The Early Years of Shakespeare's Sonnets (16th and 17th centuries)

Book cover for The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Jane Kingsley-Smith.
The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets, by Jane Kingsley-Smith.

Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes.

Shakespeare Unlimited:
Episode 136

Did Shakespeare intend to publish his sonnets? For whom were they written? What can they reveal about their author?

We talk to Dr. Jane Kingsley-Smith about her newest book, The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. The book is a social history of the sonnets’ reception, starting with a glowing 1598 review that it's likely practically no one ever read and travelling through over 400 years of readers adoring and abhorring Shakespeare’s 154 complicated poems. Jane Kingsley-Smith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Read an excerpt from Kingsley-Smith's book, The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets. 

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Spotify, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dr. Jane Kingsley-Smith edited Love's Labor's Lost for the Norton Shakespeare Third Edition, and The Duchess of Malfi for Penguin in 2015. In addition to The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets, she is the author of Shakespeare's Drama in Exile (Palgrave, 2003), and Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2010). 

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published January 21, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "To Thee I Send This Written Embassage,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Gareth Wood at The Sound Company in London.

Previous: The History of Shakespeare in American Schools | Next: Books and Reading in Shakespeare's England


MICHAEL WITMORE: We have literally been trying for years to figure out the best way to bring Shakespeare's sonnets to this podcast. I'm happy to say we think we finally found it.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director.

If it's possible for a book to be both exhaustive and spritely, Dr. Jane Kingsley-Smith has done it with The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets, published by Cambridge University Press in 2019. The book is a social history of the sonnets’ receptionfrom the first glowing review that it's likely practically no one ever read, to an original publication history that raised questions about their authenticity for centuries, through the next 400-plus years of them being adored and abhorred.

And a lot of it is plain fascinating. Dr. Kingsley-Smith relays all of it in such an approachable manner that it's likely not the last time we'll be having her on our podcast.

I tell you that to say that this interview isn't a complete look at the sonnets. It's just the very, very beginning. We call this podcast episode, "To Thee I Send This Written Embassage.” Jane Kingsley-Smith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I'd like to go back to the beginning when these sonnets were written, because they have a pre-publishing existence. So who were they written forthe sonnets—and how did they get to them? How were they distributed?

JANE KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean, it's really interesting, this question of who they're written for. Partly because they seem to have been written over a really long period of time. Some of them, maybe, really 1580s, so Shakespeare potentially courting Anne Hathaway, right through to the Jacobean period. Some of the language is quite similar to late play's vocabulary. So it's impossible to say that there's one specific person 'cause they seem to kind of spread out across Shakespeare's career.

BOGAEV: And was Shakespeare intending them to have a public life and to be published or do we know even? Was he writing them for a certain audience?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No. I mean, critics are violently opposed on this issue. I don't think we're gonna decide anytime soon. My premise is really that Shakespeare didn't arrange the sequence. He didn't oversee the publication. They're probably not intended to represent Shakespeare to the world. The strangeness of the collection suggests to me that it's a kind of composite of manuscript poems that Shakespeare didn't oversee.

BOGAEV: So how did they come to be published?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Well, there's a reference in 1598. Francis Meres talks about the Sugared Sonnets among his private friends. So that would suggest that a few of them were circulating in manuscript. And kind of teases perhaps an audience with whether these are gonna be made public or not.

And then in 1599, William Jaggard produces The Passionate Pilgrim, which starts with two sonnets at the beginning. And then another 18 poems, only three of which are actually by Shakespeare, even though he claims that the whole collection is by “W. Shakespeare.” It's interesting that the publication starts with this kind of basically inauthentic collection of poems, which aren't really Shakespeare poems—most of them.

BOGAEV: And Francis Meres. Remind us who he was and why were these poems being circulated among him and these friends. Who are these friends?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Well, nobody really knows. I mean, Meres wrote this vastly compendious book which contained an essay which compared contemporary early modern poets with their classical exemplar. So Shakespeare comes in there as being mellifluous and honey-tongued Ovid. But it's not very clear how many people would've read Meres' volume, because it's huge and incredibly dull.

But Shakespeare's scholars, ever since they found this reference to the sonnets have thought, "Oh, wow, this generated a market for the sonnets and everyone must have been eagerly waiting for them to come into print." Whereas one of the arguments of the book is that that seems unlikely given the reception when they finally are published.

