Printing the sonnets in chronological order helps us to understand the development in Shakespeare's use of the form, and indeed in his artistic development as a whole.— Prof Sir Stanley Wells & Dr Paul Edmondson
It is not known whether William Shakespeare ever intended his Sonnets to be published, but in 1609 — 7 years before he died — they were, appearing in print in the volume titled Shakespeare's Sonnets: Never Before Imprinted as simply Sonnets 1 to 154.
In their book, All the Sonnets of Shakespeare, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's head of research Dr Paul Edmondson and honorary president Professor Sir Stanley Wells are the first to present the poems in what is now thought to be the chronological order in which they were written by Shakespeare over a period of 30 years.
In another first, they also intersperse them with the prologues, epilogues, dialogues, and monologues that Shakespeare wrote in sonnet form in his plays.
Here Dr Edmondson and Professor Wells talk about their 'groundbreaking' book.
Why have you decided to publish this book now?
We have been working on Shakespeare's Sonnets for around 20 years and the time seemed right to try something new and daring. In this book we revise and significantly develop and augment our approach to these poems. No one has taken this approach before, and we feel we are breaking new ground and changing the conversation in this contested area of Shakespeare scholarship.
You have put the sonnets in their 'probable order', give us some insight into how you arrived at arranging them as such?
The chronological approach, whilst entirely original for an edition of the Sonnets, is based on the scholarly expertise of Macdonald P. Jackson (University of Auckland). For many years scholars have thought that the order in which Shakespeare's Sonnets were printed (when they first appeared in 1609) is not the order in which he wrote them. Jackson has been able to posit a chronological order for them based on Shakespeare's use of key words and phrases, mapped across, and compared with, his use of language in the plays, some of which can be reasonably dated. So, for example, his findings show that the Sonnets printed last in the 1609 collection (from 127-154) were the earliest composed. We depart from Jackson's work in our decision to place the last two sonnets printed in 1609 (Sonnets 153 and 154) at the front of our edition. They are two different translations of the same Greek epigram, that Shakespeare probably came across at the Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school. They might well be therefore based on his schoolboy exercises.
What does reordering the Sonnets tell us about Shakespeare that we might not have already known? Does it prove / disprove any myths or theories about his life and work?
In adopting the chronological approach to the 1609 Sonnets — and chronologically interspersing Shakespeare's use of the sonnet form in the plays among them, for example prologues, epilogues, dialogues, monologues — we show that Shakespeare was writing sonnets for around 30 years. We therefore disprove any assumption that he was setting out to write a sequence of sonnets, as was the fashion among his sonnet-writing contemporaries. This means that we have also removed the story first brought to the sonnets in the late 18th century, which has long become a myth: that the first 126 are addressed to a 'Fair Youth' and the rest to a 'Dark Lady'. Instead, we have set the Sonnets free so that we can appreciate them afresh as individual poems, some of which are connected to form a pair, and some which represent small groups of poems on a particular theme — mini sequences in the larger collection.
Printing them in conjunction with extracts from the plays illuminates our sense of the relationship between Shakespeare's private and his public selves.
How does the chronological order affect their meanings, individually and / or collectively?
Printing the sonnets in chronological order helps us to understand the development in Shakespeare's use of the form, and indeed in his artistic development as a whole. For example the sonnet which is generally agreed to have been addressed to Anne Hathaway before they were married, and which comes third in our collection, is clearly a less sophisticated composition than those that follow. And printing them in conjunction with extracts from the plays illuminates our sense of the relationship between Shakespeare's private and his public selves.
If Shakespeare never intended his sonnets to be published, why then did he write them?
Liberating the Sonnets from their printed order and abandoning the oft-repeated biographical myth helps us to understand the great diversity of uses that Shakespeare made of the form. He could write a sonnet as a kind of letter to accompany a gift; as a religious meditation; as an impersonal, lyrical outpouring; as a kind of entry in an intimate diary, and as a form of self-exploration which at its most intense resembles the semi-confessional utterance of a patient on a psychiatrist's couch. It looks as if he himself wrote them out in a notebook for his own use, and as if that notebook somehow got into the hands of the publisher. I doubt if Shakespeare wanted to see them in print in his lifetime. There is a parallel with John Donne whose equally intimate and sexually explicit Songs and Sonnets were posthumously published.
Could they be considered the closest we have to Shakespeare's memoirs?
Yes, to some extent, though they are not all equally personal. I think that many of them represent Shakespeare working through intense and often private emotions, and that the sonnet form — of which he made himself the unparalleled master — allowed him to frame his thoughts and feelings.
We asked Dr Edmondson and Professor Wells to name their favourite sonnet, and why?
Dr Edmondson: Working on this new edition has taken me closer to the Sonnets than ever before. It has made realise afresh their genius and difficulty, their beauty and their intellect. I do not have a single favourite, but an ever-increasing sense of my own immediate selection of, say, 20 that I'd immediately like to share with someone who perhaps doesn't know Shakespeare's Sonnets very well. Since you ask for a favourite, then I'll choose one of those top 20, the ordering of which shifts depending on my mood. So, here's a special mention for Sonnet 98 because it is tenderly expressed, longs for the absent beloved, and is deeply and lyrically appreciative of the natural world. It begins 'From you have I been absent in the spring.'
Professor Wells: Like Paul I don't really like having to pick out one particular sonnet as a favourite, but I do have a special soft spot for No 29, beginning 'When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes' — the first one I got to know and one which meant a lot to me at a time of developing self-awareness.
All the Sonnets of Shakespeare is published by Cambridge University Press, September 2020.