Making Shakespeare’s Sonnets – part 5

If you were to leaf through Sir Sidney Lee’s 1898 Life of William Shakespeare, you’d find each chapter is broken into carefully headed sections. In one chapter, ‘The Sonnets and their Literary History’, you’d find the following headings:

  • Their piratical publication in 1609
  • Lack of genuine sentiment in Elizabethan sonnets
  • Sonnetteers’ admissions of insincerity
  • Slender autobiographical element in Shakespeare’s sonnets
  • Shakespeare’s claims of immortality for his sonnets a borrowed conceit

You may only just have calmed down from last week’s account of the blasts and counter-blasts of the Times Literary Supplement letters page: nevertheless, it’s worth looking over Sidney Lee’s headings and thinking back to the first letter from Brian Vickers, who objected to Jason Scott-Warren situating sonnet 116 in ‘a primarily homosexual context’. Vickers contended that ‘Shakespeare derived [116’s] speech situation, and many of his arguments, from Erasmus’s “Encomium Matrimonii”’; Vickers took care, too, to refer to ‘the poet-persona’ of the sonnets, adding in parenthesis ‘(autobiographical interpretations are fictive)’. More than 100 years before the TLS Letters Page Skirmish of October 2014, Sir Sidney Lee was also vigorously defending the view that Shakespeare’s sonnets were not direct expressions of Shakespeare’s own feelings: run through with a ‘lack of genuine sentiment’, rounded about with ‘insincerity’, held up by only a ‘slender’ skeleton of autobiographical content, if any; freckled with instances of ‘borrowed conceit’.

What, though, of that first bullet point: the section in which Lee’s account of ‘The Sonnets and their Literary History’ tells us of ‘their piratical publication in 1609’? You may be (understandably) angry: how, in God’s name, has it taken me five whole blog-posts to get to something involving the word ‘piratical’ – one of the most exciting words in the English language, save perhaps ‘astronautical’ or ‘velociraptoresque’? The practices of the alleged pirate were, I’m afraid, closer to the activities of a video pirate than they were Captains Metalbeard or Pugwash. Lee’s pirate was Thomas Thorpe, the book-seller who seems to have come by the rights to Shakespeare’s sonnets by the time that much was set down in the Stationers’ Register on the 20th May 1609. It’s Thorpe, then, who pops up on the title-page of Shake-speares Sonnets as T. T.:

Try and find out more about Thorpe and you’ll find he has long struggled to stay clear of suspicion. In his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, David Kathman has to assert Thorpe’s credentials:

In 1609 Thorpe published the work for which he is known to posterity: Shake-speares Sonnets. Despite the claims of commentators uncomfortable with the sequence’s homoeroticism, there is no indication that the volume was surreptitious or unauthorized. It was entered normally in the Stationers’ register on 20 May, and it fits well with the authorized volumes Thorpe published for other theatre people.

David Kathman, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Thomas Thorpe’, 2004

Indeed in 1983 Katherine Duncan-Jones, later to edit the sonnets for the Arden Shakespeare, felt the need to make the case for Thorpe in the course of an article, ‘Was the 1609 SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS Really Unauthorized?’: ‘I hope I have gone far enough’, she reflects, ‘to show that he was probably not the unscrupulous entrepreneur for which he has been taken’.

Before Kathman updated the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, the account of Thorpe’s life lay in the hands of none other than Sir Sidney Lee. His interpretation of Thorpe’s career was very different:

In the absence, in the early part of the seventeenth century, of any legal recognition of an author’s right to control the publication of his work, the actual holder of a manuscript was its lawful and responsible owner, no matter by what means it had fallen into his hands. Thorpe was fortunate enough to obtain between 1605 and 1611 at least nine manuscript volumes of literary interest, viz. three plays by Chapman, four works of Ben Jonson (including ‘Sejanus,’ 1605), Coryat’s ‘Odcombian Banquet,’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ (1609). The last—the most interesting of all—which had many years earlier circulated in manuscript among Shakespeare’s ‘private friends,’ was entered by Thorpe on the ‘Stationers’ Registers’ on 20 May 1609. There, as on the published title-page, he styled his treasure-trove ‘Shakespeares Sonnets’—a tradesmanlike collocation of words which is one of the many proofs that the author was in no way associated with Thorpe’s project. 

Sidney Lee, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘Thomas Thorpe’, 1898

This, you’ll note, draws on much the same evidence as Kathman: Lee’s Thorpe ‘was fortunate enough to obtain […] at least nine manuscript volumes of literary interest’; these are the ‘authorized volumes’ which Kathman’s Thorpe ‘published for other theatre people’. Lee’s reading of the book’s title – it being a ‘tradesmanlike collocation of words’ – is interesting: many sonnet collections of the time have, in print, the name of their apparent subject(s) as their title (Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella; Thomas Lodge’s Phillis; Samuel Daniel’s Delia). But it’s still a bit of a reach: the title for the first folio, Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, doesn’t seem of an obviously different order to Shakespeares Sonnets.

One reason for Lee’s distrust of Thorpe may lie quite outside the book which Thorpe had George Eld commit to print in 1609. On April 26th, 1895, Oscar Wilde stood trial for ‘gross indecency’, having lost a libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry: in the course of that trial, Wilde vs Queensberry, it was demonstrated to the court’s satisfaction that the Marquess claiming Wilde a ‘sodomite’ in a public forum had been warranted as ‘true in substance and in fact’. The trial that then ensued, Regina vs Wilde, sought to prosecute Wilde’s homosexuality: in one prominent exchange, Charles Gill, prosecuting, asked Wilde to explain a turn of phrase that cropped up in correspondence send to Lord Alfred Douglas, a.k.a. ‘Bosie’, Queensberry’s son and Wilde’s lover.

Charles Gill: What is “the love that dare not speak its name”?

Wilde:     “The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are.

Was this exchange in Sir Sidney’s mind as he read through Shakespeare’s sonnets, perhaps -initially – in sequence; charting, with consternation, a story of homosexual attraction across sonnets 1 to 126, before the ‘fair youth’ hitherto addressed is abruptly left behind, and the ‘dark lady’ of sonnets 127 to 154 is addressed instead? Even if he wasn’t ruminating on Wilde’s reading and court-room citation of the sonnets when reading over them later on in the 1890s, perhaps Sir Sidney Lee felt particularly impelled to wonder at the coherence of the poems, the sequence of the poems, their genesis in print, and their closeness to Shakespeare’s own life experience, because he too detected the possibility of ‘a deep spiritual affection’ between two men – one of them William Shakespeare, no less! – when he read them like this. Directly or indirectly, it’s possible that Lee’s firm belief in Thorpe’s piracy was motivated by Wilde’s trial for ‘gross indecency’.

Next week’s post will look in detail at editorial treatments of Sonnet 20 – click on the link for the Internet Shakespeare Editions facsimile of the 1609 text.

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