The beauty of Shakespeare's sonnets speaks to us down the centuries, their lines peaking out at us from the titles of famous books or enjoying outings at weddings or other romantic occasions. But they were not always regarded as perfectly-formed jewels, and the relationships they portray not as conventional as many of us presume. Here, Shakespeare scholar Scott Newstok talks us through books that help us learn more about Shakespeare's sonnets, from the best introduction to the poems for students through to their afterlife and recent creative interpretations.
Before we get to books, I wanted to ask why Shakespeare was writing sonnets — in the sense that, presumably, he earned his living as a playwright. How did sonnets fit into his life? Was he writing them for money, for professional recognition or for personal reasons?
Perhaps some blend of all three? It’s possible that they entailed a bid for patronage — as verse often did in this era.
Certainly if you’re a poet writing in Tudor England, the sonnet is one of many forms that you seek to master to demonstrate your capability as a writer. In the late 16th century, there’d been a fad for sonnet sequences. While Shakespeare’s sonnets aren’t published until 1609, some were composed in the 1590s. They’re made, in part, in response to predecessors — trying to resuscitate a tired genre that’s already had its day. How do you revivify that form?
His early long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”, were likely composed when the theatres were shut down due to plague in 1592-3. The sonnets could have been revised during a similar outbreak around 1606 or so . . . It’s hard to know!
So, in terms of somebody who is just getting started and wants to learn more about the sonnets, the book you’ve recommended is Shakespeare’s Sonnets, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, who is a professor here at the University of Oxford. What does it cover and can you talk me through why you’ve chosen it?
I’ve enjoyed teaching from this thought-provoking Arden version, which includes all 154 sonnets plus “A Lover’s Complaint” (published in the same volume as the sonnets in 1609).
Duncan-Jones’s thorough introduction covers the poems’ publication, who their addressees might have been, and the long reception of how they’ve been read over the last 400+ years.
While she modernizes spelling and punctuation, her notes carefully attend to how such modifications inflect our interpretation. She encourages readers to hear wordplay that might otherwise be glossed over.
Each sonnet’s paired with facing-page commentary, offering shrewd observations about word histories, classical and contemporary allusions, and connections across Shakespeare’s plays and poems. This format allows each poem to breathe on its own; then, your eye can shift over, consulting her observations as much or as little as you prefer.
Throughout, it’s just a well-conceived edition.
And do you find with your students that there does need to be a bit of an explanation to understand what’s going on in the sonnets?
At first, yes. Duncan-Jones is a great scholar who’s also a great teacher (not always one and the same, alas!), so each note sketches a quick summary of the poem. The ‘plot’ of a sonnet can be pretty banal, in many cases, but her explanations quickly situate the reader: ‘oh, the speaker misses the beloved’ or ‘hmm, the speaker is jealous of the addressee again.’ So that’s helpful: an initial paraphrase, then you can return to read the poem, oscillating back and forth with her notes. You become involved in an ongoing conversation with Shakespeare, as well as with a judicious editor.
So next up we’ve got The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Helen Vendler, who is a University Professor at Harvard. This book is slightly different, but it also includes all the poems, is that right?
It does, with a virtuoso commentary on each one. A caution to first-time readers: her minutely technical interpretations might overwhelm your initial encounter — so maybe this volume is better suited as a kind of “deep dive,” after you’ve already worked through the sonnets on your own. Even when (or maybe: especially when) you don’t concur with her approach, Vendler invariably sparks new insights along the way.
She does something else that’s helpful: she modernizes each poem’s punctuation and spelling (like Duncan-Jones does), but she also reproduces a corresponding facsimile image from the 1609 quarto. Again, your eye can scan back and forth between the different versions, evaluating her editorial decisions yourself.
That’s followed by a three to five-page short essay, where she speculates about the conception of the poem — which is really what she’s best at doing. As she cites T. S. Eliot: “as a good deal of thinking has gone to the making of poetry, so a good deal may well go to the study of it.”
