Shakespeare's Sonnets: Preface and Chapters 1 and 2 Summary

This is the start of a summary of Shakespeare's Sonnets, a book by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. There's a bit of commentary mixed in, though nothing particularly profound in any way, shape or form. I might clean this up for my Shakespeare students. Or, I might not.

The preface is brief. It points out that the sonnets provide an essential insight of Shakespeare's ability to represent the imaginative state of others. This is important in that part of the debate over the sonnets is whether they are merely his imaginative musings or they are somehow representative of his experience. Likely, of course, they are some combination of the two, though no one, at least as far as I know, can say just what that mix is. As any reader of the sonnets can tell you, at least a reader who has read and considered them, as opposed to giving them a quick skim, the sex, and gender, and sexual orientation for that matter. of the object of the poems, is often indeterminate, as is the actual identity of the object. Even when it might be clear that a particular sonnet is about a woman, and that another particular sonnet is about a woman, there is no indication that they are the same woman, or the same man as is the case in the first dozen or so of the sonnets as they are presently sequenced. However, what Wells and Edmondson suggest is that we can look at these poems in their various possibilities to see what is offered by each reading. It's not that we must read them one way or the other, but that if we focus on the poems themselves, and bring in the other issues as a lens through which we might read the poems, we can get a different depending upon the reading. That's the gist of the preface.

Chapter one covers "The Early Publication of the Sonnets." That just happens to be the title of the chapter. Wells and Edmondson, which I don't think I'll be typing over and over, though I have to come up with another way to refer to them, such as H&W, note that the first mention of Shakespeare's sonnets occurs in 1598, about 11 years before the sonnets themselves are published. What this suggests is that the sonnets had been around quite some time, most likely in manuscript format, and that they had circulated fairly widely. There was also some praise for the man and his work based upon these circulating manuscripts. Of course, these manuscripts were circulating at a time when Shakespeare's plays were being produced rather regularly and to a good deal of acclaim. It's not like he was some unknown. In 1599, some other play passages and early sonnets were also published, though, again, not necessarily by Shakespeare. Many critics viewed these as corruptions but more critics are coming to look at these as earlier drafts of later works, an indication that Shakespeare was continually revising his work. As I just alluded, these sonnets were offered 'as' Shakespeare's and not 'by' Shakespeare, indicating that someone, some publisher, figured he could make some money by publishing them. Further evidence of this is the dedication in the Sonnets (that's in the 1609 publication, though the money making aspect applies to the earlier publishing of his work as well). However, because these were published while Shakespeare was living, and there is no evidence of any protests on his part, it is widely assumed that he agreed with the publication, and may just have have directly profited from it. Certainly, it would have led to indirect profits as they would lead more people to his plays. One thing that is pointed out, and that indicates that the poems were published to profit from Shakespeare's fame, is that the sonnet craze was long over when the sonnets were published. This also points to the thought that Shakespeare did not intend the sonnets for publication when he was writing them.

The second half of the first chapter looks at the form of Shakespeare's sonnets, typographically speaking.Compositorialy speaking I should say. It's believed that two different men set the type for the sonnets. There are some conventions one man followed that the other didn't, such as the use of a colon following the 8th line. There are also some conventions, errors if you will, that are consistent among the two type-setters, indicating that these errors were to be found in the manuscript and that one person was responsible for the works. Further compounding this is the belief that the manuscript was at least one remove from Shakespeare's hand. But no one knows one way or the other as there are no manuscripts in his hand to use as a point of comparison. In a somewhat similar vein, the texts have generally been regularized for today's readers. What does this tell us? That today's reader needs help with the sonnets, and there's no doubt about that, otherwise I wouldn't be reading this book.

Chapter Two is "The History and Emergence of the Sonnet as a Literary Form." According to Wells and Edmondson, and this isn't anything I'd dispute, Henry Howard, Richard Tottel and Thomas Wyatt were some of the main popularizers of the sonnet form, building on the form's roots in 14th century Italy. Sonnets followed the usual Renaissance route from Italy through France and Spain to England. Philip Sydney started the craze with Astrophil and Stella. The earlier sonnets had more of a amorous, courtly love focus while the later had a more religious focus, particularly the work of John Donne. There is clear evidence that Shakespeare was aware of an influenced by Petrarch, the Italian sonneteer, particularly in Romeo and Juliet. The fundamental premise of sonnets was that the poet loves and desired the object of the poem, generally a single beauty, who is dedicated to chastity, either of the virginal or married sort. What is off-putting to some is that some of the poems, in the style of Michelangelo, were written by men and addressed to men. Sonnets, according to W&H, have long been used to express homoerotic desires. Earlier sonnets, and models for the sonnets, were also homoerotic, so much so that some authors, Richard Barnfield in particular, got into a bit of trouble for expressing these desires a bit too obviously.

Shakespeare, though, was less reliant on continental and Petrarchan influences, though genuine originality was rare at the time. Many of the early sonnets, by lesser known and appreciated writers, were direct translations presented as being "influenced" by the originals in Latin. Some acknowledged that they were translating. The notion, looking back to the homoerotic ideas (which shows that this chapter seems to have digressed) is that Shakespeare could write about love without knowing that love, that art may be divorced from experience. I suspect this is a notion advanced by those who don't want to think of Shakespeare as homosexual, or bisexual (the direction the sonnets lead me), or to think that his love poems are from a man to a man. But can a man, or a woman, write of love and not be in love? Perhaps at that instance, but otherwise, I"m skeptical that one could capture something that one hasn't felt. How would s/he know if they got it? What could they compare it to? Another digression, at least in the way my notes are reading, is that Ovid's Metamorphosis is also an influence seen in Shakespeare's sonnets. But, again, back to the homoerotic thread. H&W indicate that we can certainly look for clues to the man in the poems. And that's how they wrap up chapter two.