1st Edition

First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1590-1790

By Faith D. Acker Copyright 2021
    270 Pages 9 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    270 Pages 9 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    For more than four centuries, cultural preferences, literary values, critical contexts, and personal tastes have governed readers’ responses to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Early private readers often considered these poems in light of the religious, political, and humanist values by which they lived. Other seventeenth- and eighteenth- century readers, such as stationers and editors, balanced their personal literary preferences against the imagined or actual interests of the literate public to whom they marketed carefully curated editions of the sonnets, often successfully. Whether public or private, however, many disparate sonnet interpretations from the sonnets’ first two centuries in print have been overlooked by modern sonnet scholarship, with its emphasis on narrative and amorous readings of the 1609 sequence. First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets reintroduces many early readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, arguing that studying the priorities and interpretations of these previous readers expands the modern critical applications of these poems, thereby affording them numerous future applications. This volume draws upon book history, manuscript studies, and editorial theory to recover four lost critical approaches to the sonnets, highlighting early readers’ interests in Shakespeare’s classical adaptations, political applicability, religious themes, and rhetorical skill during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

    The Author to the Reader

    Introduction: ‘The Meaning’ of the Sonnets

    The Sonnets, their texts, and their readers

    1. The Passionate Pilgrim and Shakespeare’s ‘sugred’ reputation
    2. Texts and editions

      Pilgrim as a sonnet sequence

      Shakespeare’s vendible name and relevant prints

      Supplementing Shakespeare with the classics

      Reading and revising the sonnets

    3. Reading and Revising Shake-Speare’s Sonnets (1609)
    4. Structure, contexts, and paratexts of the 1609 quarto

      Thorpe and the critics

      Sonnets and sequences: Revisionist love stories

      Reading Thorpe’s Sonnet 2

      Annotating the sonnets

    5. The manuscripts of Sonnet 2: Sex, sonnets, and spirituality
    6. Extant manuscript copies of Sonnet 2

      Sexual contexts for Sonnet 2

      Sonnet 2 in politics and religion

      Friends and elegies: Reading Sonnet 2 among epitaphs

    7. John Benson’s sonnet sequences (Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent.)
    8. Benson and Shakespeare

      Part I: Eternity of beauty

      Part II: Miscellaneity and duality

      Part III: A Marriage of perjured minds

      Part IV: Classics and imputed works

    9. Celebrations of Church and King: An early Cambridge reader
    10. Reading habits and approaches

      Cambridge origins

      Poems in praise of God

      Poems to honour the King

      Contextualizing women

      For the love of God, not woman

    11. Restoration revisions: Musical, dramatic, and miscellany readings
    12. Mountebanks and martyrs: Lawes’ musical setting

      Gender, duplicity, and eternal passion: Suckling’s Brennoralt

      Manuscript variants and textual fluidity: Reading and sharing

      Extracts, miscellanies, and new contexts: Adapting the sonnets in the late seventeenth century

    13. Supplementing Shakespeare and creating the canon
    14. Critical predilections: The autobiographical Shakespeare

      Life after Benson: Supplements and supplementarity

      Notes and Various Readings: The ultimate supplement

      Capell’s cento and Shakespeare’s language

      Collecting Shakespeare: Complete and incomplete canons

    15. Edmond Malone: Plotting the Sonnets
    16. The Search for authorial authenticity

      Poems and plays

      The Editor and his characters

    17. Reading the Sonnets after Malone: Independent responses

    Debating the poems: Critical annotations

    Sonnet sententiae

    Reading and editing the eighteenth century

    Beyond Malone: The New debate

    Sonnet Futures


    Faith D. Acker received her doctorate in Renaissance Literature from the University of St Andrews. Subsequently, and while writing this book, she has taught at The University of Sheffield, Cornerstone Academy, Pellissippi State Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, Montgomery College, and Signum University. Her additional work on the sonnets’ early readers appears in Canonising Shakespeare: Stationers and the Book Trade, 1640-1740 (eds. Depledge and Kirwan, 2017) and is forthcoming in Shakespeare Quarterly.