Shakespeare's Sonnets Turn 400
May 20, 2009 6:59 AM   Subscribe

400 years ago today, Thomas Thorpe entered into the Stationers' Register a book titled "Shake-Speares Sonnets". However, Clinton Heylin argues that - like Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes - the Sonnets were never intended for a wide audience. "In both cases, they were killing time and at the same time dealing with huge personal issues in a private way, which they never conceived of coming out publicly."
posted by Joe Beese (37 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just heard this exact story on NPR.
posted by bz at 7:13 AM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Joe - what's the first letter of your middle name? and what's the smallest foreign town you've ever visited?
posted by gman at 7:14 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


There is no record that Shakespeare tried to suppress these sonnets despite he being very much alive in the year they were published.
Us Oxfordians of course believe we know the reason why: The sonnets were published posthumously.
posted by vacapinta at 7:21 AM on May 20, 2009


vacapinta: "Us Oxfordians..."

Or as they're more commonly known: "4/26 Truthers".
posted by Joe Beese at 7:23 AM on May 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


Vacapinta,
I love all the skullduggery of the doubting Oxfordians.

But that's one fog-inducing opening sentence in the statement from your President at your link:

A mysterious cloud has surrounded the Sonnets since their publication in 1609..."

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz:)

posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:37 AM on May 20, 2009


Interesting idea, but I have to say I don't find it terribly convincing. At least to my 21st century ears, the sonnets just don't sound very private. Plus, the rhetoric of quite a few of them requires at least the potential for a public audience in order to work. "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee" just seems sort of silly if nobody's eyes were actually supposed to see the poem.

And, um, we Oxfordians, right?
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 7:46 AM on May 20, 2009


Ugh. I hate this kind of "scholarship." Maybe this, maybe that, probably this, possibly that ... and so we can conclude that...

The article starts off with this:

In both [Dylan and Shakespeare's] cases, they were killing time and at the same time dealing with huge personal issues in a private way, which they never conceived of coming out publicly...

I assume Dylan actually said or wrote that he was killing time and dealing with personal issues, which is how we know this to be true. The article makes it sound like we have a record of Shakespeare saying something similar. We don't. The only record of Shakespeare speaking or writing (aside from his plays and poetry) is in the form of some legal documents (a will and transcripts from a minor court case). So this is total conjecture.

The article then explains that the Thorpe, the publisher, was a known rogue, so "if he got his hands on Shakespeare's sonnets, [he] must have done so in some underhanded, slightly questionable way." The faulty logic here is that if someone is a thief, then he must have gotten ALL his possessions by stealing them. MAYBE he stole the Sonnets. Maybe Shakespeare gave them to him. Who knows?

"But why was Shakespeare so intent on keeping the sonnets private? ... Many scholars believe the sonnets are autobiographical, which means the sonnets addressed to the fair youth are Shakespeare's expressions of love for him." Note that it says many scholars BELIEVE. This is all conjecture. Sure, they my have been autobiographical. Or they may have been written about a friend (biographical). Or they just may have been written by a guy who was well known as a FICTION writer (see "Hamlet," "The Tempest," etc.). We simply don't know.

What STUNS me is that, after explaining all this "evidence," we get this...

"It is for this reason, says Heylin, that Shakespeare never wanted the sonnets published and may even have sought to have the Thorpe edition suppressed." Wow. He now knows what was going on in the mind of a guy who has been dead for 400 years -- a guy who left no record of his thoughts. No diaries. No letters. Nothing.

All of the conjectures in the article are interesting and possible. But that's all we can say. Instead, people will read crap like this and start spouting it as truth. I just know I'm going to be at a party some day, and I'm going to hear someone say, "You know, Shakespeare never wanted his sonnets to be published. You see, this guy Thorpe..."
posted by grumblebee at 7:47 AM on May 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


grumblebee: "people will read crap like this and start spouting it as truth"

Eponysterical. :-)

I haven't given a lot of thought to Heylin's thesis. But I love his book about bootlegs and the NPR story provided a convenient hook on which to hang an anniversary FPP.

