What Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Called Critical Essays

What Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Called

(Shakespearean Criticism)

What Are Shakespeare's Sonnets Called?

Katherine Duncan-Jones, Somerville College, Oxford

The naming, or entitling, of literary works raises questions which range from the abstractly philosophical to the concretely bibliographical. Indeed, this is an area in which such approaches, normally divergent, converge. Some of the metalinguistic problems of naming are amusingly cracked open in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass (1893), where Alice is offered four different names for a song about to be performed by the White Knight. The titles offered by the White Knight in response to Alice's questions range from 'Haddocks Eyes', 'The name of the song', by way of what the name 'really is', The Aged Aged man', then moving on to what the song 'is called', 'Ways and Means ', and arriving finally at what appears to be the essentialist centre:

'Well, what is the song, then?' said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

'I was coming to that,' the knight said. 'The song really is 'A-sitting On A Gate', and the tune's my own invention.'1

None of the four names or titles offered by the White Knight incorporates his own name, or indicates his own relationship to the text he performs-which is, of course, a parody of Wordsworth's ramblingly deferred Resolution and Independence, also known as The Leech-Gatherer—but it is interesting that it is only when he comes to what 'The song really is' that he divulges his own supposed contribution to it, the invention of the tune. In the case of Shakespeare's sonnets, contrariwise, a claim for authorship is incorporated into the title itself, as printed in 1609: 'SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Neuer before Imprinted'. Curiously, although there has been so much discussion of the following leaf, with T. T.'s capitalized dedication of 'THESE. INSUING. SONNETS' to 'Mr. W. H.', the title-page has been relatively little examined. Because of an almost universal assumption by earlier editors and critics that the text is unauthorized, and possibly acquired by Thomas Thorpe in an underhand or even malicious manner, the title has been conventionally viewed as a bare-faced claim to authenticity by a greedy publisher, the crucial words being 'Neuer before imprinted'.2 Yet at least three external witnesses suggest, conversely, that this may be a text authorized by Shakespeare himself.3 Thomas Heywood, reprimanding the piratical William Jaggard for his appropriation, not only of two epistles from his own Troia Britanica, but also of some of Shakespeare's 'sugred sonnets', previously pirated by Jaggard in 1599, added that 'hee to doe himselfe right, hath since published them in his owne name'. William Drummond in conversation with Jonson referred to Shakespeare, along with Sir William Alexander, as having lately published his own love poems.4 And the publisher John Benson in 1640 appears to have believed that it was Shakespeare himself who was responsible for the 1609 text, with which he then proceeded to take great liberties, for he praised the sonnets as being 'of the same purity, the Author himselfe then living, avouched'. If the text is authorized, it follows logically that the title, too, may be as Shakespeare wished it to be. Certainly it is perfectly consistent with the form of the Stationers' Register entry, on 20th May 1609, where it is described as 'a Booke called SHAKESPEARES sonnettes'. The absence of any more elaborate, fictive or teasing title—such as Mistress Emilia and the Two Williams, say, or Rose-water Distilled—is indeed one of the many distinctive and puzzling features of Shakespeare's sonnets, especially if the sequence is compared, as it most often has been, with Elizabethan sonnet sequences of the 1580s and 90s. However, a closer examination of the 1609 volume's title in conjunction with comparable titles in the period produces some interesting analogies.

