If you do a cursory image search for “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” or “Sonnet 18,” you will find images that look like the following:
Young, heteronormative couples in love, kissing and holding hands
This, Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet, has long been interpreted as a quintessential poem about a man’s love for a woman.
Contrary to popular belief, this sonnet is part of a much longer sonnet sequence that is written to a young man, not a woman. The male narrator anguishes over his unrequited love for a beautiful and vain youth. The whole sequence turns on his desperate desire and ardent affection for a man who he could not have; a man who it was illegal to love.
Yet, despite this complicated and FAR more interesting history, it’s disregarded as a bland love poem. People have egregiously misinterpreted the almighty Bard for the last couple centuries. Let’s figure out why.
Timeline of the Sonnets and Their Corruption
1609 Thomas Thorpe publishes a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and “A Lover’s Complaint.”
No one knows how the printer got his hands on the manuscript. However, Thorpe was considered a disreputable “rogue” with few scruples, so theft is not out of the question.
Shakespeare wrote the sonnets for a particular audience and seems to have not sought to publish them on his own. Thorpe capitalized on this idea and included the illusive dedication page that has puzzled scholars since its publication.
Yep. The mystery of the preface puzzles us too.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were not an immediate hit when Thorpe published them in 1609. Trends had changed, and sonnets were not in vogue anymore. Shakespeare’s name had a huge draw, but the poems themselves were not popular.
1640 John Benson publishes a collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with a twist
Shakespeare’s long poems Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, two poems which I’m almost certain you have never heard of, were incredibly popular at this time.
Capitalizing on the popularity of Shakespeare’s long narrative poems, publisher John Benson created an extremely inaccurate edition of the sonnets in 1640—Frankenstein’s heteronormative monster, if you will.
How did he change them?
- He mashed together many of the poems to create 28-line poems.
- He gave them flashy titles like “Self-Flattery of Her Beauty” and “An Entreaty for Her Acceptance.”
- He changed the beloved’s masculine pronouns to feminine pronouns.
1710 Nicholas Rowe creates an edition using Benson’s version of the text
Benson’s version of the poems was widely accepted as the official edition from 1640 to 1780.
1780 Edmond Malone resurrects the 1690 version of the sonnets
Malone’s The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare used the 1690 quarto to create his edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He restored the original form, order, and pronouns of the quarto. However, this did not add to the popularity of the sonnets themselves. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
Malone did change a few lines in the poems to make them more accessible to his audience. Most notably, he made Sonnet 129 less overtly sexual.
1793 George Steevens deems the sonnets unworthy of publication
In his 1793 edition of Shakespeare’s work, George Steevens claimed that the sequence was not worth reading and therefore not worthy of including in his compilation. He claimed to believe that “the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service.” Though people today speculate that Steevens did not want to publish something with homo-erotic themes.
We certainly thought the poems were interesting.
The sequence continues to be taught out of context. The sonnets are treated as stand-alone poems, and generally the gender of the speaker’s audience is unaddressed or considered female. Modern editions of the sonnets STILL change the pronouns.
What had been relatively popular poems by Shakespeare in Benson’s version became immediately unpopular when they were restored. Some people claim that this dip in popularity happened because suddenly they were sonnets—an unpopular literary form.
However, the dialogue around the poems changed.
Poet William Wordsworth is quoted as saying:
with this same key [the sonnet] Shakespeare unlocked his heart.
Robert Browning responded to this sentiment:
Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!
There has seemed to be an intense need to separate the Great Bard from implications of his homosexuality.
Scholars who had previously claimed that the sonnets were the most autobiographical text Shakespeare had produced began to see ambiguity in the text. Many claimed that the relationship between the speaker and the young man was unclear, perhaps not even erotic in nature.
For anyone who has read the sequence, this claim seems a bit ludicrous. You can’t read “Sonnet 106” without seeing the speaker’s romantic love.
Should this change how you read it?
To be honest, no. Like all other literature, the message you take away from this sonnet is entirely up to you. People often use classic, canonical literature out of context to prove their points or draw inspiration. I’m sure you’ve heard the end of Keats’s poem: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”; or the Frost line: “I took the road less traveled”; or Polonius’s advice in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true,” all of which are used in ways that hideously betray their contexts.
Whether or not appropriation of quotes is a legitimate form of artistic expression is a topic for a much different blog.
The takeaway for me is that Shakespeare, the all-mighty Bard and father of English as we know it, wrote poems in which a man loves another man. That’s how Shakespeare originally wrote it, and that’s how I choose to read it.