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Did Shakespeare Want To Suppress His Sonnets?

Summer Of Love graphic

First published 400 years ago, Shakespeare's sonnets might never have been put to press had it been left to the author to decide things. As Clinton Heylin, the author of the new book So Long as Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets, explains, just as Bob Dylan's basement tapes were never intended for a wide audience, such was the case with Shakespeare's sonnets.

"In both [Dylan and Shakespeare's] cases, they were killing time and at the same time dealing with huge personal issues in a private way, which they never conceived of coming out publicly," Heylin says.

Heylin first became interested in the sonnets when he was researching a book on bootleggers in the music industry. Along the way, he discovered that a lot of Shakespeare's plays had been bootlegged — which got him wondering about the Bard's shorter works.

As Heylin tells it, publishing was a murky, anarchic business during the Elizabethan age. It wasn't hard for an enterprising publisher to get his hands on a manuscript without the author's approval, and Heylin believes that Thomas Thorpe, the man who published the sonnets, did just that.

"[Thorpe] was a man who lived on the very periphery of the London publishing world ... who was constantly in trouble with the Stationer's Company for publishing books that flagrantly breached the copyright of other publishers," says Heylin. "This is somebody who, if he got his hands on Shakespeare's sonnets, must have done so in some underhanded, slightly questionable way."

But why was Shakespeare so intent on keeping the sonnets private? That gets to some of the most controversial questions about the poems.

Most of the sonnets are addressed to a "fair youth" whose identity has been the source of endless academic debate. Heylin believes it was William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke.

"[Herbert] was known to play both sides of the field. He was a poet in his own right. He was a lusty young lord. So a lot of the details that are in the sonnets imply that that type of personality is the fair youth," says Heylin.

And here's the tricky part — the part those of us who have not been following the academic debates over the years may not have known: Many scholars believe the sonnets are autobiographical, which means the sonnets addressed to the fair youth are Shakespeare's expressions of love for him.

It is for this reason, says Heylin, that Shakespeare never wanted the sonnets published and may even have sought to have the Thorpe edition suppressed.

"If the sonnets are interpreted in what I think these days would be considered a fairly normal way, which is that they are about a homosexual affair with a peer, [Shakespeare] was committing several criminal offenses," says Heylin. "It would have been extremely socially sensitive to have a scandal come out that involved him and a male peer."

Heylin says that the highly personal nature of the poems was a radical departure for an Elizabethan writer. He notes that Shakespeare reveals far more about himself in the sonnets than he ever did in the plays. "[The sonnets] are an insight into who the man was, and it is likely going to be as close as we are ever going to get into the mind of Shakespeare."

The Thorpe edition of the sonnets disappeared and did not resurface for almost 200 years. Only 13 copies of the original publication exist today, but nothing could diminish the emotional power and popularity of some of the greatest love poems ever written.

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.