Making Shakespeare’s Sonnets – part 6

A long delay. Once George Eld had printed Shake-speares Sonnets for Thomas Thorpe, it was over thirty years before something like Shakespeare’s sonnets appeared in print again. In 1640, readers were able to purchase ‘POEMS:‘, as the bookseller John Benson described them, ‘WRITTEN BY WIL. SHAKESPEARE. GENT.’ This collection differed from Thomas Thorpe’s in several important respects. Various sonnets were stitched together as longer poems, and, in each case, assigned titles which glossed an apparently unifying theme. The titles run the gamut from outright banal (‘The glorie of beautie’ or ‘Love’s Cruelty’, say – to vague (‘Melancholie thoughts’) – to strange (”Magazine of Beautie’ or ‘Unanimitie’). For my part, I simply can’t choose a favourite out of ‘The Force of Love’ and ‘Fast and Loose’, which sounds like a really quite catchy Chuck Berry track despite never having been a song either written or performed by Chuck Berry.

While we don’t know how much Eld and his men might be said to have changed Shakespeare’s sonnets, it’s possible to note with much more certainty the changes made to Shake-speares Sonnets by Benson and all subsequent editors. Katherine Duncan-Jones points out a key effect brought about by the re-ordering of the sonnets in the decades and centuries following Eld’s initial publication of them:

The publisher John Benson in 1640 was the first of many editors who have seen fit to treat the individual sonnets like cards in a pack, reshuffling them to produce a layout — often, as in the Benson text, heterosexual — felt to be worthy of the Swan of Avon.

Katherine Duncan-Jones, ‘Was the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets Really Unauthorized?’, The Review of English Studies 34:134 (1983) pp. 151-71, p. 151

As we’ve seen in previous instalments, this particular case is still far from closed: by choosing to refer to Eld’s Shake-speares Sonnets as a ‘collection’, say, or perhaps instead a ‘sequence’, a literary critic can afford themselves a line of argument to do with the sonnets’ content.

While those arguments may run and run for some time yet before everyone enjoys a definitive conclusion, they draw helpful attention to several of the central, energising ambiguities of the poems. Centuries of scholars have tried to fix an understanding of the sonnets, according to different notions of the sonnets’ ordering, and, therefore, the situations or storylines they may describe, and – therefore – the figures involved in the situations described. Consider some of the editorial treatments of the following sonnet:

Scanning over the centuries of responses to this sonnet compiled in The New Variorum Shakespeare, it’s striking just how many critics have agonised over the apparently gay attraction that’s described here. Writing about this sonnet in 1780 George Steevens almost blew his wig off in fury, irked that ‘it is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation’. As I’ve shown with the highlights above, editors have long beetled about on the surface of this text, all looking for a way to arrange the genders which it discusses into a configuration that they deem more proper to it.

Many of those editors change the ‘man’ of line 6 in the forthright belief that the word simply must be incorrect: when, after all, have men ever been physically attracted to men??

The words “man in” almost certainly are a corruption of some epithet, because a manly hue would neither steal men’s eyes nor surprise women’s souls; and the whole point of the sonnet is that the friend’s beauty is feminine. In the previous two lines his “eye” has been compared with a woman’s, and we should expect a similar comparison to his “hue” to preserve the balance of the double comparison in the first quatrain. I propose, therefore, to read “a maiden hue.”

H. C. Beeching, Sonnets (Athenaeum Press, 1904) 

When these editors cast about for some specific reasons for distrusting what’s there on the page, they turn up some lively speculations. Witness this interposition of a scribe between Shakespeare and Eld’s men – a scribe, that is, with very particular handwriting:

The scribe’s habit of not dotting his i’s and of giving final n’s and m’s an upward and backward turn…misled the compositor into reading man instead of maid.

Samuel Tannenbaum, ‘The ‘Copy’ for Shakspere’s Sonnets’, PQ, 10 (1931), pp. 393-5, p. 394

It’s possible that such a scribe existed, but it’s worth stressing that there’s no evidence anywhere that any scribe was involved in the transmission of the sonnets from Shakespeare’s desk to the compositor’s stick. If such a scribe did exist, there’s no record of who that scribe was; there’s no evidence that such a scribe exhibited the quirks of handwriting demanded by Tannenbaum’s reading. It’s all possible, of course; but the highly specific circumstances that are required for this reading to work alert us to the motivating factor behind this reading: for Tannenbaum, and for the many other editors who have amended Eld’s text, the text can’t read ‘man’ because it ill befits the unimpeachably straight Shakespeare to be writing such a thing.

