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The Collation

Sizing Shakespeare's Sonnets

I still remember the first rare book I handled in a library. It was Thomas Caldecott’s copy of the Shake-speares Sonnets. Neuer before imprinted (Thomas Thorpe, 1609) a beautiful quarto that Caldecott presented to the Bodleian Library in 1833, and that the Bodleian allowed me to hold and read while I was working on my M.Litt. Being new to rare books, I did not have a ruler handy, but my notes from that day describe it as a “small red book.”

Later the same day, I was allowed to see a copy of Poems: Written by Will. Shake-speare. Gent., (Bod. Wood 80), an octavo containing many of the same sonnets. This book, too, I described as “small.” I knew it was an octavo, and that its pages thus had been folded once more than those of the 1609 quarto; I probably also assumed that it was about half the size of the quarto, by virtue of their respective folds. In this instance, I don’t know how the two compare; I haven’t requested either of those copies since that day, although I do now carry a ruler with me to check the comparative sizes of the rare books I consult.

For those of us lucky enough to be granted access to the Bodleian Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and a host of other wonderful libraries that have allowed us to see and hold rare materials, viewing these wonderful old books might sometimes feel a little sterile. Constantly aware of the watchful eyes of the books’ guardians, we readers cradle books like Sonnets and Poems in specially constructed supports, keep the pages open with gentle weights or wedges, and turn the pages delicately with our glove-free but carefully washed hands. In almost every research library, rare materials such as these books are handed to readers in small batches or (often) individually.

Left, the Passionate Pilgrime (1599, octavo); middle, the 1690 Sonnets (quarto); right, Benson’s 1640 Poems (octavo), all from the Folger Shakespeare Library. All are small, but not necessarily in the same ways.

Even with a ruler, it can be difficult to get a good sense of books’ sizes, particularly with respect to one another. To my novice self, the Sonnets and Poems were both “small,” which is true, but they are small in different ways. Most copies of the quarto Sonnets have taller and wider pages than most copies of the octavo Poems, but that larger page size makes the Sonnets very thin (so thin, in fact, that it was often bound with other quartos from the same era). On the other hand, as the demand for early editions of Shakespeare’s works increased in the eighteenth century, many copies of Shakespeare’s works were trimmed to conceal annotations by past readers, sometimes even cropping the original printed letters, so the copies of books we read today are often smaller than they were when they were bought and bound three, four, or five centuries ago.

In the first two hundred years after Thorpe’s 1609 Sonnets, these poems were arranged in many different constructions. Often, as Patrick Cheney noted in 2008, sonnet editions were designed as responses to editions of Shakespeare’s plays.1 After Nicholas Rowe produced The Works of Mr. William Shakespear: in Six Volumes in 1709 (it does not include any poems), Edmund Curll marketed an edition of Shakespeare’s poems as “printed exactly as the Plays, and some on large Paper to compleat sets.”2 His readers—who likely bound their books themselves—seemed to respond well to this; the owner of Folger PR2752 1709a copy 1 had the seven volumes bound to match and likely valued the collection for its completeness.

Folger PR2752 1709a copy 1, Volume 1 (the first of six play-volumes), and Curll’s Volume 7 to “compleat” the set.

Many editions of the sonnets, like Curll’s, deliberately imitate the folds, the completed size, and various other paratexts (sequential volume numbers and similar fleurons, for instance) of recently printed editions of the plays. Others likely were sized and formatted to fit other purposes, and later readers maintained or changed these to accommodate their own reading habits or their own libraries. They may all have begun life in approximately similar sizes (assuming similar-sized paper folded the same number of times per copy), but not all octavos—or duodecimos, quartos, or even folios—are created equal.

Three Shakespearean sonnets appeared, for instance, in William Jaggard’s octavo The Passionate Pilgrim (1599), which was reprinted twice and now survives in only five known copies. Like Thorpe’s quarto, it was tiny, and often bound with other books. (The Folger’s copy is bound with Lucrece, Venus and Adonis, a sonnet sequence titled Emaricdulfe, and a long poem titled The Ghost of Lucrece attributed to T. M.) Despite its small size, the poems have room to breathe on their pages, the text is lavishly decorated with fleurons, and there is so much white space that the verso of most pages is completely blank. The book may have been intended to match some of the other recent poetry collections, and its size and formatting accommodate this.

One of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the 1599 Passionate Pilgrim (octavo). Note the space around the poem on the page as well as the blank verso on the left.

Thorpe produced the Sonnets, a decade later, in quarto size, possibly to match the plays. If he meant to match the plays, he did well; the sonnets are run across the page with no real line breaks (much like many quartos of the plays) and minimal decorations (two headers). The only space on each page comes in the margins, which have sometimes been trimmed very closely by later owners. It is clearly a book intended for a very different audience than Jaggard’s.

The 1609 (quarto) Sonnets, with much less white space on each leaf than in Pilgrim. (Folger STC 22353)

In 1640, John Benson produced a collection containing every short poem that had previously been attributed to Shakespeare in print (and omitting Venus and Lucrece). Although he likely had access to Thorpe’s edition, from which he sourced 146 sonnets, he reverted to the octavo size used by Pilgrim, while keeping his pages very crowded with text. Like the 1609 edition, there is very little white space on most pages.

Benson’s 1640 Poems, in octavo, with multiple poems per page.

Cheney has famously included Benson’s Poems as one of the “response volumes” that drew upon recent editions plays, but it has very little in common with the First (1623) and Second (1632) Folios of Shakespeare’s plays. In particular, they would have looked ridiculous sitting side by side on a bookshelf. Benson’s Poems responds to the cohesiveness of the First and Second Folios of Shakespeare’s plays, and some of Benson’s formatting builds upon precedents set by Jaggard, but the Folio is far more impressive—and far less portable—than the Poems.

