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This chapter argues that the early published texts of the Sonnets, including The Passionate Pilgrim and the 1609 Quarto, misrepresented them in such a way as to estrange them from their potential readers. The Sonnets make no inroads into early modern anthologies, and are generally ignored in favour of the narrative poems. They were condemned for licentiousness, whilst also not being sexy enough. The baffling plot, lack of characterisation, and confusing physical layout of the Quarto made them difficult for readers to engage with and affected their appropriation. Admiration for the Sonnets seems to have been confined to their manuscript circulation, particularly among the literary coterie of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Sonnets 116 and 128.
The early nineteenth century sees a significant and self-conscious change in the status of the Sonnets. They become the object of serious biographical scrutiny, whilst individual lyrics (particularly Sonnets 64, 98 and 116) are championed by Romantic poets and critics, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats. In the Victorian period, the Sonnets become available in a huge range of texts, but their accessibility to young people, women and the working classes creates anxiety. Editors begin to create distance from a biographical interpretation, whilst anthologists carefully circumscribe the Sonnets that they recommend. That said, the question of who Shakespeare loved becomes a significant issue for major Victorian writers, including Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. Whilst these writers focus on individual Sonnets, their work is inevitably judged in the context of the sequence, which was condemned for excessive passion and effeminacy, if not male-male desire explicitly by Henry Hallam. The chapter ends with Oscar Wilde and the ways in which not only his trial, but ‘The Portrait of Mr W. H.’, rendered the Sonnets notorious.
In the twentieth century, the aftermath of Wilde’s trial generates a new interest in the Dark Lady sequence as a means of heterosexualising Shakespeare and his Sonnets. Their powerful appeal as expressions of male-male desire continues, however, in the work of Wilfred Owen, and the chapter explores the nostalgia and hostility which the Sonnets aroused among soldiers in World War I. Post-war, the Sonnets become a vehicle for modernist poetics through the work of Laura Riding and Robert Graves, and their citation by William Empson makes them central to New Criticism. Whilst the biographical interpretation of the Sonnets intensifies through the Shakespeare novel, the idea of the Dark Lady, focused particularly on Sonnet 130, opens up new possibilities for women and women of colour to re-voice the Sonnets at the end of the century.
Why did no one read Sonnet 18 for over one hundred years? What traumatic memories did Sonnet 111 conjure up for Charles Dickens? Which Sonnet did Wilfred Owen find particularly offensive on the WW1 battlefront? What kind of love does Sonnet 116 celebrate and why? Filling a surprising gap in Shakespeare studies, this book offers a challenging new reception history of the Sonnets and explores their belated entry into the Shakespeare canon. Jane Kingsley-Smith reveals the fascinating cultural history of individual Sonnets, identifying those which were particularly influential and exploring why they rose to prominence. This is a highly original study which argues that we should redirect our attention away from the story that the Sonnets tell as a sequence, to the fascinating afterlife of individual Shakespeare Sonnets.
Shakespeare’s status as a dramatist underwent a remarkable transformation in the eighteenth century, but the Sonnets seem to have no place in this narrative. This is usually blamed on the difficulty of getting hold of the Quarto, as opposed to the accessibility of Benson’s Poems. However, this chapter argues that what reputation the Sonnets had in the eighteenth century is largely thanks to Benson. It examines the places where we might expect to find the Sonnets but don’t - in anthologies, the novel and the sentimental sonnet - and tries to explain what the Sonnets seemed to be lacking to an eighteenth century reader. It also re-examines Edmond Malone’s reprinting of the Quarto in 1780, which has been hailed as rescuing the Sonnets from oblivion, but whose insistence on a biographical reading, and on a division between male and female addressees, would have damaging consequences for the Sonnets individually. The chapter ends with the controversy surrounding Sonnet 2, and the struggles of George Chalmers and Coleridge to deal with Malone’s legacy and preserve their ideal of Shakespeare.
The Introduction argues that the absence of any extensive study of the Sonnets’ afterlife has led to various critical misapprehensions. They have by no means always been admired or loved, but at the same time they have an extensive and unbroken reception history which precedes Edmond Malone’s reprinting of the Quarto in 1780. The Introduction explores the implications of Malone’s bipartite division into Sonnets for a Fair Youth and those for a Dark Lady, and argues that this has had a detrimental effect on modern understandings of the Sonnets, as well as alienating us from centuries of readers, poets and critics who did not hold to this division. Finally, the Introduction demonstrates how the ‘canon’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets has changed radically over four hundred years, encouraging us to consider the contingency of their reputation as individual lyrics.
The conclusion focuses on Sonnet 18 and compares its significance in Shakespeare in Love (the film) and Shakespeare in Love (the play). It argues that this Sonnet has transcended the sequence, and has come to signify the Sonnets as a whole. Whilst this can be a reactionary decision, which ignores the overt homoeroticism of the sequence, it can also be a means of making the Sonnets more accessible by offering multiple different appropriations, emphasising the polyvocality of the individual Sonnet.
The mid to late seventeenth century is usually considered as representing an almost total lack of Sonnet appreciation, often blamed on John Benson’s 1640 volume, Poems, which disrupted the sequence, interwove it with lyrics from The Passionate Pilgrim, and joined Sonnets together into larger units. This chapter explores how the Sonnets thrived in Caroline manuscripts (particularly Sonnets 2 and 106), and the ways in which Benson tried to harness this elite status for Cavalier readers, and make amends for the Sonnets’ omission from the First Folio. The chapter re-examines the ways in which Sir John Suckling and John Milton read the Sonnets, and argues for their sustained Royalist associations.
In John Donne's lyric poem ‘Loves Deitie’ the speaker expresses nostalgia for a time before Cupid:
I long to talke with some old lovers ghost,
Who dyed before the god of Love was borne;
I cannot thinke that hee, who then loved most,
Sunke so low, as to love one which did scorne.
Unrequited passion is attributed to an essentially sadistic deity. Yet it is the cultural reinvention of Cupid specific to early modern England that is ultimately to blame. Love's natural ‘Correspondencie’ (line 12) has been replaced by passion for one who scorns through the influence of Petrarchism, whilst his ‘Tyrannie’ has been enhanced by an expansion in divine power, perhaps attributable to Calvinism (line 19). The present book argues that Cupid did indeed extend his range of identities (and thence his facility for performing ‘cultural work’) in early modern England – ‘To rage, to lust, to write to, to commend, / All is the purlewe of the God of Love’ (lines 17–18) – but that what unites his disparate roles and makes Cupid a controversial, often seductive, figure for poets, dramatists and polemicists alike is his adversarial relationship to English Protestantism. Through this minor love-deity, matters of grave importance to the establishment of the ‘true’ faith were articulated and debated.