BOGAEV: Ah, okay, and now we're getting into the published sonnets period with Jaggard, as you say. And we should remind everyone, Jaggard published the First Folio. And he did make a lot of money publishing stolen Shakespeare plays. So first, what's in this 1599 book of Shakespeare? And you said there are these two sonnets. What are they, and why do we trust that they're written by Shakespeare given Jaggard's shady dealings?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, I mean, it's really interesting that the two he prints—and he puts them at the beginning of the volume, 138 and 144. "When my love swears that she is made of truth," and then, "Two loves I have of comfort and despair." And these are, in many ways, I think unfortunate choices to kind of launch Shakespeare's career as a sonneteer. Because they're very unusual. They're quite narratively titillating, but they don't really fit the remit of the rest of the collection, which are quite seductive, mythological poems. So there's something really all about...

BOGAEV: So they're not steamy enough?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No. I mean if you look at them, you know, they are about infidelity. They're about, “We're having sex with each other, but I don't trust her.” They're not the kind of romantic…

BOGAEV: Sounds good.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I know. I know, they're great. But they're not the kind of romantic, pastoral, idealizing lyrics that tend to be anthologized in this period. And I think it's notable that they don't get picked up by anthologists in 1599, 1600.

BOGAEV: Why did Jaggard want to publish, then, these two poems by this guy named Shakespeare? I mean, was he famous as a poet at that time?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: He's very famous by this point because of the two narrative poems: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Venus, particularly, is Shakespeare's most successful literary work during his lifetime. It's reprinted more than any of his other plays. He has this kind of hip, sexy reputation because of these narrative poems.

One of the arguments of the book is that Jaggard is looking for something that will be equally worthy of comment, and equally commercial. And that he finds these two sonnets and thinks, oh, you know, "I'll publish a collection by W. Shakespeare."

BOGAEV: And Shakespeare was then more famous for those poems than as a playwright at the time, right?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean, I think he's starting to develop his reputation as a playwright. But up until 1599, the plays were being published without his name on. So 1599's a kind of crux moment when the name "William Shakespeare" on a title page is starting to sell books.

But really, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, to a lesser extent, have lots of allusions in contemporary literature. They crop up in plays. They really create a kind of Shakespeare brand that later is entirely usurped and overwhelmed by his career as a dramatist. But at this moment he's the kind of poet, at the moment.

BOGAEV: I love that you used the word "brand" to describe this moment, because they were very conscious of the branding and of strategizing and publicizing. And you write that Jaggard left the title page of his book blank because… well, for a very strategic reason. What was that?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, I think what everyone was wanting Shakespeare to write, at this point, is a third narrative poem. But all Jaggard can really get hold of, potentially, is these two sonnets. So he generates this title, The Passionate Pilgrim, which is incredibly vague. I mean, it could be a sonnet persona. “Passionate” is an adjective associated with sonnets. But at the same time, there were narratives around passionate pilgrims. And he doesn't specify.

You know, a lot of collections of poetry in the time talk about what kind of poems you'd find inside. Pastorals, elegy, sonnets, et cetera. And Jaggard's title page is just completely blank. And that's much more like a narrative poem like Rape of Lucrece or Hero and Leander. They don't feel the need to explain what they are.

BOGAEV: Okay, now there's also this book published in 1609 by Thorpe that's called Shakespeare's Sonnets. So what's in that?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: So that, for the first time, brings 154 sonnets together and also prints for the first time, A Lover's Complaint. That's incredibly important, in the sense that it gathers together this collection of sonnets. None of which has subsequently been proven not to be written by Shakespeare. It has this “aura of authenticity” and of a kind of collected lyrical poems of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: You're putting air quotes around that. This “aura of authenticity.” So it says, "authentic as we can find," you mean?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, I think so. I mean, one of the things that troubles me is that nowadays we think about the dramatic canon as being very open, very collaborative. We think about plays, quite rightly, as involving lots of other hands than Shakespeare's. But the sonnets are still viewed as very kind of circumscribed and enclosed and, “This is just Shakespeare's work. None of these poems could not be by Shakespeare.” Which isn't something that I really buy into, particularly.