Going back to basics for a minute, I’ve picked up that 1609 is the date when the sonnets were formally published by Shakespeare. Could you explain what happened and why they were published then?
It’s fairly late in his career; he stops writing plays a few years after that. It also feels belated in the sense that, again, this is a genre that was popular decades ago . . . We do know that some of the poems were written in the 1590s, in part because a couple of them are published in a 1598 volume called The Passionate Pilgrim.
“Across his career, Shakespeare was meditating upon this particular form: sometimes mocking it, sometimes praising it”
Duncan-Jones’s introduction walks through a number of hypotheses that have been posited about what might have induced the book’s appearance in 1609. Why was it published with that particular printer? What does the title page indicate? What does the dedication imply? These kinds of questions animate the history of the book: reconstructing the social networks, as it were, that transmit words across different media, for different audiences, at different moments.
And from this Helen Vendler collection, is there a particular poem that you like her treatment of?
A great example of her investigating a sonnet’s conceptual gymnastics would be 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”). In both 29 and 30, the speaker wallows in despair; yet thinking on the friend eventually lifts his spirits. In sonnet 29, the depressive descent occupies the first eight lines (an “octave”); then, “Haply I think on thee” — and across the last six lines (“sestet”), my “state” improves. Sonnet 30 enacts the same dynamic, but stretched out to different proportions: thirteen lines of depressive descent, with only one line of recovery.
In her reading of 30, Vendler unfolds the presumed time schemes that must have happened before the fiction of that poem’s “now.”
What happened in “the past” of 30? Well, there was once a time when I had no friends; then, happily, I enjoyed the company of those I loved. Tragically, they died. For some time, I mourned their loss. Eventually, I got over that mourning. Now, in a kind of perverse way, I’m reanimating my mourning — as if I had never overcome it. Even though I have already worked through the psychological stages of grieving, I find myself once more stuck in that phase. It seems like there’s no exit. But suddenly, at the very last moment, “I think on thee, dear friend” — and “All losses are restored, and sorrows end.”
Some seven different time frames are compressed into the framework of a 14-line poem. Helpfully, Vendler often breaks down a sonnet into what she perceives to be its component parts, which she’ll then reconstruct in a kind of “chart.” To some, this ends up being too schematic. But I find it clarifying to view punctuation, parts of speech, sonic effects, and the like exfoliated in this manner.
The next book you’ve chosen is All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, which is new (September 2020), by scholars Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, both from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Stephen Greenblatt’s blurb called it “radical and unsettling.” Tell me about the book and why it’s exciting.
They’re doing two things here. As the title indicates, it’s “all” the sonnets of Shakespeare — not just the 154 from the 1609 quarto. This includes excerpts from the plays that are literal sonnets, as well as characters discussing the practice of “sonneting.”
Romeo and Juliet’s sonnets might be the most familiar, whether the Chorus’s prologues (“Two households, both alike in dignity”), or the dialogue where the masked lovers meet and compose a mutual 14-line poem (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand”). Edmondson and Wells gather these, along with other passages from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Edward III, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, As You Like It,Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Pericles, Cymbeline, and Henry VIII.
Separately, they’ve speculated about the possible order of composition of those poems. Dating the drama tends to be easier: for many plays, we have a pretty good sense of when they were first performed, and when they were first printed. In some cases, we can even deduce when a play was likely composed.
“if you’re a poet writing in Tudor England, the sonnet is one of many forms that you seek to master to demonstrate your capability as a writer”
The sonnets are tougher to date with precision. If, as they suggest — and as others have suggested before — they were composed over a 25+ year span, and then in 1609 were expanded and rearranged, how can you justify saying ‘I think this one was written before that one’? So they do a lot of circumstantial speculation, synthesizing generations of scholars who’ve tried to puzzle this out.
