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Excerpt: 'So Long as Men Can Breathe'

Chapter One: 1609 "THE ONLIE BEGETTER"

The greatest advantage of Shakespearean studies seems to be that questions may be asked over and over again, and that almost nobody pays attention to the answers — unless he borrows them for his own use in an article or a book.

May 20, 2009, represents the 400th anniversary of the "publication" of one of the most famous books in the world. It was on that day that Thomas Thorpe, a publisher and "procurer of manuscripts," registered "a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes" with the Stationers' Company, a requirement for all publications under a Marian statute. The book, a thin quarto volume, contained a thirty-word dedication by Thorpe, alias "T.T." — not Shakespeare — 154 sonnets, and a long poem, "A Lover's Complaint," that has never been definitively assigned to the Bard.

In the intervening four centuries, there have been enough volumes on the subject of the sonnets — and editions thereof — to fill a small public library. At least two entire books exist for the sole purpose of supplying bibliographies of editions of the sonnets. At the same time, the poems have become inextricably linked to a perceived biographical element for which there is still no independent evidence. As such, one would have to say that Shakespeare's several boasts in the sonnets — of which "So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this" (18.13–14) is the most brazen — have been fully vindicated.

So how did it come to pass that the most (in)famous English love-poems of all time — written by the most revered writer the English world has known — remained a secret subtext to the man's plays for almost 200 years? And what were the circumstances that originally brought it notoriety, then obscurity, and finally the recognition that fulfilled Shakespeare's own prophecy that they would endure "so long as men can breathe"?

Despite recent assaults on a centuries-old perception, the suspicion remains that we are wholly beholden to Thomas Thorpe for their publication and enduring existence; and that Shakespeare himself, for all his protestations concerning posterity, had long ago washed his hands of these microcosmic masterpieces by the time they appeared in print in the twilight of his career.

Which prompts an altogether different question: What sort of poet would produce such a sustained, endlessly intertwining sequence of poems, only to then forget all about them? The answer may well be a popular poet no longer certain where his true strengths lay. For, like a certain song-poet of the twentieth century who exercises a similar fascination, it seems this Elizabethan bard produced his most personally revealing collection when recuperating from some great personal trauma, and on the brink of more mature work.

In Bob Dylan's case (fie! compare ye not), his song-poems were recorded in some friends' basement in the summer of 1967, then cut on acetates and circulated, first as publishing demos, and then, for many years, on bootleg records (which almost single-handedly created the modern bootleg industry). They are the fabled Basement Tapes, Dylan's most quixotic work. Shakespeare's sonnets, on the other hand, were circulated in manuscript form for a decade or more, and when they finally did appear in print it was as a "bookleg" quarto, courtesy of Thorpe.

I do not think that in either case the author set out with any greater intention than "killing time"; the inevitable expansion of poetic range being a fortuitous by-product. The intent was to produce a collection that was private, in every sense of the word. But, somehow, both sonnets and songs slipped out.

There was nothing at all unusual about this process in bygone days. Manuscripts were the bootleg tapes of their day; and there was a small but thriving business in manuscript-copies. They were used both by the acting companies, which needed "scribal copies" in order to put on their plays, and by those who preferred to keep their latest work out of the hands of the Stationers' Company, at least for a time. The scriveners of Shakespeare's day were not unlike the small pressing-plants that fueled the bootleg vinyl industry in the 1970s and 1980s, while also keeping official record companies supplied: They had an incestuous relationship with the printers and were prone to indiscretion. In such a climate, "an enterprising publisher had many opportunities of becoming the owner of a popular book without the author's sanction or knowledge" [SL].

In the here and now of the twenty-first century, barely a week goes by without somebody predicting the death of the publishing, music, or movie industries (take your pick), as a result of a flagrant disregard for the rights of artists, whose copyrights no longer confer the requisite protection in cyberspace. The Internet has transformed the nature of all businesses, but none quite as directly as those who trade in the creative media. In such an environment, pity the man trying to discreetly circulate a set of love poems among his bookish friends. Especially if his should be a name that, when "Googled," generates more than 8 million "hits."

Modern doom-mongers would like everyone to believe that copyright constitutes some inalienable right, not a manmade invention. They'd prefer us to overlook the fact that it was unquestionably created to protect the rights of publishers, not authors. The latter's rights still generally remain subsidiary to the former. Even in the wake of a prolonged writers' strike over "digital rights" in Hollywood, the writer of a TV or film screenplay in the land of the free does not own the primary copyright on his work — or the absolute moral right to be designated its creator. In fact, the studio can have your work rewritten by a.n.other without your input or approval.