You only have to look at the last two poems, the two “Cupid” poems, 153 and 154—which are basically drafts of the same poem—to wonder, “Why would you end a collection like that? Is one of them written by somebody else? What are those two poems doing there?” So yeah, I have certain questions. I'm a little bit skeptical.

BOGAEV: I have more questions about that too. But first, I want to nail down this Thorpe edition. Did it supplant the Jaggard edition?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No. And that's the really fascinating thing, is that you would expect that once we have Shakespeare's sonnets—you know, the title is blazed across the running headings and the title page and everything—that there would be no need for any other volume. But just three years later, 1612, Jaggard goes back to The Passionate Pilgrim, publishes it again, and this time stuffs it full of Thomas Hayward poems. He doesn't put anymore sonnets in, which is very interesting because sonnets are now out in the world. So it's really interesting as to why he thought that was commercially viable.

BOGAEV: Sure, but maybe if he thought, "Well, those two sonnets I put in the last one were duds, so I'm just gonna ride on the Shakespeare coattails of Thorpe." How did it go anyway?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, I mean, it doesn't get reprinted again. But The Passionate Pilgrim… some of those poems remain right up until the 18th century, more popular than most of Shakespeare's sonnets.

BOGAEV: Well, that begs the question. What did people think of Thorpe's collection? How did it sell?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: This is interesting. There are, I think, 13 extant copies of the quarto, whereas I think there's only one of Venus and Adonis, which tends to suggest that people voraciously bought and read Venus and Adonis. And the quarto seems to have been much less popular. It doesn't get reprinted during Shakespeare's lifetime. It's not until 1640 that anyone tries to reprint a substantial body of sonnets.

And there's very little evidence of people referring to them or them circulating in manuscripts. One stat that kind of always lingers in my mind is this idea that across the 16th and 17th century, there are 20 manuscripts which have Shakespeare's sonnets in them. Whereas if you look at John Donne's poetry, there's, like, 250.

BOGAEV: Well, why didn't people take to them? And you were talking a little bit earlier about how it just didn't conform to what they wanted from lyric erotic poetry at the time—but was it also an issue of structure or tone or content?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah. I think just their approach to love is in some ways so cynical and radical and kind of transgressive that people couldn't really use them. It's like if you want to declare your love for someone or seduce them or, you know, whatever you might want to do with poetry, Shakespeare's sonnets would not really be your first port of call.

This is why I find the reputation in popular culture now very interesting, because in some ways they're viewed as the epitome of romantic poetry. But when they're first published, they find them difficult and obscure; too sexy and not sexy enough. They just don't seem to hit the mark.

BOGAEV: Yeah, that is interesting. Too sexy and not sexy enough. They're almost too real, but in a more abstract way. Also, why do people love Venus and Adonis, but don't care for these great love poems?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, and I think that the key thing is that obviously Venus and Adonis is mostly a poem in which Venus says, "Come on, let's get it on. I'm beautiful, you're gorgeous, what are we waiting for?" And although the sonnets contain some of that, it's always kind of in a version that's slightly difficult. The first… the opening kind of procreation poems are, "You should reproduce because you're so beautiful."

BOGAEV: Yes, you point out in the book that you don't find the word "I" until sonnet 10. There's just not really a person there to identify with.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No, and that's very unlike all other sonnet sequences from that period. Most of them establish the identity of a lover in the opening poems. Then he says, "This is my youthful experience. These poems describe a period of my life, and then I've moved on." Usually because the woman says no. But Shakespeare's sonnets don't start like that. They have a totally different trajectory and narrative.

BOGAEV: Yeah, you quote a scholar who says that, "Reading the sonnets is like trying to make sense of Romeo and Juliet if all the speech tags have been removed and all the references to other characters are entirely done in pronouns."

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I think that's brilliant. That's David Schalkwyk. Yes.

BOGAEV: What a mess.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, it is a mess. But in some ways, I think that's part of what's fascinating about the cultural afterlife. Is that because these identities, these personalities behind the poems are so vague and so unarticulated, ultimately they can be voiced by other people in all kinds of different ways?

BOGAEV: Oh, that's really interesting. We are different readers, you're saying, really.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, I suppose you used poetry in Shakespeare's time to develop your own rhetorical skill. You learn rhetoric, you learn persuasive speech at school and at the Inns of Court, because that's a function of poetry. Then, whereas, I'm not sure that we approach it in quite the same way now.