One example: sonnet 145’s unusual for its eight-syllable lines, what we call a tetrameter, instead of the conventional pentameter. It sounds like the final line might embed a pun on Anne Hathaway’s surname: “’I hate’ from hate away she threw.” Might this have been a sonnet he wrote in the 1580s, to woo his future wife?
Reordering the sonnets has a long, controversial history. While Duncan-Jones dismisses it as fruitless, many, many readers have thought, ‘I think I know a better order for these poems! I think I have a better sense of how they should proceed — one that fits my idea of what the trajectory of the poems really is.”
And do you like their attempts to do the chronology of the sonnets? Is that why you’ve chosen the book?
Reconstructing the possible order of composition is a clever, if ultimately limited, exercise. What I appreciate more about this book is its anthology of poems from the plays, reminding us that versifying is not separate from drama — and, vice versa, that there are dramatic elements at play in the poems. Across his career, Shakespeare was meditating upon this particular form: sometimes mocking it, sometimes praising it; deploying it in comedy, history, and tragedy; toying with its permutations on both stage and page.
Do the sonnets cover as broad themes as the plays do — or are they mainly about love?
They address a wide range of subjects and topics and occasions, from being tongue-tied (23) to being sleepless (27). Moreover, he doesn’t make his sonnets sound like the Petrarchan models that were in vogue two decades earlier, where a male speaker was (over)idealizing a female beloved.
Shakespeare’s first 126 sonnets involve an older male addressing a younger male, for whom he has enormous affection, as well as ambivalence and frustration. Then we come to the last 28 sonnets, which entail an explicitly sexual relationship with a woman. It’s full of lust that’s “perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust” (to cite 129). Neither addressee is conventionally Petrarchan!
And they’re about death?
Absolutely; many of them are animated by intimations of mortality. There are wonderful poems — like 71, 73, 81 — where the speaker projects his own death in the future, and wonders what the surviving addressee will do. Will you be mourning for me? Will you have forgotten me? Does my older age now spur your youth into action? Sometimes that imaginative projection leads to audacious statements, like 55, where the poet proclaims that the poem will outlive everything — even ‘gilded monuments / Of princes.’ (An old boast!) On other occasions, the poet worries: how will this feeble little piece of paper survive, when nothing in the physical world does (65)? It’d take a miracle . . .
Do you get a sense of Shakespeare’s personality from the sonnets?
Well, readers have long yearned for that sense! Wordsworth claimed that “with this key / Shakespeare unlocked his heart” — to which Robert Browning retorted: “Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!” And Algernon Charles Swinburne ventured to reply: “no whit the less like Shakespeare, but undoubtedly the less like Browning.”
“They address a wide range of subjects and topics and occasions, from being tongue-tied (23) to being sleepless (27)”
To me, the experience of reading the sonnets involves an almost Rorschach blot-like quality. There’s definitely something there . . . and you can see what you might want to see . . . but it’s impossible to pin down a consensus about everyone seeing the same thing. Features and traits emerge through the voice of the poems, but I don’t know if “personality” would be the word that I’d invoke to describe that; maybe, better, a “persona.” If anything, this persona is a remote one, cautious about not putting himself forward (that Keatsian “negative capability”).
So, in terms of the books you’re recommending, we’re now at The Afterlife of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. This is a book by Jane Kingsley-Smith, who teaches at Roehampton University in London, and it looks fascinating. For example, she informs us Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), among the best known of all the sonnets today, was out of print for nearly a century.
Isn’t that surprising? It’s always eye-opening to work your way back into the history of any object that you love — whether it’s a poem, a building, or a piece of music — and discover how its reception has evolved over time.
The sonnets weren’t reprinted until 1640, two dozen years after Shakespeare’s death, in a peculiar volume by John Benson. Benson does exactly what an editor would not do now: outright omit some poems; add others not written by Shakespeare (while still attributing them to him); modify the gender of the addressee (changing the ‘he’ of those early sonnets into a ‘she’) — even add explanatory titles to individual poems.
