetralia of Shakespeare's
biograph is at the root of most of the investigation that has been spent upon them. . ." [@].
Many others have battled with the confusion of the Dedication. There has been endless speculation as to the identity
of "Mr.W.H.", the "ONLIE.BEGETTER." of the Sonnets . These initials were very common and the foremost
William Herbert, Third Earl of Pembroke.
Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, with his initials reversed, or with his name spelled "WriotHesley."
As a measure of then commonplace enunciation, the name was pronounced "Wrizly."
William Hall, a printer of low repute.
William Hathaway, Shakespeare's brother-in-law.
William Hughes ("Hews" is an italicized word in Sonnet 20).
William Harvey (Hervey?).
William Hatcliffe, a law student.
Henry Willobie (initials reversed again).
William Himself, a choice showing an elementary imagination.
Someone who stole the manuscript and sold it to Thomas Thorpe.
In a scholarly college-level text it is stated, about the Dedication:
"The chief enigmas embodied in the wording are as follows:
1. What is a "begetter"?
2. What does "onlie" mean?
3. Who was Mr. W. H.?
4. Who was the Well-wishing Adventurer?
5. What is the meaning of "setting forth"?
6. What does "promised" mean; to whom was "eternitie" "promised"?
7. Who was T. T.?
8. What is the syntax of the Dedication?" [@].
Hard questions indeed. Dyson, and some other editors of The Casebook series, attempt to answer them; they
summarize the various available opinions which often conflict with one another. Putting aside all but the last, an
interesting comment is made:
"The syntax of the Dedication : The printing of the Dedication is lapidary, i.e. closely similar to that of many
inscriptions in stone. It has a full stop after every word. The pointing, therefore, does not help in determining the
syntax. . ."
Perhaps they were thinking of the riddle of Robert Burton's tomb ("Democritus Junior," 1577-1640); his monument
displays an inscription engraved in stone, with a comma after every word. It was erected in Christ Church Cathedral
at Oxford, and is reminiscent of old Roman tombs on which the words of the inscription were usually separated by
various small marks or symbols.
It seems that there were two printings of the Sonnets , distinguishableby variances in their respective title-pages (see
photo illustrations). This is not to say that there were two editions, in the parlance of librarians and rare-book
collectors. The other pages were unchanged.
And the avowed date of the Sonnets , 1609, is by no means certain. Other books of the period were printed with false
dates, as were some of the quarto plays. It has been proposed by some experts in Elizabethan liter-ature that this
issue was actually published ten or fifteen years before the year indicated.
The surviving 13 copies of the Sonnets are scattered. In England two are at the Bodleian library at Oxford, two more
at the British Museum, one at Trinity College in Cambridge and another at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
In the States there are another six copies: two at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D. C., two at the
Huntington Library in California, one in the library of Harvard University and another at the Elizabethan Club, Yale.
A final copy, to make 13, is at the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Geneva Switzerland. Seven have the Iohn Wright imprint,
four have William Aspley on the colophon, and two have no surviving title-pages. The Folger has both the Wright
and Aspley printings.
During the printing, one or the other of the Wright-Aspley title-page forms was torn down and a new chase put into
the press. No one knows which one came last or first.
Yet the provocative periods, between each word of the strange Dedication, were not disturbed from one printing to