As for the degree to which people are driven to make up shit about the Bard in the absence of any evidence, I can only assume that scholarship - like nature - abhors a vacuum.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:53 AM on May 20, 2009


Well, if you want to read made-up nonsense, I recommend "Fox in Sox" by Dr. Suess. It's much more fun than arbitrary theories about Shakespeare.
posted by grumblebee at 8:00 AM on May 20, 2009


I'm going to be at a party some day, and I'm going to hear someone say

Still, got to be better to have Shakespeare discussed at parties than not, even if rubbishly.
posted by paduasoy at 8:16 AM on May 20, 2009


And grumblebee, disappointed you haven't commented over on What is the funniest scene in a Shakespeare play? (though it does sound a bit of a doomed enterprise).
posted by paduasoy at 8:19 AM on May 20, 2009


I don't believe the sonnets were published posthumously, since the real Shakespeare, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke was still alive. After reading the argument from Robin P. Williams's Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? I'm convinced that Shakespeare was a woman and that's why evidence of the male Shakespeare is so difficult to find.
"Williams, an independent scholar, is among the latest in a long line of doubters who make much of the dearth of hard facts about Shakespeare, not to mention the disparity between his humble background (the son of a man who wrote his name by making an "X") and his immense vocabulary and range of knowledge. To these skeptics, "William Shakespeare" was a cover for someone of higher education who rubbed shoulders with princes and nobles from an early age but who, for some reason or other, could not bring himself to sign his name to "Measure for Measure," "Hamlet" and the rest." Washington Post
We may never know for sure....but it's a great story.
posted by brneyedgrl at 8:21 AM on May 20, 2009


And grumblebee, disappointed you haven't commented over on What is the funniest scene in a Shakespeare play? (though it does sound a bit of a doomed enterprise).

I don't really have anything to add, other than the storm scene in "King Lear." Just kidding. My favorite funny scenes is Pyrimus and Thisbe from "Midsummer." But that's been mentioned.
posted by grumblebee at 8:25 AM on May 20, 2009


I also love the baiting Malvolio scene in "Twelfth Night" (the one where he finds the letter) and pretty much anything involving Falstaff. But I think that thread has been deleted.
posted by grumblebee at 8:27 AM on May 20, 2009


I actually think the Fool is pretty hilarious at points in King Lear.

Fool: But I will tarry; the fool will stay,
And let the wise man fly:
The knave turns fool that runs away;
The fool no knave, perdy.
KENT: Where learned you this, fool?
Fool: Not i' the stocks, fool.


Probably why they hanged him.

(PS the fool = Cordelia I heard it on TAL)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:08 AM on May 20, 2009


The only Shakespeare line that ever made me LOL is when Claudius dispatches his men to find the body of Polonius - whom Hamlet has rapiered through the arras. The Prince, flippant in custody, tells them "He will stay till you come."
posted by Joe Beese at 9:17 AM on May 20, 2009


The Fool != Cordelia. The Fool is the Fool and Cordelia is Cordelia. It's POSSIBLE that the two characters were played by the same actor. In which case theActorPlayingTheFool = theActorPlayingCordelia.
posted by grumblebee at 9:19 AM on May 20, 2009


The Fool != Cordelia. The Fool is the Fool and Cordelia is Cordelia. It's POSSIBLE that the two characters were played by the same actor. In which case theActorPlayingTheFool = theActorPlayingCordelia.
posted by grumblebee at 12:19 PM on May 20 [+] [!]


Nuh-uhh Ira Glass interviewed some guy who said Shakespeare was a chick so he probably played both roles.

QED
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:26 AM on May 20, 2009


I just said the same actor might have played both roles. That doesn't mean the two characters are the same character.
posted by grumblebee at 9:28 AM on May 20, 2009


So we agree, they were definitely the same!
*fist bump*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:38 AM on May 20, 2009


Yeah, we agree. Just as we agree that Kevin Kline and Laurence Olivier are the same person, because they both played Hamlet.
posted by grumblebee at 9:54 AM on May 20, 2009


The truth is out there; and everywhere it ends.
& sentences must dry up with the pen,
or else prick a finger, bite a vein.
Yes, beauty bleeds. Yes, Gossip is the game

we play past checkmate. Rule: each pawn’s a queen.
We dissect the adonis, film at 11;
In its wreck was this kaleidoscope:
To be retold is to be multiplied.

The magic bullet (if physics close the door)
will find the brain behind an open ear.
And we make love odd-numbered, we steal home,
we eat the apple & fall for you, get even.