For instance, Sonnet 122 goes something like: ‘You gave me a notebook. Sorry, I gave it away to someone else. But the reason I gave it away was, ummmm, because . . . because if I had a notebook to take notes about you, I would forget you! So, actually, I’m remembering you better by giving away the notebook that you gave me.’ It’s an awkward kind of re-gifting apology, and it’s part of those poems addressed to a young man. Yet Benson retitles it, and calls it “Upon the Receipt of a Table Book from His Mistress.”
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So, he re-genders sonnets and, among other things, doesn’t include 18 — which we just take for granted as having always been popular. That’s one of the things the Kingsley-Smith book is smart about unpacking: why certain sonnets have been favored at certain junctures, less favored at others.
As part of her reception history, Kingsley-Smith surveys early readers’ comments. Just yesterday my students were examining images of 17th century copies where someone will, in the margin, scrawl ‘nonsense’ — or even better: ‘What a heap of wretched INFIDEL stuff.’ It’s not as if these poems have always been seen as flawless masterpieces; some of our earliest records of responses to them register antagonism or perplexity. In addition to considering how later writers like Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Wilfred Owen, or Virginia Woolf reacted to these poems, she gleans insight by examining how particular sonnets got anthologized, and why.
Is Shakespeare—or an older man—addressing a young man controversial, or was that normal at the time, as it was in ancient Greece? What do scholars make of that aspect of the sonnets?
There’s been a lot of great scholarship over the last half century on the history of male-male intimacy in the English Renaissance, a topic often nervously skirted in previous centuries (one reason why editors might revise the pronouns, or anthologize certain poems out of context). The Edmondson and Wells book comes out strongly in favor of a bisexual Shakespeare. That’s not new — it’s been said before — but they’re saying it forcefully.
There’s certainly an exquisite playfulness in the sonnets about eroticism. Sonnet 20, for instance, praises the young man for being as beautiful as a woman, save for ‘one thing.’ That ‘one thing,’ we learn in the punchline, is his genitalia — in effect, ‘because nature added “one thing” to you that she didn’t give to women, I can’t have sex with you; you can have sex with women, and I’ll just love you.’ This extra ‘one thing’ is also a (boyish) joke on the meter: 20 is the only sonnet where every line has 11 syllables instead of 10 — one “extra” thing it’s not supposed to have, making it simultaneously excessive and anomalous. At the least, I think it’s fair to say that the sonnets articulate forms of intimacy that are not exclusively physical.
Lastly, you felt it was important, in discussing Shakespeare sonnets, to include some examples of creative rewritings. You’ve actually chosen two, both by living poets. Let’s talk about Nets first, which is a book of erasure poems — a genre I’d never heard of, but looks great.
I know I’m cheating a little bit by squeezing in two books here! But there have just been so many writers who’ve been inspired to respond imaginatively to these poems — just as we have countless rewritings of the plays across centuries, across nations.
The title of Jen Bervin’s Nets enacts the very project of her book. It’s an abbreviated form of the word Sonnets, just leaving ‘nets’ — as if she’s taken a net, and filtered Shakespeare’s words through it. She visually lightens certain phrases in a poem, leaving behind new, more prominent threads of words. When you strain your eyes, you can still faintly find a palimpsest of the greyed-out words from the original. But the newly bolded words remain clear, either underlining something that was already latent, or taking it in a new direction. In her words, she’s ‘stripped Shakespeare’s sonnets bare to the “nets” to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible — a divergent elsewhere.’
In doing so, she partakes in a tradition of creative writers taking the front page of, say, yesterday’s Guardian, blacking out certain sections, and leaving the remaining words newly legible. Ronald Johnson similarly did this with Paradise Lost, weaving a residual thread of words, wending its way down the page. It’s visually arresting: you’re often startled into seeing something that you didn’t recognize before.