BOGAEV: Well, moving on, the sonnets don't make it into the First Folio. They're not in the second or the third or the fourth.


BOGAEV: So when they finally did show up, were they suspect? And did people think they weren't Shakespeare's?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, absolutely. This is partly because of John Benson's volume, I think, in 1640 which takes quite a lot of liberties with the sonnets, really to update them. So, they get titles. Some of the gender pronouns are changed and they get conflated because the sonnet isn't a popular form by the mid-17th century. It's kind of a bit low-grade. So that volume is then viewed as suspect.

But, yes, definitely in 1709, Nicholas Rowe publishes this very famous, supposedly complete works of Shakespeare. He says, "Yes, you know, I've come across this volume from 1640 which purports to be Shakespeare's poems." But he describes it as not authentic. He doesn't trust that they're by Shakespeare. And that does have a lot to do with the fact that they have no tradition of being incorporated into the folios.

BOGAEV: It's interesting, with this guy Benson, that probably the most popular sonnet today, Sonnet 18, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" went missing for more than a hundred years.


BOGAEV: You're right. Because he left it out of that anthology in 1640.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I mean, no one...

BOGAEV: What did he have against that sonnet?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I don't know. No one can really explain how it fell out. But yes, it's really fascinating because one argument that's often made is that we like all the same Shakespeare sonnets that people liked in the Victorian period or that people liked early in the 18th century. But this is absolutely not true. The sonnets are very responsive to these kind of publishing accidents, really. But also obviously to different kinds of cultural and historical needs that readers have.

BOGAEV: So, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," that wasn't a big hit back then?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No. The “Dark Lady” sonnets—you know, I hesitate to use that phrase, because it's kind of fictional—but the “Dark Lady” sonnets are just ignored until around the beginning of the 19th century, really. And then Wordsworth thinks that they're awful, and won't include them in his select anthology.

It's really only after Oscar Wilde, I think… Because this idea of the “master mistress,” this seductive young man, has become so disturbing and so worrying to readers and lovers of Shakespeare, that this idea of a “Dark Lady” starts to be reconstituted. It's like it’s about, “Shakespeare's love is this mistress.” Those poems start to become important as a reaction against this idea of a kind of queer Shakespeare, essentially.

BOGAEV: Well, let's back up for a moment because for people who don't remember English lit in their junior year in high school, the sonnets… it's generally accepted that you're supposed to read the sonnets in a particular sequence—although you dispute that, but we'll talk about that in a moment. And the sonnets, 1 through 126 are addressed to a man: “Fair Youth.” And 127 to 152 are addressed to a woman: “Dark Lady.” And that is just taken for granted today. But as you're tracing this history, and forgive me if I missed it, who created that assumption?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: The first person who puts it down in print is Edmond Malone in 1780. And he states categorically, the first, as you say, one to 126 are to a man and the rest are to a woman. But it's very surprising that an 18th-century invention still dictates how we read the sequence. Because most other 18th-century conventions of editing, we would've kinda chucked out a while ago.

BOGAEV: Right, so where did he get the idea? Could you trace for us?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean, if you look at… I suppose it's around 126, 127. So Sonnet 126 starts, "O, thou, my lovely boy." And then Sonnet 127 has a line about "Therefore my mistress' eyes." So there's a suggestion that there's a kind of fracture. And 126 is also missing two lines. And your critics have had huge amounts of fun with these empty brackets and this kind of blank space, as if there's a break that's being established between two different sequences.

BOGAEV: It sounds kind of tenuous, though. What did his colleagues think back then? Did anyone call him on this?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Well, I mean, Malone is funny because he states this categorically, I think partly to distinguish himself from other critics. He says he's very contemptuous of other people who haven't noticed this and says, "Well, you know, very obviously, this sequence is divided in this way." But then he throws this kind of critical grenade into Shakespeare studies and just runs away. He doesn't really elaborate on it particularly...

BOGAEV: Rings the front door bell.


BOGAEV: Vamooses.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: And then he's gone, yeah. But it does cause a huge amount of consternation gradually as that idea is absorbed.