Today, a two-word title consisting of an author's name in the possessive followed by a noun—what, for short, I will call a 'genitive title'—may often be colloquially applied to major works of reference or scholarship. Scholars allude familiarly to 'North's Plutarch', 'Johnson's Dictionary' or 'Cruden's Concordance'. This form of title suggests unchallengeable weight and authority, and has generally acquired currency because the work occupies a position which requires frequent citation, and the author's achievement is of such magnitude that it is felt that he should always be mentioned as responsible for it. Titles of this sort are fashioned by the use of readers over a period of time, rather than initiated by the original authors. However, when a genitive title is applied to a work of literary imagination by its author, rather than by appreciative users of it, the effect can be totally different, and may seem both whimsical and egotistical, as in Pam Ayres's All Pam 's poems (1978). Egotistical whimsicality may also have been a feature of some genitive titles in the period 1570-1620.5 Such titles often seem to point to some sort of cult of personality by a notorious or popular writer, who may wish—or whose publisher may wish on his behalf—to draw attention to the individuality or persona behind or in the work. The works attributed posthumously to Shakespeare's hostile rival Robert Greene offer some celebrated Elizabethan instances, such as Greenes Groats-worth of Witte, 1592; compare also Greenes neuer too late, Greenes orpharion, Greenes mourning garment, all published in 1590; Greenes newes both from heauen and hell, 1593; the apocryphal Greenes arcadia, 1610, and so on. But poets earlier in the period also frequently used the genitive formula. Consider, for instance, the Countess of Pembroke's obscure retainer Thomas Howell, author of Howell his deuises, 1581; the musician William Hunnis, Hunnies recreation, 1588; or the prolific Thomas Churchyard, with nine or more titles of the genitive type, ranging from Churchyardes Chippes, 1575, to Churchyards Challenge, 1593. In his only surviving letter Thomas Nashe elaborately mocked Churchyardes Chippes,6 yet it may not have been its whimsical genitive title, but rather its old-fashioned poetic style, that Nashe thought ridiculous, since he called his own last-written work Nashes Lenten Stuffe (1599). Lest we should think this a mere catchpenny title devised by the publisher, the aptly-named Nicholas Ling, Nashe opens his second prefatory epistle with a discussion of it:

Nashes Lentenstuffe: and why Nashes Lenienstuffe? Some scabbed scald squire replies, because I had money lent me at Yarmouth, and I pay them againe in prayse of their towne and the redde herring.7

Genitive titles are deployed by many authors of works that we know to have been drawn on by Shakespeare, such as John Florio, Florio his first fruites, 1578, and Florios second frutes, 1591; or Barnabe Riche, Riche his farewell. . . , 1581; or an obscure work on which I believe Shakespeare may have drawn for the 'Hecuba' scene in Hamlet (II. ii), Thomas Fenne, Fennes frutes, 1590, which includes a long prosopopoeic complaint poem, Hecubaes mishappes. Here the two genitives function quite differently. The whole book, in three sections, constitutes the 'fruits' of Thomas Fenne's intellectual labours; the final item in it, a long poem in fourteeners, offers a vision of Hecuba who, in the manner of The Mirror for Magistrates, chronicles her own appalling 'mishaps'. The possibility that a genitive title may refer either to the author or the theme, or both, should be borne in mind when we return to the case of Shakespeare.

Despite this accumulation of examples of genitive titles within Shakespeare's writing lifetime, it is hard to dispel some suspicion that then, as now, such titles, when bestowed on their works by the authors themselves, were a bit vulgar or low-grade. At worst, they can seem ponderously self-advertising, in drawing attention to an otherwise little-known individual, such as the composer Tobias Hume's Captain Humes poeticall musiche, 1607. At other times, they can be explicitly comical, as in Tarltons tragical treatises, 1578, or Tarltons jests, 1613; or Thomas Coryat's Coryats crambe and Coryats crudities, both 1611. Could Shakespeare really have devised such an egotistical title for his own precious and long-awaited sonnets, whether pompously or playfully, especially when this formula was so strongly associated with the works of his alleged enemy Robert Greene?

