Making Shakespeare’s Sonnets – part 1

In this series I’ll be examining how the text(s) we know as ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ were first made – and how they continue to be re-made.

If you haven’t read Shakespeare’s sonnets, you’ll find that they are – by most accounts – quite good. Skim through the Amazon reviews and you’ll find a very large majority are five stars: no messing; bish bosh bang; enough said.

Four Amazon reviews which read as following:

Mr A Lanigan: 'What needs saying?'

Nikolai77: 'It's all been said already, and what can I say about Shakespeare's incomparable sonnets that has not been said before by those far more qualified to do so?'

Phil H: 'My words are inadequate to wax eloquently.'

emerald: 'What can one say about Shakespeare except he's great.'

‘What needs saying?’ Mr Lanigan may be right: what does need saying? Keep looking through the reviews and you find, as might perhaps be expected, a great many comments exploring the experience of reading this text, Shakespeare’s Sonnets – that is to say, this particular edition (these, incidentally, are reviews for the Arden Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited by Katharine Duncan-Jones). Amazon groups all these reviews together – but you’ll note even from the screenshots above that these readers engaged with Shakespeare’s sonnets in slightly different media: Phil H and Nikolai77 owned hardover copies; ’emerald’ had a paperback; Mr A. Lanigan downloaded the kindle edition.

Though Amazon treats these different versions of reading material as more or less interchangeable, the reviewers themselves are highly attentive to the precise ways in which they choose to interact with the texts now in their possession. Though Phil H doubts his ability to ‘wax eloquently’, he goes on to posit very extensively a particular reading experience: ‘ensconce yourself in your most favourite chair’, he advises, ‘soft music playing in the background, or via Sennheiser (448 or 558) OTE headphones available at Amazon, with brew of your choice at hand, then embrace some wonderful moments in your life!’

Such is his commitment to this reading experience, Phil H’s review for the Sennheiser headphones specifically advises using them while reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. (Not really.)

Such attention to the materials and activity of reading is especially encouraged by Shakespeare in the sonnets. At various points throughout his sonnets he draws the reader’s attention to – for example – ‘his papers, yellowed with their age’ (sonnet 17), imagining how ‘these poor rude lines’ (32) might be resurveyed by a reader in the future, hoping, he says, that ‘in black ink my love may still shine bright’ (65). ‘Let my books be then my eloquence’, the speaker says in sonnet 23; in sonnet 77 he instructs his addressee in how best to use ‘the vacant leaves’ which his ‘mind’s imprint will bear’. In sonnet 73, the book stands in for the absent writer:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west […]

Shakespeare might not be thinking of his readers wearing Sennheiser headphones, but he is, I think, inviting those readers to reflect upon themselves reading as they look over the ‘yellow leaves’ of a book. And, while Katharine Duncan-Jones is correct to say ‘the phrase Bare ruined choirs […] inevitably evokes visual recollections of chancels of abbeys left desolate by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries’, the spelling in the earliest printed version of the poem, quiers, might also particularly invite the reader to be thinking about the bookiness of the book they’re holding: a quire, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a set of four sheets of parchment or paper folded in two so as to form eight leaves; any gathering or set of sheets forming part of a complete manuscript or printed book’.

In the ‘Making Shakespeare’s Sonnets’ series of blogs, I’ll be looking at how the notional reader’s engagement with the sonnets has been shaped and re-shaped by a whole bundle of different people in Shakespeare’s lifetime and across the centuries following his death. If we can call them ‘textual agents’ – editors, printers, critics, readers – then that may sound a little like everything they do with the sonnets (and everything they do to them) is wholly thought out, deliberate; each a concerted act of interpretation. That might not always be the case. Nevertheless, over the next few weeks’ worth of blogs, I hope to show how small tweaks in the print presentation, the subsequent editing, and the technological refashioning of the 1609 edition of Shake-speares Sonnets have all come together to significantly alter a reader’s relationship with Shakespeare’s writing.

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