So, really not so different from Shakespeare's time. Back then, the popular playwright — yesterday's screenwriter — was a man for hire, working for actors' guilds, for whom he produced new plays for a fee. After he did his job, all rights passed to the company, which jealously guarded these rights, along with the script itself, copies of which remained few and far between. So paranoid were these companies that even the actors would never see the whole play on the page. Instead, their parts "would be written out on a long roll of parchment wrapped round a piece of wood . . . with around three cue words preceding each speech, so he would know when to enter or speak" [BDC]. These scrolls were known as "cue scripts."

Such ruses were considered necessary because, if a play script ended up in the wrong hands, it could be copied and published, and there was nothing the playwright or the acting company could do about it. Copyright, as we know it, simply did not exist. Nor was there a great deal of honor among the Stationers' own brand of thief. Publishers would happily breach each other's rights, republishing books and ballads with new titles whenever the opportunity arose.

And whatever the case when he wrote this private set of lyrics, by 1609 William Shakespeare was undoubtedly the most successful playwright in London. Smart enough to have a financial stake in his own company of players (with a royal warrant), thus controlling the very means of production and any revenue generated, he now knew that publishing was a mug's game. It had been a useful way to get his name known back in the early 1590s, when his long poems, Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, had brought him patronage and fame. But the fortune those poems made was reserved for someone else — the publisher — a fact of literary life that Elizabethan poet Thomas Churchyard bemoaned the year Venus appeared, referring to an "infinite number of other Songes and Sonets, given where they cannot be recovered, nor purchase any favour when they are craved" — i.e., published.

Shakespeare no longer craved such recognition. He had long ago decided that he would stake his future — and his commercial concerns — not on his poetry, but on his plays. A steady flow of piratical versions of his plays had been appearing in cheap quarto editions since 1594 — i.e., directly after these two poems made publishers aware of his literary worth — proving to be a constant thorn in Shakespeare's side (hence, John Heminge and Henry Condell's sideswipe at "stolen and surreptitious copies" in the preface to their "authorized" folio of the plays). Yet he could do very little to stop the steady dissemination of the more popular plays in print. By 1609 he had already seen at least fifteen of them appear in unauthorized quarto editions — with several of the poorer editions not even deigning to name him on the title page.

Nor did he have to write them to see his name in print. (Plays like The Yorkshire Tragedy and Sir John Oldcastle went into second [and third] editions with Shakespeare's name on them, even though it is highly debatable whether he had any hand in the former, and pretty certain he had no hand in the latter.) No one, though, would have made a mistake like that in 1609. William had the stamp of royal approval, and his name — however one spelled it — was a selling point for any quarto, be it a play or a series of poems.

Even when the Stratford squire had created a tight company of players, and given them a financial interest in the success of the King's Men, the quarto booklegs just kept coming. As recently as January 28, 1609, a quarto edition of Troilus & Cressida had been registered by the publishers Richard Bonian and Henry Whalley — a full six years after another publisher, James Roberts, had registered his own right to publish The book of Troilus and Cressida, as it is acted by my Lord Chamberlain's men. The 1609 edition was printed by the same printer as Shakespeares Sonnets, George Eld; and, unlike the Sonnets, was popular enough to warrant a second edition inside a year. As for Roberts's edition, it would appear he had been bought off, or otherwise persuaded by the King's Men not to proceed.

It was in this anarchic climate that Thomas Thorpe, a little known publisher with just thirteen books to his name after almost fifteen years at the trade, registered this "booke called Shakespeares sonnettes" in the spring of that very year. The book, which probably appeared a matter of weeks after registration, was the only volume Thorpe published in 1609. Presumably, he hoped it would establish his name and relieve him of some of the financial hardships he had endured to date.

So sure was Thorpe of the clout the name Shakespeare held that he felt just two words, "SHAKE-SPEARE" and "SONNETS," would suffice to sell the initial print run, which he evenly divided between two respected London booksellers, William Aspley and John Wright. As he undoubtedly knew, both the playwright's two long poems, first published in 1593 and 1594, respectively, were still "in print," the former in its fifth edition, the latter in its fourth.

And yet, not only is the 1609 edition of Shakespeares Sonnets one of the world's most famous volumes, it is also one of the most valuable. Just thirteen copies have survived the centuries (as opposed to almost 300 copies of the 1623 "First Folio"), which has led to the suggestion that the book itself was suppressed, either as a result of its contentious contents, or because it was issued against the wishes of all concerned — i.e., author and dedicatee, the enigmatic "Mr W.H. "(who may well have had the political clout to do something about it). One thing it certainly was not, was a publishing phenomenon.

From So Long as Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Clinton Heylin (Da Capo Press, 2009).

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