There is one obvious reason why he may have done so. Thomas Heywood's reference to Shakespeare as 'much offended with M. Jaggard' for his attribution to him in print of inauthentic poems in The Passionate Pilgrim (1599, 1612) seems to allude also to the subsequent publication of the full sequence of sonnets—'hee to doe himselfe right, hath since published them in his owne name' (my emphasis). If this refers, as it certainly appears to do, to the 1609 quarto, it is extremely apt. Shakespeare's sonnets are doubly or even trebly published 'in his owne name'. Shakespeare's authorship is immediately proclaimed in the genitive title on the title-page. We encounter the assertion of possession and authorship even before we are enlightened as to the genre of poems by (and about?) Shakespeare which are to ensue. This may be contrasted with Jaggard's 'THE PASSIONATE PILGRIME. By W. Shakespeare'—a fanciful title which gives away little or nothing about what is to follow, except for making a false claim for Shakespeare's authorship, five only of its twenty poems being authentic. The title indicates little more than that the poems which follow may concern love or suffering—'PASSIONATE'—while being rambling or various—'PILGRIME'. If the title is intended to suggest that there is a continuous persona—perhaps even a fictionalized projection of William Shakespeare—who makes his amorous pilgrimage through the twenty poems, a quick perusal of its contents will show such a reading to be unsustainable. In the 1609 quarto, in contrast, every single opening is headed, on the verso, SHAKESPEARES, and on the recto, SONNETS. However far we go into the book, we never cease to be reminded that what we are reading is Shakespeare's work: and lest we should think the volume eventually stuffed up with other matter, even the last piece is separately titled, on sig. Klv, 'A Louers complaint. BY WILLIAM SHAKE-SPEARE'. Jaggard's inane and irrelevant title may have irritated Shakespeare almost as much as the ascription to him of lyrics by Griffin, Barnfield, Marlowe and others. It may have provoked him to assert the absolute distinction between Jaggard's piratical little miscellany and his own superb and large-scale sequence by adopting the downright, but truthful, 'SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS'. Ben Jonson, incidentally, may have had reservations about the egotistical implications of the genitive form of title, although he did deploy it on occasion, as in 'BEN: IONSON / his / VOLPONE' (1607). But there is reason to suspect that it was Jonson himself who intervened, early in 1609, while the work was in the press, to change the title 'BEN: IONSON, HIS CASE IS ALTERD', a title that inevitably implied not merely that the play was written by Jonson, but also that it dealt with his own altered case, to 'A Pleasant Comedy, CALLED: The Case is Alterd . . . Written by Ben. IONSON'.8

If it is established that Shakespeare's sonnets should be properly and authentically entitled (in a modernized text) Shakespeare 's Sonnets, some further consequences follow. Grammatically, for instance, the title, though plural, forms a single unit, and should be referred to in the singular. Shakespeare's Sonnets 'is', not 'are' a major non-dramatic text, just as The Two Gentlemen of Verona 'is', not 'are', an early comedy, and The Merry Wives of Windsor 'is', not 'are', a mature one. In an index or library catalogue it should appear, not as 'Shakespeare, W., Sonnets', but as 'Shakespeare, W., Shakespeare's Sonnets'. Larger critical and biographical considerations also ensue, by which some critics will be troubled. In the case of such titles as Coryats crudities, Greenes neuer too late, Nashes lenten stuffe or Tarltons jests, the genitive is clearly not just possessive, it is also denotative, and in some cases primarily so. That is, these works are not only written or generated by, respectively, Coryat, Greene, Nashe, and Tarlton, they also deal with their personal situations and exploits—Coryat the traveller, Greene the repentant prodigal, Nashe the refugee from London, Tarlton the jester and Stuntman. The title Shakespeare's Sonnets may imply, analogously, that the poems so labelled concern Shakespeare in some way, as well as being written by him. It may be this further implication, that Shakespeare is not merely responsible for the sonnets as verbal constructs, but is essentially present within them as their principal subject-matter, that has inhibited many scholars from accepting Q's title as authoritative, for it makes some recourse to biographical reference inescapable. Such reference has made generations of Shakespeare scholars deeply uncomfortable, above all those who, like Sir Sidney Lee, worked during the period of the Oscar Wilde trial and its aftermath. Though Lee had originally been a convinced Pembrokian, and then an equally convinced Southamptonite, after the second version of his DNB article on Shakespeare in 1898 his attitude hardened, and he fiercely dismissed the notion of personal allusion of any kind. In 1905 he made the reasons for his anti-biographical reading quite explicit:

A literal interpretation of the poems credits the poet with a moral instability which is at variance with the tone of all the rest of his work . . . a purely literal interpretation of the impassioned protestations of affection for a 'lovely boy', which course through the sonnets, casts a slur on the dignity of the poet's name which scarcely bears discussion.9

