Five Questions with Professor Ian Gadd on the publishing History of Shakespeare's Sonnets.


On 18th June a talk by Ian Gadd, Professor of English Literature at Bath Spa University, traces the publication history of Shakespeare’s sonnets from 1609 to 1780, paying particular attention to how the 1640 edition reworked them for a new audience, and how the sonnets were ‘rediscovered’ at the end of the 18th century.

Ahead of his talk we asked Ian five questions on the publishing history of the sonnets.

Ian, did the Sonnets really disappear?

The Sonnets didn’t actually disappear but between their first publication in 1609 and the late eighteenth century, they were one of the most neglected parts of the Shakespearean canon. They were republished in an almost unrecognisable form in 1640, and it wasn’t until the work of the scholar Edmund Malone in 1780 that they found a new audience. Even then, there was still resistance: George Steevens, another Shakespeare editor, refused to include them in his 1793 edition of Shakespeare’s works as he considered them to be largely worthless while the poet Walter Savage Landor complained in 1829 that ‘not a single one is very admirable…like raspberry-jam without cream, without crust’.

We think of the sonnets as being split into two definitive cycles, those to the male youth and those to the dark lady. Did they always appear in such a clear-cut order or has editing altered how we think of them?

Sonnet sequences were popular in the Elizabethan period but it’s not clear that Shakespeare’s sonnets were intended to be read as a single sequence. There are recurrent motifs and repeated images, but there isn’t the same kind of overt characterisation or plotting as you see in Philip Sidney’s popular Astrophil and Stella sonnet sequence. When they were republished in 1640, they were reordered and reformatted as discrete love poems, and that was largely how they were read — if they were read at all — until the late 18th century. It was Malone who first popularised the idea that there was a meaningful sequence, with two different addressees.

Does the heavily biographical nature of the Sonnets really mark such a step change with the sonnets that went before, where does authentic feeling and the work of a professional poet overlap in Shakespeare?

The autobiographical reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets really begins with the Romantics. Wordsworth, in his sonnet celebrating the sonnet as a poetic form, claimed that ‘with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart’ to which Browning later responded, ‘If so, the less Shakespeare he!’ Sonnets in the Elizabethan period could be thinly veiled in their references, but they were also carefully staged performances. I rather like Helen Vendler’s argument that Shakespeare’s poetic achievement is that he ‘makes his speaker “real”’ which, of course, he was well used to doing as a playwright.

Your talk takes place in Pride month, should we rightfully view Shakespeare as a gay poet?

Shakespeare was married and had children; beyond that, we know nothing specific about his own sexual behaviour or preferences. It’s also important to say that homosexuality as we understand it didn’t exist as a concept in the Elizabethan period. However, Shakespeare’s poems and plays explore — and often celebrate — desire in a wide variety of forms. Many of the sonnets are explicitly homoerotic, with the ‘master-mistress’ sonnet 20 being probably the most famous, and such poetry was not particularly unusual for the period. In fact, it’s arguable that the so-called dark lady sonnets are more sexually illicit. Nonetheless, the sonnets provide a wonderful opportunity to think more openly about love and desire.

Do you have a favourite Sonnet?

It’s difficult to pick a favourite as so many of them are worth repeated readings. Mischievously, I will often introduce students to the more unusual ones: the repeated conjunctions of sonnet 66, the truncated sonnet 126, the fiercely shameful sonnet 129, and the ‘Will’ sonnets 135 and 136. But if pushed, I’d have to go with the first one that I ever properly studied: sonnet 60 with its evocative opening, ‘Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore’.

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