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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Rewind: Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Matthew Palmer considers the 'accidental' nature of the 1609 publication of Shakespeare's sonnets

On May 20 1609, Thomas Thorpe published Shake-speares Sonnets: Neuer Before Imprinted. The subtitle suggests a hint of the controversy – many believe Shakespeare never wanted the Sonnets published, and even that Thorpe may have acquired the poems by accidental or illicit means. However I feel we can forgive Thorpe for his potential misdealings: without him we may have never received some of the most beautiful and influential English poetry ever written.

What is it about the Sonnets which makes them so interesting? Partly it is the air of mystery and ambiguity that surrounds the collection. Is the speaker a fictional character, or the voice of William Shakespeare himself? Who is the Dark Lady, or the Fair Youth? Does the speaker love the latter sexually, or platonically? The Sonnets raise questions about love, relationships and gender roles.

Leaving these intellectual musings aside, the fact of the matter is that the Sonnets are wonderful poems, delightfully expressive and full of emotion. It is hard not to smile to yourself as you become immersed in Shakespeare’s language, his clever wordplay and images.

Yet these poems are not simply lofty, whimsical expressions of pure love. The Sonnets are witty and vulgar too – six sweeping declarations of passion and classical illusions are intertwined with jealousy, spite, humour, suffering and crude sexual innuendo. So many aspects of personal relationships and the human condition are found within the Sonnets.

To wax lyrical about Shakespeare’s greatness and legacy has become something of an irritating cliché, particularly since the recent 400th anniversary commemorations of his death – ‘Bardolatry’, especially at the moment, is rife.

Ignoring (if indeed one can) all his plays, influence on and contributions to the English language, just reading the Sonnets reminds you of his great skill as a poet. Is there anyone, even amongst those who have never read a line of Shakespeare, who does not experience a glimmer of recognition – and feeling – at the immortal line, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’? So I thank Thorpe, wherever he may be. Regardless of whether he found the Sonnets through dishonesty or by happy accident, he gave the world a masterpiece.

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