And if the day comes up one headline short,
in Arabian hand we'll tie Night to Night.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:10 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


How is this an "untold story"? IANAEM (I Am Not An Early Modernist), but I've got some passing familiarity with the history of textual editing, and there is a very long paper trail about the sonnets' publication history.

...and I've just looked at Heylin's index & did a search-inside-the-book, and there's no reference to Katherine Duncan-Jones, who has argued in considerable detail (and in multiple venues) that Shakespeare authorized publication. Her introduction to the Arden Shakespeare edition of the sonnets is probably the easiest place to look.

I suspect, too, that if you took a survey, many contemporary academics would point out that the "autobiographical" sonnet is itself a genre convention, and therefore not necessarily revelatory of...well, anything, really. As Marcy L. North points out in the recent Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets, the effort involved in putting together a sonnet sequence "is another good reason to examine skeptically the notion that sonnet sequences were inspired by amorous occasions, written at leisure, and circulated among friends and patrons before reaching print" (216)--although she also notes that there are signs that Shakespeare didn't finish reworking the poems before Thorpe brought them out (219).
posted by thomas j wise at 10:13 AM on May 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Ugh. I hate this kind of "scholarship." Maybe this, maybe that, probably this, possibly that ... and so we can conclude that...

Are you serious? Do you know anything about how scholars actually work? The only people who are in the habit of making claims about the past without reservation are cranks. Given the incomplete and fragmentary sources we possess for any historical period, stating something with certainty is almost always a sign of excessive pride in one's own analytical powers.
posted by nasreddin at 10:18 AM on May 20, 2009


I know a fair amount about how scholars work. Many members of my family are scholars. My dad retired a few years ago as chairman of a Comp Lit department. I was also in academia for 15 years.

I was not suggesting that scholars make should start making claims about the past without reservation, and I don't get how you read that into what I wrote. You're acting like there are only two choices:

1. make a claim based on uncertainty.
2. make a claim based on certainty.

But there's actually a third choice:

3. don't make a claim at all.

For instance, one can -- and I'd say should -- say, "We don't know enough about topic X to make claims, so we'll keep quiet about it."

But my beef isn't even that some scholars are making shaky claims. I only get irritated when they make such claims without being super-clear that they're just speculating. Historical novelists admit that they're fiction writers. Tolstoy didn't claim that "War and Peace" was fact.

The article did sprinkle a few mights and maybes here and there, but it largely sounded as if it was reporting fact.

I also wonder what the point is of making claims like "Shakespeare might not have wanted his sonnets published." How are we meant to relate to such claims? Lots of things MIGHT be true. I guess this is why so many people flip into thinking of such claims as fact. It's really hard to keep a vague "might" in your brain. You're likely to either discard the claim or to think of it as a certainty. If you're planning a party and ask me if I'm coming, and if I say, "maybe," you'll probably just assume that I'm coming and make sure you have enough cupcakes. Maybe doesn't do you any good.

I do think it's sometimes useful to make 1st-generation claims. For instance, it may be helpful for me to say something like, "My wallet is probably on the bedstand." But as I start building more and more claims and suppositions on top of this -- "and if it is, then my wife will probably sneak money out of it, and if she does, she will probably buy candy, and if she does, she might get cavities..." -- the whole edifice quickly becomes worthless. Should I go ahead and make a dentist appointment for my wife?

It's also weird to me that you said, "Do you know anything about how scholars actually work?" What does that matter? If I claim to hate it when fortune-tellers tell the future, it's silly to counter with, "Do you have any idea how fortune tellers work?" IF you're right and ALL (or most) scholars work that way, then I stand by my claim that I hate such scholars. And if that's all scholars (which I doubt), then I hate all scholars. Because (by my assessment), all scholars are useless at best and misleading at worst. (Note: but I don't really think that, because I don't think all scholars make huge chains of dubious claims.)
posted by grumblebee at 10:47 AM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I must say I agree with grumblebee. This seems from the Cardinal Richelieu school of textual scholarship.
posted by theroadahead at 10:56 AM on May 20, 2009


Or as they're more commonly known: "4/26 Truthers".

Bravo.
posted by jokeefe at 11:32 AM on May 20, 2009


We're living in a world where many peoples' political beliefs are based on thinner logical constructions than the ones used to "prove" this business about the sonnets. Its how information gets reported now. The more we teach humanity to believe things based on faulty logic, the better we can control them into believing whatever we want.