While critics have bickered about the closeness of Eld’s text to Shakespeare’s intentions, they’ve also tended to bicker about who the ‘I’ in the sonnets stands for: for Shakespeare himself, or for some nameless character who he was inhabiting while writing (the ‘poet-persona’, as Brian Vickers put it in one letter to the Times Literary Supplement). Expressing his disquiet that this poem was ‘addressed to a male object’, George Steevens affirms that the poem expresses a physical attraction between a man and another man, but his assumption that the ‘I’ is definitively male is another assertion in itself. Gender binaries predominate in such arguments about the sonnets’ treatment of sexuality. Arguing that the sonnets can (and even should) be read in sequence allows the sonnets a developing narrative of same-sex attraction – but it might be reflected that insisting on an overall narrative running through and between all the sonnets risks flattening some of the elements of identity and relationship which are explored in individual sonnets. While many centuries of critics and editors may have talked of Shake-speares Sonnets as a collection rather than a sequence in order to efface the possibility of such a homosexual narrative, the sonnets’ qualities of collectionness are, nonetheless, very important. Different sonnets try out different standpoints: identities may thus be better thought of as provisional, eclectic, changeable, fluid, notional.

When preparing an early modern text for readers like you and me, an editor will normally be anxious to limit issues of textual ambiguity. A textual intervention as small as a punctuation mark will privilege one possible reading over another.

every system of punctuation to some degree disambiguates a text which may be deliberately ambiguous.

Gary Taylor, Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (Oxford: Clarendon, 2007) p. 20

So observes Gary Taylor in the introduction to his colossal collected works of the early modern playwright, Thomas Middleton. On a local level, an editor will often feel that they must decide: this mark or that mark? When it comes to grander, architectural decisions, too: are the sonnets to be presented as a story, or as a cluster of poems which all happen to be written (for the most part) in fourteen lines at a time? The point here is that in seeking to disambiguate a text – no matter how they may do it – that editor might not be consciously seeking to suppress ambiguities of gender or of sexuality but, nevertheless, in the case of the Sonnets, that has ended up as a consequence of the editing process.

In the next instalment, we’ll look into electronic editing and some of its promises: the possibility of boundless textual comparison and eclecticism, the sonnets tracing out a fever-dream of wildly jazzy text that flickers with variants, morphing and dancing before our eyes like an HTML aurora borealis; we, the reader, like Zaphod Beeblebrox locked into the Total Perspective Vortex. But I want to end by talking about hyphens. Look again at the first line of Sonnet 20.

If, with Shakespeare’s printer, we omit the hyphen, Master Mistris will mean ‘supreme mistress’: if we insert the hyphen it will mean that the ‘mistress’ usually invoked by poets is in this case a ‘master’.

J. B. Leishman, Review of The Sonnets of William Shakespeare and Henry Wriothesley, in Review of English Studies, XV (1939) pp. 93-6, p. 94

A tiny mark in the text – but that mark inspires a wonderful huggermugger of attempted disambiguations. Here’s an account (by no means exhaustive) of that hyphen’s history:

Master Mistress

Master, Mistress


  • Benson, 1640
  • Lintott, 1711
  • Wyndham, 1898
  • W. A. Neilson, 1906
  • G. L . Kittredge, 1936
  • G. A. Harrison, 1936
  • Stephen Booth, 1977
  • Katherine Duncan-Jones, 1997
  • Colin Burrow, 2002
  • Charles Gildon, 1710 & 1714
  • George Sewell, 1725 & 1728
  • A. Murden et al, ?1741
  • Thomas Ewing, 1771
  • Francis Gentleman, 1774
  • Thomas Evans, 1775
  • Capell, 1780
  • James Boswell, 1821
  • Charles Knight, 1841
  • J. P. Collier, 1843
  • Clark & Wright, 1864 & 1866
  • Alexander Dyce, 1866
  • Edward Dowden, 1881
  • Samuel Butler, 1899
  • A. H. Bullen, 1907
  • Tucker Brooke, 1936
  • John Kerrigan, 1986

If we’re to end with something of a shrug, it’s a shrug that is, perhaps, valuable: it’s in comparing these different treatments, rather than allying oneself wholesale to any single one of them, that (in this case) we better appreciate the extent to which Shakespeare is exploring the instability of individuality and identity – not just in any one sonnet, as here, but in all the sonnets taken together, or through them, or between them all, all of them relating to one another (or, perhaps, not quite).

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