Lee's vehement insistence10 that Sonnets 1-126 drew on literary sources alone in celebrating male friendship has set the tone for much twentieth century scholarship and criticism. Even much more recent editors, such as Ingram and Redpath, Booth, and Kerrigan, have in different ways avoided making any close connexions between Shakespeare's Sonnets and Shakespeare's 'life' and presumed personality. For instance, Ingram and Redpath offer only a brief embarrassed comment on

our general impression, which is that the relationship was one of profound and at times agitated friendship, which involved a certain physical and quasi-sexual fascination emanating from the young friend and enveloping the older poet, but did not necessarily include paederasty in any lurid sense.11

Stephen Booth was much more cryptic and even more noncommittal:

William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.12

Working as recently as the mid-80s, John Kerrigan side-stepped the possibility of personal (sexual) reference even more adroitly, speaking of the 'sonnets to the youth' as arising 'out of comradely affection in the literature of friendship', and referring dismissively to

innumerable crackpot theories about the poet's life and love-life—fantasies in which the Sonnets have played a large part.13

Crackpot these theories may be: yet the truth is that the grammatical form of the title, in which it appears that Shakespeare asserts his intimate relationship with his sonnets without the intervention of any visibly fictionalized name or persona, seems positively to invite biographical scrutiny. It must inevitably appear to the first-time reader of the 1609 quarto that, as Sidney's disguised Pyrocles confesses in the 'Old' Arcadia, 'The singer is the song's theame'.14Pace Sir Sidney Lee, such a response is neither inappropriate nor far-fetched. This may be illustrated with reference to one early analogue, and one modern one.

In the sonnet sequence that offers the closest analogy to Shakespeare's in the Jacobean period, the 1605 version of Michael Drayton's Idea, Drayton marks the transition from Englands Heroicall Epistles with a sonnet which ends:

Their sev'rall Loves since I before have
Now give me leave, at last, to sing mine

'Wild, madding, jocund, and irregular' though these sonnets are, Drayton positively invites Jacobean readers to receive them as images of his 'owne' love. Though critics belonging to the Sidney Lee school often claim that personal readings of Renaissance sonnet sequences are a post-Romantic anachronism, Drayton's lines seem explicitly to invite such reading.

A much later parallel is offered by that great American poet John Berryman, who surely intended to proclaim his personal preoccupations, as well as his authorship, when he entitled his 1966 sequence BERRYMAN'S SONNETS. [NOW FIRST IMPRINTED]. He dedicated the collection to his publisher, Robert Giroux, a life-long devotee of Shakespeare's sonnets, here cast in the role of 'onlie begetter'. Berryman's next major collection, HIS TOY, HIS DREAM, HIS REST (1968) also reflected his delicate appreciation of Elizabethan genitive titles, which offer a much richer and subtler method than Whitman's of heralding a 'Song of Myself.'

Oddly enough, in Through the Looking Glass it is the singer who makes a more lasting impression on Alice than the diversely-titled song that he performs:

Years afterwards she could bring the whole scene back again, as if it had been only yesterday—the mild blue eyes and kindly smile of the Knight—the setting sun gleaming through his hair, and shining on his armour in a blaze of light that quite dazzled her.18

Though the song may 'really be' A-sitting On A Gate, Alice receives it as if it were the White Knight's 'song of himself. Shakespeare's Sonnets, too, has very naturally appeared to generations of readers to offer a series of windows or half-open doors through which Shakespeare himself may be glimpsed, or through which his voice can be heard. Perhaps what readers think they have seen or heard has often revealed more about their own expectations or prejudices than about the ultimately unknowable 'Shakespeare' as he constructs a voice within the sonnets. Yet it should be acknowledged that the title of the sequence, as well as its dedication, does seem emphatically to invite such an approach.

