Excerpt: The Afterlife of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

book coverWhy weren’t Shakespeare’s sonnets included in the First Folio? And what was the effect on the way that later readers and critics considered Shakespeare’s total body of work?

Jane Kingsley-Smith of Roehampton University, London, explores these questions in the below excerpt from her 2019 book The Afterlife of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published by Cambridge University Press. The book examines how Shakespeare’s sonnets were received at the time of their publication and how they’ve been thought of ever since.


The First Folio of 1623, the book that defined Shakespeare as ‘a single, and singular author, rather than a playwright’, did so without including his narrative or lyric verse. The reasons for this decision remain unclear. Venus and Lucrece were still popular enough to justify reprinting, so the copyright holders would have been unlikely to give them up; however, the 1609 Sonnets had not reached a second edition, and it is hard to imagine that John Heminges and Henry Condell could not have acquired the rights had they been so inclined. Given some of the names associated with this publishing venture, it is surprising that the Folio does not at least refer to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. William Jaggard, who appears in the colophon as part of the syndicate behind the Folio (though he was dead when it came out), is the stationer responsible for The Passionate Pilgrim. William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, one of the Folio dedicatees, has a strong connection to the Sonnets, as discussed in the previous chapter. Leonard Digges had offered a rare, positive view of the Sonnets in 1613 and contributes a prefatory poem to the Folio, promising Shakespeare that this book, ‘When brass and marble fade, shall make thee look/  Fresh to all ages’.

Building on this impression that the Sonnets ought to be here, Douglas Lanier has argued that the Folio’s translation of theatrical documents into literary works relies on ‘self-presentational tropes already established by the Sonnets’. However, the specific allusions to the Sonnets that Lanier discovers vary considerably in persuasiveness. Ben Jonson, who had quoted a Sonnet as early as 1599, might well be rewriting the final couplet of Sonnet 18 (‘So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/  So long lives this, and this gives life to thee’) in lines 22– 24 of his tribute: ‘And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,/  And we have wits to read, and praise to give.’ It does seem significant that Hugh Holland chose to write his eulogy in the form of a sonnet, concluding ‘For though his line of life went soon about,/  The life yet of his lines shall never out’, which echoes the pun in Sonnet 16, ‘So should the lines of life that life repair …’. But Lanier’s other discovered allusions in Heminges and Condell’s dedication and the Digges poem are harder to accept, and potentially betray not only our need to believe that the Sonnets have always been valued by those who invented Shakespeare as Author, but our assumption that the monument topos is predominantly identifiable with Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Both John Kerrigan and Chris Laoutaris have usefully called attention to the posthumous language in which the Folio describes itself. When Heminges and Condell consecrate ‘these remaines of your servant Shakespeare’,

The mortuary implication of this (‘remaines’ meaning corpse as well as corpus) is not accidental. Earlier, the actors say that they have ‘done an office to the dead … onely to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, and Fellow alive, as was our SHAKESPEARE.’ It has not been sufficiently recognized that the Folio, like Loves Martyr, is a memorial volume, is itself, indeed, a memorial.

It was therefore natural for the preliminary poems to borrow the scripta manet topos from classical writers such as Horace and Ovid. Indeed, Digges makes the origin of his source known: ‘Nor fire nor cank’ring age, as Naso said/  Of his, thy wit- fraught book shall once invade.’ At the same time, Shakespeare was himself the author of a number of epitaphs which use very similar language to that of the Sonnets. John Milton, for example, probably believed that the Stanley epitaph, inscribed on the family tomb at Tong in Shropshire, was by Shakespeare, and it was to this poem that he turned, rather than a Sonnet, when he came to write ‘An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, William Shakespeare’ (see below).

It may be that the Folio was always conceived of as a volume that would collate and celebrate Shakespeare’s plays (Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies), and Peter Kirwan provides some valuable perspective on the expectation that it should represent a ‘Complete’ Works. As he notes, the Folio’s preliminary pages make no claims to completeness, and our modern assumption that a ‘Works’ will be definitive (reflected in the OED definition ‘(a person’s) literary or musical compositions, considered collectively’) is potentially anachronistic: Jonson’s 1616 Workes omitted early and collaborative plays to represent the author in his best light, and was followed by a second volume. Moreover, Kirwan highlights an intriguing line from Digges’ prefatory poem which promises that Shakespeare will live on ‘Till these, till any of thy Volumes rest/  Shall with more fire, more feeling be express’t’:

Here, Digges acknowledges that the Folio is not in itself complete; it does not replace the ‘rest’ of Shakespeare’s volumes. The implication is that Digges conceptualises Shakespeare as having multiple volumes of which one, the present volume, constitutes his ‘Works’. Quite what the volumes are remains unclear –  he may be referring to individual texts of plays, or to collections of Shakespeare’s poems. However, the point is that the volume of ‘Workes’ is complete unto itself, but is itself not all of the ‘Volumes’ of Shakespeare.

But if Kirwan is right that there is a difference between the Sonnets’ absence from the Folio and their omission, it would nevertheless come to be read as an ‘exclusion’, with devastating consequences. Heminges and Condell had ‘collected and published [Shakespeare’s] writings’, and Digges agreed that they had given ‘The world thy works’; hence the canon was constructed without the Sonnets. Their ‘exclusion’ was perpetuated by F2 (1632) –  although by this point the copyright-holder, Thorpe, was dead –  and then by F3 (1663) and F4 (1685), although these volumes had found room for six apocryphal plays. For all the Sonnets’ claims to confer monumentality –  reflecting ‘many of the same qualities … sought in actual funerary structures: permanence, memory, authority’ –  they themselves were denied it. Even when the Sonnets began to be printed in supplementary volumes to the Works in the early eighteenth century, their former omission went against them. In his ‘Remarks on the Poems of Shakespear ’ (1710), Charles Gildon acknowledges that some will consider them ‘not valuable enough to be reprinted, as was plain by the first Editors of his Works who wou’d otherwise have join’d them altogether’.

But if the Folios failed to preserve the Sonnets, both textually and allusively, a small number of manuscripts bearing individual poems kept them in circulation. Indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of the Sonnets’ reception in the seventeenth century is not their obscurity, but their sudden efflorescence. Between 1623 and 1660, at least ten complete Sonnets were circulating in manuscript, half of them singly, and these were numbers 2, 8, 32, 33, 68, 71, 106, 107, 116 (in its heavily adapted version) and 138. Of these, twelve out of twenty-three copies are taken from manuscripts dated in the 1630s, with eight attributed to the early years of that decade. Whether or not this is a matter of Caroline readers taking better care of their miscellanies than Shakespeare’s contemporaries, or whether the 1620s and 1630s represent a nostalgic turn to the Sonnets by a new readership, concentrated in the universities and the Inns of Court, has yet to be determined.


© Jane Kingsley-Smith, 2019. Used with the kind permission of Cambridge University Press.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)