"Four legs good, two legs better" and all that, what!
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:33 AM on May 20, 2009


I also wonder what the point is of making claims like "Shakespeare might not have wanted his sonnets published." How are we meant to relate to such claims? Lots of things MIGHT be true. I guess this is why so many people flip into thinking of such claims as fact. It's really hard to keep a vague "might" in your brain. You're likely to either discard the claim or to think of it as a certainty. If you're planning a party and ask me if I'm coming, and if I say, "maybe," you'll probably just assume that I'm coming and make sure you have enough cupcakes. Maybe doesn't do you any good.

Well, in the context of scholarship, the layman isn't the addressee of the claims at all. (Except if they're interviewed or quoted by the press, like here, which is a different kettle of fish.) The purpose of making tentative suggestions is to fuel further research. You're not just writing a book that says "Shakespeare might not have wanted his sonnets published." You're writing a book that says "Shakespeare might not have wanted his sonnets published, and here are my reasons a, b, and c for thinking so." Your evidence might not be conclusive, but someone else might be working in a related area and can potentially find your arguments useful, and eventually, if everything goes well, many scholars proposing interlinked tentative arguments produce a more solid consensus.

It's also weird to me that you said, "Do you know anything about how scholars actually work?" What does that matter? If I claim to hate it when fortune-tellers tell the future, it's silly to counter with, "Do you have any idea how fortune tellers work?" IF you're right and ALL (or most) scholars work that way, then I stand by my claim that I hate such scholars. And if that's all scholars (which I doubt), then I hate all scholars. Because (by my assessment), all scholars are useless at best and misleading at worst. (Note: but I don't really think that, because I don't think all scholars make huge chains of dubious claims.)

Well, to be blunt, who cares what you think? The only people who are qualified to decide if a claim is dubious or not are people who are familiar with the relevant secondary literature (here, the history of the book in the sixteenth and seventeenth century) and primary sources (not just Shakespeare, but the large body of Elizabethan pamphlets). If all you're going on is earnestness and gut feelings, or even just knowledge of the Shakespeare corpus, well, you won't be taken seriously when you express your opinion about Heylin's claims.

As for hating all scholars, you are of course free to do so--but then you should never talk to anyone about any historical fact or indeed think about history at all, since obviously it's all just bunk and bullshit.
posted by nasreddin at 12:08 PM on May 20, 2009


We're living in a world where many peoples' political beliefs are based on thinner logical constructions than the ones used to "prove" this business about the sonnets. Its how information gets reported now. The more we teach humanity to believe things based on faulty logic, the better we can control them into believing whatever we want.

WAKE UP SHEEPLE!
posted by nasreddin at 12:08 PM on May 20, 2009


nasreddin, I was responding to the article, not to the the original scholarship, which I haven't read.

However, during my years in the academy, I ran into plenty of this stuff. I ran into some good scholarship, too. (And, as I noted in my post, above, I don't hate all scholars.)

The general problem I noted in the humanities is lack of agreement about the logic of a good argument. Some scholars seemed to feel it was fine to make FACTUAL claims (or claims that sounded suspiciously fact-like) based on flimsy evidence. Others took a more "scientific" approach.

I don't believe everyone needs to take the same approach, but everyone in the same conversation needs to take the same approach, or the conversation is meaningless.

Let's say scholar A says that Shakespeare didn't want his sonnets published. He doesn't say this based on pure conjecture. But he does say it based on a long chain of mights and maybes, all piled on top of each other, diluting the whole argument with variables.

Now I have NO problem with A's claim, if the academic community takes it as a hypothesis to be proven or refuted. That's what you say happens. Academics make claims and their peers test those claims. And, yes, that is PART of what happens.

But the other part is this: scholar B writes a paper about artists who don't want their work published. In his paper, he mentions Shakespeare, citing scholar A. MAYBE he says something like "according to scholar A," but he doesn't goe back and look through all of A's research to verify it. Worse, though he (maybe ) adds the "according to" disclaimer (more likely, he just adds an endnote, citing A), he treats A's claim as fact and builds on top of it.

Scholar C writes a paper on copyright law, in which he cites scholar B. And so this tower of air gets higher and higher.