There is at least one further way in which the title Shakespeare's Sonnets can be interpreted. Within Shakespeare's period there is a whole category of genitive titles of which I have not yet cited instances. These are applied to works in which some special and definitive expertise is asserted, not by posterity, but by the author. Examples are the classic treatise on horsemanship, M. Blundeuile his Exercises, 1594; or on falconry, Lathams falconry, 1614; or on cookery, Murrels two bookes of cookerie and carving (only fourth edition survives, 1631); or on botany and horticulture, John Parkinson's punning Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris, 1629. ('Park' translates Greek 'paradise', an enclosed garden: the name shared by the book and its author alludes to the earthly paradise of a 'park in the sun'). Shakespeare, who by the plague-year of 1609 was undoubtedly a celebrated and authoritative dramatist and poet, may have intended to suggest, not only that the 1609 sequence, in contrast to the piratical Passionate Pilgrim, was the real McCoy, the longawaited volume in which his truly authentic sonnet writings were to be found, but also that it was—as it has pretty much proved to be, historically—the absolutely definitive English sonnet sequence. The whole sonnet sequence movement in England had been started off by Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, composed in the early 1580s, but not printed until Thomas Newman's pirated quarto in 1591, in which it received a sub-title: 'Wherein the excellence of sweete Poesie is concluded'. For alert readers in 1591 who were aware of the Defence of Poesy—not to reach print until 1595—the sub-title may have suggested, 'You've read Sidney's poetic theory, now read his practice, in which he demonstrates conclusively "the excellence of sweete Poesie"'. But for other readers, probably the majority, who had not yet had a chance to read the Defence, the suggestion may have been, rather, that Sidney's Astophel and Stella (thus entitled) was the consummate, definitive example of the sweet, or sugared, sonnet sequence: it could never be bettered. It can be argued that it was indeed never bettered, until the salty, not sugary, sequence published in 1609. Shakespeare knew Astrophil and Stella well, and knew that his audiences did, too, as when he made the amorous Falstaff clod-hoppingly mimic the courtly young Astrophil in The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.iii.38. In calling his own sequence, published eighteen years later than Sidney's, and a quarter of a century after Sidney's death, SHAKESPEARES SONNETS, he may have intended to boast, spear-shakingly, that his was indeed the conclusive sonnet sequence of the age, the well-wrought construction of a poetic master-craftsman, the sonnet sequence to end all sonnet sequences. Turn to Blundevile for horsemanship, or Tarlton for jests: but if sonnets are what you want, turn to Shakespeare. Shakespeare's Sonnets is not only what the book is called, but what it is.


1 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, (1893) ed. R. Lancelyn Green, (1971), p. 218.

2 For counter-arguments and evidence, see Katherine Duncan-Jones, 'Was the 1609 Shakespeares Sonnets really unauthorized?', Review of English Studies, N.S. 34 (1983), 151-71.

3 Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors, (1612), sig. G4; William Drummond, supplementary notes on his conversations with Jonson, printed in Works, (1711), 226; John Benson, Epistle prefaced to Poems: Written by Wil Shakespeare. Gent, (1640).

4 Alexander's sonnet sequence Aurora was published in 1604.

5 I have identified over fifty instances of 'genitive titles' in the Short Title Catalogue.

6 R. B. McKerrow ed., The Works of Thomas Nashe, (1958), v. 194-6.

7 Nashe, ed. cit. iii. 151.

8 Herford and Simpson eds., Ben Jonson, (1927), iii. 95. However, Jonson had used the formula proudly five years earlier, in 'B.ION: HIS PART OF King James his Royall and Magnificent Entertainement', and 'B.I. HIS PANEGYRE . . . ', both 1604.

9 Sidney Lee ed., SHAKESPEARES SONNETS being a reproduction in facsimile . . . , (1905), 11.

10 For an amusing account of Lee's unacknowledged turnabout, cf. S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, (1970), 506-12.

11 W. G. Ingram and Theodore Redpath eds., Shakespeare's Sonnets, (1964), xi.

12 Stephen Booth ed., SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS, (New Haven and London 1977), 548.

13 John Kerrigan ed., The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint, (1986), 55, 74.

14 W. A. Ringler ed., The Poems of Sir Philip Sidney, (1962), OA 32.36.

15 J. W. Hebel ed., The Works of Michael Drayton, (1941), ii. 308.

16 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, ed. cit., 218-9.

Source: "What are Shakespeare's sonnets called?," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, January, 1997, pp. 1-12.