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Shakespeare's Sonnets /

An Introduction to This Text: Shakespeare’s Sonnets

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

A complete text of the Sonnets was first published in a 1609 Quarto titled SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS. Neuer before Imprinted. The present edition is based directly on that printing.1 The 1609 Quarto prints immediately before its text of the poems a dedication page that reads as follows (each word printed entirely in capitals, except for “Mr.,” and followed by a period): “TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. | THESE. INSVING. SONNETS. | Mr. W.H. ALL. HAPPINESSE. | AND. THAT. ETERNITIE. | PROMISED. | BY. | OVR.EVER-LIVING. POET. | WISHETH. | THE. WELL-WISHING. | ADVENTVRER. IN. | SETTING. | FORTH. | T.T. [i.e., Thomas Thorpe, publisher of the Quarto].” Scholars have long speculated on the identity of “Mr. W.H.” without arriving at any widely accepted conclusion. Following the Sonnets in the 1609 Quarto appears a poem of disputed authorship titled “A Louers complaint,” which is not included in this edition.

Explore the 1609 Quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in the Folger’s Digital Collections.

In addition to providing an edited text of the 1609 Quarto version of the Sonnets, we include alternative texts of two of the sonnets (Sonnet 138 and Sonnet 144) that were first printed ten years before this quarto in a book titled The Passionate Pilgrime. By W. Shakespeare. The 1599 attribution of the entire Passionate Pilgrime to Shakespeare is misleading because much of the verse collected in it is not his; however, it does contain the earliest printing of the two sonnets in question, and for this reason those texts deserve consideration. There also exist a number of manuscript copies of particular sonnets, none of them thought to be in Shakespeare’s own handwriting. Nonetheless, it has recently been argued that among these may lie an alternative Shakespearean version of Sonnet 2, as well as versions of other sonnets (8, 106, 128) that may derive from manuscript sources independent of that from which the 1609 Quarto was printed. We have, however, been persuaded by Katherine Duncan-Jones’s argument in her 1997 Arden edition of the Sonnets, where she cogently refutes the claims for the authenticity of the Sonnet 2 manuscript version and also puts into serious question the independent authority of the other surviving manuscript texts. We thus have not included any manuscript versions in this edition.

For the convenience of the reader, we have modernized the punctuation and the spelling of the Quarto. Whenever we change the wording of the Quarto or add anything to it, we mark the change by enclosing it in superior half-brackets ( ). We want our readers to be immediately aware when we have intervened. (Only when we correct an obvious typographical error in the Quarto does the change not get marked.) Whenever we change the Quarto’s wording or alter its punctuation so that meaning changes, we list the change in the textual notes at the back of the book, even if all we have done is fix an obvious error.

  1. We have also consulted the computerized text of the Quarto provided by the Text Archive of the Oxford University Computing Centre, to which we are grateful.