(Meanwhile, scholar D disproves scholar A's thesis, but B and C don't read D's paper. Or, if they do, they say to themselves, "Well, we cited A, so anyone who wants to can check out the evidence for themselves." How often do you think they go, "Wow! A was -- or might be -- wrong. That means my argument, which partially rests on A, is flawed! I'd better do something about that.")

All this gets written up in a popular book for lay-people. Since it's not for scholars, the author doesn't want to bore people with equivocations. So he just reports C's findings as fact. MAYBE he says, "according to an eminent scholar..."

Now, NONE of this should happen until A's hypothesis is thoroughly tested. If there's no way of thoroughly testing the hypothesis, then honest scholars should refuse to build upon it. An honest scholar cares first and foremost about truth.

Alas, in my experience, most scholars care more about their careers than truth. Publish or perish, and all that crap. I don't blame them at all. It's natural to care about your career. I certainly care about mine. But that doesn't stop their writing from being crap.

Also in my experience, way too much of academia is a game with its own rules, and those rules have little to do with finding and disseminating real truth. And then when you pile the popular press on top of this, you get a huge pack of lies, half-truths and idle conjectures.

Academics who publish for lay-people shouldn't be PARTICULARLY careful about lying or exaggerating. The ultimate goal of academia should be enlightening the public about truth -- or at least about probable truth.

Getting back to this specific article, even though I haven't read the original research, I can say some things with certainty.

The author may have dug up some strong evidence that Thorpe (the publisher of the sonnets) was a crook. Let's assume this is a given.

Added to this, there are two things I know, one with certainty and the other with near-certainty: I'm certain that we have NO writing by Shakespeare about Thorpe. I've read every existing non-poetic work by him (the legal docs, etc.), and none of them mention Thorpe.

The thing I'm nearly-certain of is that we don't know, for sure, that the Sonnets are autobiographical. I haven't read everything there is to be written on the subject, but I've read a bunch of stuff, and it's pretty clear to me that the jury is out on this.

So -- taking the Thorpe is a crook thing as gospel -- we can say this:

Shakespeare's sonnets were published by a known crook.

We can then SPECULATE that his sonnets were autobiographical. Let's take THAT as a given. Okay, then his autobiographical sonnets were published by a crook. Can we, based on that, assume that they were published against his will? I don't see how we can do that without piling speculation on top of speculation. That's at least two levels of speculation, one based on the other, which is dangerous.
posted by grumblebee at 1:08 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Goddamnit will you guys duel in sonnets like sporting gentlemen?
posted by kid ichorous at 1:27 PM on May 20, 2009


If you insist.

Thought I've spent many years inside of schools,
My thoughts towards schoolmasters are not kind.
They follow foolish trends and crazy rules,
That boost their egos but don't feed the mind.
O, Why must fractured logic rule the day?
Why can't they serve the gods of rig'rous truth?
Truth black and white, not painted shades of gray.
For truth does fortify the soul, forsooth!
Why must they build their tower out of air,
And lure their hapless students through the door?
O, student do not dare to climb the stair!
you'll find yourself on floors without a floor.
Assuming A is true, they tell us B.
If A's a sham then B is not to be.
posted by grumblebee at 1:52 PM on May 20, 2009 [9 favorites]


Aw shit, that was some 'I'm your Huckleberry.'
posted by kid ichorous at 3:13 PM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


But that's one fog-inducing opening sentence in the statement from your President at your link:

“A mysterious cloud has surrounded the Sonnets since their publication in 1609..."


Then, nine months later, the Sonnets gave birth to blond-haired children with strange powers...
posted by kersplunk at 3:33 PM on May 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


This year there is an anniversary for
Some sonnets published by some guy who was
not Shakespeare, and the beneficiary of
this timely fortune is the publisher.
A guy who specializes in Bob Dylan
writes a thing about the famous bard
for fun and cash, and then the blue is filling
with long and angry gripes on truth and scholars by the grumblebee.
It's for reading in the loo, so chill
and when you listen in at weekend parties
relax, 'cause you can be that guy, the drill
of rotten analytic teeth gone grey.
If sonnets could be cleansed of tinge or shade
They'd fit within the soapbox GB made.
posted by honest knave at 4:32 PM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and if you are looking for some fun reading in the loo which deals with the Shakespeare authorship theories as historical fiction, check out Sarah Smith's Chasing Shakespeares.
posted by honest knave at 4:36 PM on May 20, 2009


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