History of the Shakespearean Sonnet

Shakespeare's sonnets

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It is not known exactly when Shakespeare wrote his sequence of 154 sonnets, but the poems’ language suggests that they originate from the early 1590s. It is believed that Shakespeare was circulating his sonnets amongst his close friends during this period, as clergyman Francis Meres confirmed in 1598 when he wrote:

“…the sweete wittie soule of Ouid liues in mellifluous and hony-toungued Shakespeare, witness … his sugred Sonnets among his private friends.”

The Shakespearian Sonnet in Print

It wasn’t until 1609 that the sonnets first appeared in print in an unauthorized edition by Thomas Thorpe. Most critics agree that Shakespeare’s sonnets were printed without his consent because the 1609 text seems to be based on an incomplete or draft copy of the poems. The text is riddled with errors and some believe that certain sonnets are unfinished.​

Shakespeare almost certainly intended his sonnets for manuscript circulation, which was not uncommon at the time, but exactly how the poems ended up in the hands of Thorpe is still unknown.

Who was “Mr. WH”?

The dedication in the frontispiece of the 1609 edition has sparked controversy among Shakespeare historians and has become a key piece of evidence in the authorship debate.

It reads:

To the only begetter
of these ensuing sonnets
Mr. W.H. all happiness and
that eternity promised by
our ever-lasting poet wisheth
the well-wishing adventurer
in setting forth.

Although the dedication was written by Thomas Thorpe the publisher, indicated by his initials at the end of the dedication, the identity of the “begetter” is still unclear.

There are three main theories regarding the true identity of “Mr. W.H.” as follows:

  1. “Mr. W.H.” is a misprint for Shakespeare’s initials. It should read either “Mr. W.S.” or “Mr. W.Sh.”
  2. “Mr. W.H.” refers to the person that obtained the manuscript for Thorpe
  3. “Mr. W.H.” refers to the person that inspired Shakespeare to write the sonnets. Many candidates have been proposed including:
    1. William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke to whom Shakespeare later dedicated his First Folio
    2. Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton to whom Shakespeare had dedicated some of his narrative poems

It is important to note that although the true identity of W.H. is of importance to Shakespeare historians, it doesn’t obscure the poetic brilliance of his sonnets.

Other Editions

In 1640, a publisher called John Benson released a highly inaccurate edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets in which he edited out the young man, replacing “he” with “she”.

Benson’s revision was considered to be the standard text until 1780 when Edmond Malone returned to the 1690 quarto and re-edited the poems. Scholars soon realized that the first 126 sonnets were originally addressed to a young man, sparking debates about Shakespeare’s sexuality. The nature of the relationship between the two men is highly ambiguous and it is often impossible to tell if Shakespeare is describing platonic love or erotic love.

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Jamieson, Lee. "History of the Shakespearean Sonnet." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-shakespearian-sonnet-2985265. Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). History of the Shakespearean Sonnet. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-shakespearian-sonnet-2985265 Jamieson, Lee. "History of the Shakespearean Sonnet." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-shakespearian-sonnet-2985265 (accessed June 6, 2023).