BOGAEV: Well, what's his defense? I mean, how does he explain that Shakespeare's talking to a man? For instance, that this is just how men addressed each other back then?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. He has various strategies and that is the main one, is that he will quote letters and other kind of early documents to say, you know, "The way that men address each other in friendship,"—and he does use the word "friend" quite a lot—"is much more amorous than we're used to. So, you know, don't worry, this is just normal." Although at one point he does admit that he thinks one of the main problems with the sonnets is they're not being directed to a female. So he does acknowledge that that might be problematic.

BOGAEV: Well, why would he want to restrict the sonnets to just two people, one man and one woman? Instead of, it could've been many women these poems were addressed to—or many men.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, absolutely. And, I mean, that's very much...

BOGAEV: Before we even get to the whole binary thing. Yeah.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah. I mean, he was trying to write a biography of Shakespeare and trying to gather some more materials. And obviously there's very little documentary evidence about Shakespeare's life. So he uses the sonnets in this way. And one argument is that he's gonna build a stronger narrative if he has only two protagonists rather than this myriad of Shakespearean lovers drifting about.

BOGAEV: Now I said earlier the accepted way to read these sonnets is in order. And that is… well, I haven't read all of them. I mean, not even close.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No, it's an ordeal.

BOGAEV: But that is the way we read them in school.


BOGAEV: You dispute this. What's your argument against reading them this way?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I just think that it leads you to conclusions that are not all that interesting. Obviously it's important to acknowledge the homoeroticism of the sequence and to engage with Shakespeare as queer or bisexual. And that's had a huge and important cultural impact.

But I just feel that in the value, the lyrical aesthetic pleasure of individual sonnets just gets lost in this narrative. And that it's actually much more interesting to think about an individual lyric and how it can be reinterpreted and appropriated and kind of revoiced. And that trying to construct these biographical accounts of Shakespeare's life from the sonnets is doing them a disservice, because they're poetry. You know, they're not a novel.

BOGAEV: So looking for a narrative distracts you from the beauty?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, I think so. And the linguistic genius of them. And their incredible ambiguity and the complexity of the emotions that they express. Constantly trying to make them fit some kind of plot, I just find problematic. And this partly comes to my own experience of teaching Shakespeare, teaching the sonnets. Because I used to produce this slightly ridiculous handout which had, you know, 1 – 126 = “Fair Youth,” 127 – 152 = “Dark Lady.” And I just think that that's incredibly reductive and uninspiring. So I decided to stop doing it.

BOGAEV: That is death to poetry.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, it is. But that is what we're all taught. And that in some ways it does make teaching the sonnets easier. Because we all like to latch onto a plot or a story.

BOGAEV: Another thing taken for granted about the sonnets is that Malone rescued them from obscurity.


BOGAEV: And this is another thing that you dispute. You say it's a myth, or at least, the very least, it's misleading. So he wasn't a savior of them?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: He was in a sense that the 1780 reprinting of the quarto was significant because he rejected Benson's 1640 volume which had been much more popular and people had tended to reprint when they wanted to publish sonnets. So that was important.

But it's sometimes suggested that the sonnets have no history until Malone, which is really not true. This idea about Malone gets quoted a lot and it ignores other 18th-century additions of the quarto. There's one in 1711 by Bernard Lintott. There's one in 1766 by George Steevens. It's not that they come out of nowhere. And Edward Capell had done some really interesting work on the quarto sequence which it looks like Malone just kind of plagiarized, really, without acknowledging. So I'm suspicious about it in those terms.

Also, I think that the legacy that he created with this bipartite division and with this obsessive focus on which addressee individual lyrics relate to, has been really unhelpful for the sonnets’ afterlife. John Benson had started—he'd rearranged all the sonnets and he had started his collection with, I think it's 67 or 68, which both have a male pronoun in them. So he had foregrounded in some way that these were about a man's relationship with another man.

But I think the crucial thing that Malone does is to critically investigate them. He takes them very seriously as a critic. And arguably no one had really done that properly before. They'd just been kind of reprinted without much editorial assistance for the reader.

BOGAEV: And I want to pick up on something you were talking about before, about how Malone explained how Shakespeare wrote these erotic and amorous poems to a man. That he—in the sense of loving a man—he [Malone] had different strategies, right?


BOGAEV: Different approaches to this.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah. So one of them is the cultural difference that we've already talked about, that this use of a love language is more normal than it would be. Now it relates to friendship and patronage and we need to kind of expand our sense of what the word "love" means.