A 1623 Folio (Folger copy 10) with Benson’s Poems (Folger copy 5). These would look funny together on a bookshelf, and continued juxtaposition might even have allowed a Folio to warp over a long period of time.

Sale catalogues from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show that booksellers routinely sorted and sold books by size (or rather, by format standing as proxy for size) when marketing large collections containing books of different sizes; extant library catalogues also show that some book owners, at least, also considered size as they arranged books on their shelves. But just as modern-day book sizes can vary by publisher, printer, and even year, the terms we now use to classify early modern books are not definitive indicators of their respective sizes, particularly as paper sizes seem to have increased and shifted with new technologies around the end of the seventeenth century. Trimming also continued to affect book sizes; the photograph below shows two different copies of Shakespeare’s 1725 Works (large paper quarto), trimmed to very different standards, although copy 3 (on the bottom) shows that the owner made a point of trimming and binding the poems to match an existing set of Shakespeare’s plays. In this instance, size mattered, but only to individual owners.

The 1725 Works (Folger PR 2752 1725, copy 3, Vols. 1 and 7, alongside Copy 13, Vol. 7), trimmed differently.

Beyond individual book collections, however, folds and physical book sizes became increasingly disconnected in the late seventeenth century, and on into the eighteenth century. While the folds of a book matter to modern-day bibliographers, and certainly made a difference for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century publishers and printers, I think we modern scholars may be attributing too much importance to fold designations and not placing enough emphasis on book size, or on the space occupied by the printed text on a page. Consider the six books in the image below:

The three books on the left are all octavo texts, meaning that the printers laid out the text with the expectation that the large sheets on which they printed would be folded three times before trimming and binding.3 But the books on the right are duodecimos, meriting an extra fold per sheet. To individuals involved in printing and binding the books, these would have been important distinctions. To an eighteenth-century book collector, they might not have mattered. The folds are now easy to determine because of technology like UV light sheets, which allows us to find watermarks and figure out how older books were assembled. However, for the average, everyday book-buyer—especially two or three hundred years ago—the distinction between the octavo and duodecimo volumes would have been hard to make, particularly once the books were trimmed. Book folds matter, but not all octavos are created equal. The octavo on the top left (Benson’s 1640 poems) is physically smaller than the eighteenth-century duodecimos on the right, something I certainly did not expect and could not really have figured out until I had all six books together before me. The five eighteenth-century copies would be challenging to distinguish by folds for anyone who was not looking very closely at the volumes’ bindings and watermarks.

Another angle shows the physical similarities between the octavos and duodecimos in the previous image.

Having the opportunity to examine these books closely and in a group like the one I photographed above has challenged me to be far more attentive in my own notes and book-handling. It is easy and comfortable to rely upon catalogue descriptions, which often prioritize folds over physical size. But the incredible variety of formats and sizes in which an octavo (or any other fold size) might appear has shown me that examining books in conversation with one another, and paying far closer attention to the physical size of a given book, will give me a much better sense of how these copies of Shakespeare’s poems might have been used, and how interchangeable or versatile similarly-sized books with different numbers of folds might have been, regardless of how we might now classify them. Folds often matter, but sometimes dimensions matter just as much or more.

Quarto, octavo, and duodecimo editions of Shakespeare’s poems from the eighteenth century could each be printed in several differing sizes.


  1. Shakespeare’s Literary Authorship, Cambridge, xvii.
  2. The Tatler, August 20, 1709. Issue 57, p. 2. “Advertisements”
  3. Editor’s note: for a good primer on how the heck all of this folding works, see a previous Collation post, “Deciphering Signature Marks”, our DIY Folio site and our Folding Sheet template, and the Illinois State University site Shakespeare in Sheets.


This is a fascinating blog post that ties in beautifully with an presentation at the Central ASECS in October.

jacqueline reid-walsh — January 14, 2020


Thank you for mentioning “our glove-free but carefully washed hands”! At the Morgan Library in New York, there is actually a sink where researchers must wash their hands before entering the reading room. The first and only time I was there, I held up my newly washed hands for the librarian to inspect. (I’ve heard the natural oils on our skin help preserve leather bindings, but I didn’t tell them that.)

Although I’ve never once worn gloves to examine the Folger’s rare books, whenever I tell someone I’ve done research there, they tell me (they don’t ask), “You have to wear gloves.” One fellow reader suggested we answer that there are different color gloves for each century of rare books.

For some reason, there is a photo of Gary Taylor examining a rare book–wearing gloves. Perhaps that photo is the source of the false legend.

Another wide-spread misconception–some later editions of the Sonnets number the poems with Roman numerals, in an unsuccessful effort to look authentic.

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. — January 14, 2020


Thank you jacqueline! 🙂

Richard: Yes, I too am working to curb that misconception. I’ve not seen the Gary Taylor photo (though I imagine it was just taken during the time when wearing gloves was the standard), but there is a Mr. Bean episode where he wears gloves (and then does many terrible things to his rare book), so I wonder if gloves on screens has contributed to the confusion. Things do change. I have actually worn gloves to handle certain books before, most notably one at the Folger that is bound in deer hide (I think) with the hair side out, and also when working with books covered in certain metals. With these and when handling archival photographs, though, I’ve always been given purple latex gloves (much less photogenic!) which probably help readers retain some of the dexterity that is lost when wearing the white cotton gloves of yore.

Thank you both for your comments!

Faith Acker — January 31, 2020


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