The other creative rewrite of Shakespeare sonnets you’ve chosen is called Lucy Negro, Redux. Tell me about this book.
This is by Caroline Randall Williams, a writer who resides in Nashville, Tennessee. She employs a different strategy, through speculating who the addressee (the “dark lady”) of the later sonnets might have been. Shakespeare’s poems describe a woman with dark features: black eyes, black hair, black eyebrows. Was the addressee a historical individual? A composite of multiple women? An entirely fictive figure? Among the many candidates for who that addressee might have been, the brothel co-owner named “Black Luce” has been proposed by the scholar Duncan Salkeld. This woman might have been of African descent, and might have been someone that Shakespeare would have encountered in the 1590s.
“She ‘got it into [her] head that Shakespeare had a black lover, and that this woman was the subject of sonnets 127 to 154”
While Williams concedes that this candidate is but one of many conjectures, she “got it into [her] head that Shakespeare had a black lover, and that this woman was the subject of sonnets 127 to 154.” Her conjecture inspires a series of response poems, in the voice of Black Luce. These responses are often generated by a line from the Sonnets, such as “For I have sworn thee fair” (147) or “Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place” (131).
And her book’s already enjoyed its own afterlife, as it was recently adapted as a ballet, with new music composed by Rhiannon Giddens.
One chapter, “Of Constraint,” addresses much of what we’ve been discussing. Artists have always worked within limits, found ways to stretch those limits to their own advantage, revised those limits for new circumstances, new occasions. We all think through inherited forms. Part of our task, as creative human beings, is to think our way into those forms, think through those forms: how can we make them vibrant for us today, even though they might look dead to us, on first glance? Both the Bervin and the Williams books are good examples of that continued vibrancy, taking the sonnets in entirely new directions that could never have been anticipated in 1609.
Why did you want to write the book? Was it a feeling that education today leaves something to be desired and you felt strongly that you wanted to say something about that?
The book emerged from two parallel strands: one professional, one parental.
As a professor, I’d been reading a lot of scholarship about the kind of education, the kind of intellectual infrastructure that would have enabled Shakespeare’s creativity to flourish. Admittedly, many of those practices of are downright backwards to us today, and we’d rightly never want to revive them. But some of them still remain effective, and are still worth sustaining — like something as basic as copying a good model, and puzzling over what makes it work. Thinking of Shakespeare as a maker has made me a better teacher (I hope!), as I’ve been striving to help students think of him as someone who inherits (and modifies) forms, rather than as a stand-alone genius.
As a parent, I’d been frustrated with some experiences my children encountered over the last decade in their schooling, in part because we’ve split some things into binaries that are actually not binary. So, for example, we think of imitation as being the opposite of creativity. We have a romanticized notion of creativity, that it emerges by just doing whatever you want, and that imitation is just slavish (a modifier that’s often deployed), something that stifles creativity.
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In fact, in the best circumstances, imitating another creator is a great way for you to figure out what you want to do yourself. We readily grant this in bodily practices, such as practising piano, or holding a certain dance pose, or making a move in sports. You imitate, and you emulate, and eventually the practice becomes part of your own repertory — one of the many things that you can enact as a fully autonomous human being, expressing yourself in the world. Like I said: we’re happy to grant the virtues of imitations in music and sport, yet are less ready to concede the same in the arts of reading and writing and thinking. But part of the way we all grow to be good readers and writers and thinkers is by emulating models whom we admire. That’s not a bad thing. That’s a healthy developmental stage — and I think that’s something educational reforms of the past couple of decades have forgotten.
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Scott Newstok is Professor of English and founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College. He is the recipient of both a Campus Life Award for Outstanding Faculty Member and the Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching.
Scott Newstok is Professor of English and founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College. He is the recipient of both a Campus Life Award for Outstanding Faculty Member and the Clarence Day Award for Outstanding Teaching.
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