Many literary scholars, like priests working away at a hagiography, devote their lives to solving the Shakespearean mysteries. There’s the matter of his personal life, his sexuality, his social class, his education (or lack thereof), the poems and plays we have, and the ones that have disappeared or are missing in plain sight, perhaps attributed to other poets. Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, 400 years old this year, may cause the greatest speculation of all. Who is the “Mr. W.H.” of the 1609 dedication? What woman inspired the Dark Lady? And just who is this adored man known as the Fair Youth? The greatest question, and the one that author Clinton Heylin tries to answer, is how these poems were published in the first place. Why didn’t Shakespeare keep them in manuscript, to be passed only between friends?
Heylin, known for his books on Bob Dylan and the history of bootlegging music, brings a fresh voice to the long debate regarding Shakespeare’s sonnets. He notes the parallels between Renaissance print culture and the late 20th century bootlegs of music. Whether a 17th century love sonnet or a 1970s folk-rock ballad, “the way material circulates and is ultimately passed to ‘professionals’ and utilized by them … [is] the same” he writes. Heylin has written a concise, well-researched, and accessible account of Shakespeare’s sonnets and the long history of literary debate about the sequence’s origins and meaning.
The Bard takes a supporting role in Heylin’s book — he merely wrote the poems. This story concerns the text itself and the conspiring printers, publishers, poets, and critics who have kept the poems alive for us to enjoy and debate today. Literary altruism has hardly been the only motive for keeping Shakespeare’s poems in circulation. Consider Thomas Thorpe, printer. He was responsible for the first edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1609, a book now known amongst scholars as “Q”. Yet, how did Thorpe get the poems in the first place, and acquire the rights to print them? The success of Shakespeare’s two previous long poems, “The Rape of Lucrece” and “Venus and Adonis”, would have made the publication of Shakespeare’s sonnets a potentially lucrative opportunity.
The scandalous subject matter of the sonnets, considering a number of them focus on the poet’s love for a young man, may have been responsible for the disappearance of all but 13 copies of “Q”. While several of the sonnets were written down in commonplace books (personal volumes which collected favored poems and other material) the sequence itself may have been lost if it was not for “bookleggers” who essentially remixed the poems, changed the pronouns, cut where appropriate, and pasted easily digestible titles over sections of verse. And so begins the great debate: what sonnets are in and which are out, in what order should they be presented, and, the old favourite, did Shakespeare even write them?
Heylin’s easy tone reminds us that Shakespeare was, and perhaps still is, a part of popular culture and that it’s entirely appropriate to mention him in the same sentence as Bob Dylan. Heylin portrays the disputes between scholars as a comedy of errors, and even refers to the critic Katherine Duncan-Jones, whom he disagrees with on several points, with the patronizing nickname, “the Lady Scholar”. It’s entirely refreshing to read about Shakespeare without the hushed tone of literary sanctity, while preserving the rigors of good research.
Complete versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets, including the two questionable Cupid sonnets, accompany Heylin’s analysis; however, this volume lacks illustrative material that readers will likely be interested in seeing while reading the book. How was the Stationers Register organized? Or a page of the elusive “Q”? Since the book focuses on Shakespearean print culture, it made me hungry for a chance to pore over even a small part of the manuscript — an interest that can be attributed to the energy of Heylin’s analysis.
For Shakespeare aficionados, Heylin’s book will serve as a succinct and engaging overview of the sonnet sequence debate. If Shakespeare makes some readers shudder with memories of high school textual surgery, the author is an approachable guide to the story behind the poetry and its many editions. And whatever the reasons we still have the sonnets in print, we can be thankful they survived the fraught journey Heylin recounts.