BOGAEV: I think you categorized them in three different parts. There's disgust, strategy—and an exoneration strategy, as you say—and a denial. It's like the three phases of grief of the sonnets. So how do these three strategies influence how people viewed the sonnets going forward?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean, it's really interesting. I talk about George, Thomas particularly, and also Coleridge being very troubled by Sonnet 20, particularly. So that's the one that refers to the “master mistress.” "A woman's face with nature's own hand painted." One of the crucial commentaries in Malone's edition is George Steevens saying that he can't believe how appalling this sonnet is and, “This is disgusting.” And this is why he won't include the sonnets in his later edition… I think 1793.

Malone himself is uncomfortable and says, "Well, you know, maybe 'master mistress' means 'sovereign mistress.' Maybe they're still talking about a woman.” And that whole question becomes very important for Chalmers, who says the sonnets are written about Elizabeth I. And also Coleridge who writes this letter to his son and says, "I hope you don't think that Shakespeare could ever have loved a man in this way."

BOGAEV: It sounds like they all jump on one, or maybe a couple of these bandwagons at different times.


BOGAEV: Disgust, exoneration, and denial.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. Malone has provided—his edition has provided you with an array of ways of dealing with your anxiety about this.

BOGAEV: Right. A "choose your adventure" with the sonnets.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: And it carries on, you know, well into the Victorian period.

BOGAEV: Do you have a favorite sonnet?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Oh, yes. I am fairly obsessed with 116 which is, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments."

BOGAEV: Oh, that's my favorite.


BOGAEV: Why? Why do you love it?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean, I'd like to go for something a bit more cool and obscure. But I do think it's incredibly beautiful. And also, it has this kind of plangent tone. It has a kind of drama. It probably has the most interesting afterlife of all the sonnets that I looked at. So, yes.

And I enjoyed the critical debate about whether it's got anything to do with marriage or not. You know, some people are like, "No, it's absolutely not to do with that," and other people are like, "Well, it does use the marriage terms from the Book of Common Prayer, it probably is about that."

I do find it very moving. And it has a really interesting life in popular culture. Think about Ang Lee's film Sense and Sensibility, which uses it in a very moving way, I think.

BOGAEV: I don't know the scholarly discussion around it. I love that it's about mature love.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Mm-hmm, yeah.

BOGAEV: —as opposed to romantic love. Which is mostly… so many of the sonnets are.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah. I mean, it's still incredibly idealistic, isn't it? The idea that your love is unalterable and unchanging, no matter what the kind of circumstance is.

BOGAEV: Oh, absolutely.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: And that's one of the reasons I think why...

BOGAEV: But I read into that, all of my understanding of love after the romantic love phase has passed.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: One of the things I find moving about it is that it seems to me that you could use it equally for a wedding or for a funeral. Because its message—if it has a message—is kind of the same. I actually read it at my brother's wedding. But I always find it incredibly moving when you think about death parting people who love each other.

BOGAEV: Yeah. And I love that we're ending on this note of the utility of the sonnets.


BOGAEV: We like the Shakespearean ties. We think of them as these commodities that we can wield on occasion.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. What are they for?

BOGAEV: Yeah, exactly. What is poetry for? Well, I love talking about this with you, and I'm so glad that we're going get another chance to talk with you, because you have written a book that just keeps on giving. And there are whole other chapters. So in the future, you will be back on the podcast, and thank you.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No, thank you. It's my pleasure.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Dr. Jane Kingsley-Smith is deputy head of the department of English and creative writing at the University of Roehampton in London.

She edited Love's Labor's Lost for the Norton Shakespeare Third Edition, and The Duchess of Malfi for Penguin in 2015. She is the author of Shakespeare's Drama in Exile, published by Palgrave in 2003, and Cupid in Early Modern Literature and Culture, published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. Her latest book published in 2019 by Cambridge is The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Dr. Kingsley-Smith was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “To Thee I Send This Written Embassage,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Gareth Wood at The Sound Company in London.

We hope you're enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. If you are, and you're looking for a way to let other people know about it, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts. That really is the best way to help. Thank you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our Website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger director Michael Witmore.

Book cover for The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Jane Kingsley-Smith.
The Afterlife of Shakespeare's Sonnets, by Jane Kingsley-Smith.

Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes.