The Long Life of Shakespeare's Sonnets (18th century – today)

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

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 142

Today, we think of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a triumph. We read them, puzzle over them, and recite them. We compare our significant others to summers’ days, beweep our outcast states, and never admit impediments to the marriage of true minds. But it might surprise you to learn that in the past, the Sonnets didn’t have quite the same great reputation.

We asked Roehampton University professor Jane Kingsley-Smith back to Shakespeare Unlimited for a second episode about the Sonnets’ tortuous history. The author of The Afterlife of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Kingsley-Smith tells us about periods in the 1600s and 1700s  when some readers thought the sonnets were inauthentic, or immoral, or just that they had too many puns. Finally, we pay a visit to the 1800s, when writers like William Wordsworth and Oscar Wilde salvaged the poems’ good name. Jane Kingsley-Smith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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Dr. Jane Kingsley-Smith is Deputy Head of the Department of English & Creative Writing at Roehampton University in London. She edited Love's Labor's Lost for the Norton Shakespeare Series Third Edition, and The Duchess of Malfi for Penguin in 2015. She is the author of Shakespeare's Drama of 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.

From our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 14, 2020. ©Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Return to the Verses,” 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 helped from Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Dom Boucher at The Sound Company in London.

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The Early Years of Shakespeare's Sonnets
Listen to our first interview with Jane Kingsley-Smith, in which she talks about the creation and very first publications of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

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

Early Editions of Shakespeare's Sonnets
See images of the earliest published editions of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

The Folger Shakespeare
Read, download, or search the Sonnets on The Folger Shakespeare.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Today, they are a fait accompli. A triumph. An early manifestation of Shakespeare’s genius. But there was a time, not that long ago, when all that was hanging by a thread.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. You likely think you know something about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They’re part of the canon. They’re owed as much respect as many of his plays. And maybe you imagine that if you can scroll back through history, you’d find a similar level of knowledge and appreciation. If you did, though, you would likely be wrong.

Professor Jane Kingsley-Smith has taken the deepest dive into Shakespeare’s Sonnets in decades, and she’s come up with an important new book that focuses on precisely how they’ve been received over the centuries. Her story winds through the publication of the 1609 quarto edition, which disappeared almost completely after it was published, and the better-selling, fake edition that came out ten years earlier, through all the other editions over the centuries and all the discussion they fostered.  

The book tells us a lot: about the low esteem the sonnets were held in for more than 150 years, about all the prominent writers who found them to be no better than average (maybe even below average). They also teach us how little the world of book promotion has changed between then and today—how the Sonnets served largely as a marketing tie-in after Shakespeare became famous. In light of how we view the sonnets today, it’s all really surprising. And it’s why we’ve invited Professor Kingsley-Smith in for a second time to tell us more.

A note before we start: We recorded this podcast during the very early days of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. If you hear anything in our audio quality that’s less than what you’ve come to expect from us, we hope that you’ll understand, under the circumstances. We call this podcast episode “Return to the Verses.” Jane Kingsley-Smith is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: The sonnets weren’t in the First Folio, and they didn’t really get much public attention until some three decades after Shakespeare’s time—and I know this from your book. And this is when this publisher, John Benson, came out with a book called Poems, which was important for creating a reputation for the sonnets. So why did that book, Poems, create such a stir?

JANE KINGSLEY-SMITH: I think it’s difficult to establish how much of a stir it caused really. It may be that there was a sense of incompleteness around the Shakespeare canon, or he was aware of some poems and he thought, “You know, I’ll put a collection together.” I mean it is incredibly important—Benson’s collection—because the quarto just seems to have disappeared. So this was really how Shakespeare’s sonnets would be read for at least a hundred years.

BOGAEV: So he was riding a wave to cash in?


BOGAEV: Because he—you write that he kind of went out of his way to make his book look like a kind of a First Folio or parallel to it. He has the same picture on the title page. It has some of the Jonson eulogy to Shakespeare in it. So, what? Was he piggybacking?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah I think so. I think he wants it to look authentic. He wants it to have some status so he uses the same printer, Thomas Cotes, as had printed the Second Folio of 1632. So it does look like a kind of serious undertaking.

You know, modern critics have been incredibly dismissive of Benson. I think there’s a kind of turn back on that now. His reputation’s been reestablished because this was a really important moment in Shakespeare publishing really.

BOGAEV: But the poems in Benson’s book aren’t all Shakespeare, right?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No. No. No, you’ve got… I think it’s 146 Sonnets and then you’ve got all of The Passionate Pilgrim and that’s the 1612—the much expanded version which had lots of Heywood’s Trojan poems in as well. And then it’s got a section of poems by Herrick and Milton and Strode which are obviously not by Shakespeare because he says that they’re not. So although it has “by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent.” on the title page, it’s obviously a kind of miscellany.

BOGAEV: And was Benson trying to make it seem like he had just discovered these Shakespeare poems 30 years after Shakespeare’s time to kind of fluff up the audience?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, definitely. I mean there’s evidence that suggests that he had a copy of the quarto—the 1609 quarto—in front of him and he’s working from that. But the preface is incredibly disingenuous and is suggesting that these are poems which were only in their infancy when Shakespeare died. So Shakespeare never had a chance to publish them and stamp his name on them. Which, obviously Benson knows isn’t true because he’s looking at a publication from Shakespeare’s own lifetime full of sonnets.

But yeah, he’s clearly trying to generate a bit more buzz around them. And also I think he’s probably copying some of Hemings and Condell’s dedication to the First Folio, where they talk as well about how Shakespeare had died too soon and left the plays as orphans and they need a guardian.

BOGAEV: Right. And you say he talks about the sonnets as… he argues for their purity and their authenticity and it really…


BOGAEV: …he’s just really making this case. But how pure were they though? I mean did he alter or edit them?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I mean he’s notorious for doing that and in lots of fascinating ways. He gives them titles. The sonnet form is not very popular for his audience by this point so he merges some of them together. Most of them are 42 line poems.

He still indents the couplets interestingly but they become longer units. And there is some changing of the pronouns from “sweet boy” to “sweet love.” So there’s a suggestion that he’s kind of heterosexualizing some of them. Although it’s not very extensive so it’s not a kind of whitewashing.

But, yes, it’s a fairly major intervention. And then, of course, amongst the sonnets are Passionate Pilgrim lyrics which aren’t by Shakespeare. So yes, a claim of purity is…

BOGAEV: Okay so, he tinkered. Well, did his tinkering change—I mean hurt or improve the poems?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Well this is a really interesting question. I mean he obviously thought he was making them more accessible. And in his preface he makes this wonderful claim that, “In your perusal you shall find them serene, clear and elegantly plain, such gentle strains as shall recreate and not perplex your brain, no intricate or cloudy stuff to puzzle intellect, but perfect eloquence.”


KINGSLEY-SMITH: Now I don’t think anyone has ever thought that that was true of the sonnets, that they’re not going to “perplex your brain” or you’ll find them “serene or clear.”


KINGSLEY-SMITH: So it’s a fabulous kind of rewriting of their reputation already. And that’s one of the reasons why Benson’s so important, because it represents a kind of literary criticism, a critical response to the sonnets and what people already think about them perhaps.

BOGAEV: Well at this time in the 18th century, Shakespeare began to emerge as the—as you put it—the preeminent English dramatist and the ultimate literary icon. And we just recently did a whole podcast about David Garrick’s Jubilee that looked at…


BOGAEV: …some of the reasons why this happened. But how did the sonnets fit into the coronation of Shakespeare, if they do fit in at all?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah I mean initially it doesn’t look very promising. So I’ve looked a little bit at Garrick’s Jubilee and you would hope to find some references to sonnets or some performance of sonnets. But there’s really nothing. When you’re looking at the revival of Shakespeare on the stage— you know, I talk a bit in the book about the Shakespeare Ladies Club were really driving Shakespeare into the repertoire. And…

BOGAEV: The Shakespeare Ladies Club?


BOGAEV: Yeah, explain that. Tell us more.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I’m by no means an expert on this. You need to read Fiona Ritchie’s book, Women in the Eighteenth Century. But it seems to be a collection of quite aristocratic women who became quite powerful patrons of Shakespeare, obviously posthumously, and argued for more of his plays to be put on in the theaters, and also discussed the plays. There’s a relationship with actresses taking on particular Shakespeare roles and bringing those to prominence.

So it seems as if women were particularly instrumental in making the dramatic canon more accessible and more, kind of, esteemed. But that doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the sonnets.

BOGAEV: Women; it wasn’t that they didn’t like the sonnets, it was just that they were focused on the plays?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah. I think obviously everybody’s focused on the plays at this point irrespective of gender. But it does seem that women didn’t particularly like them perhaps.

There’s a quote by Anna Seward. She’s writing sonnets in the 18th century, and she talks about them being “quibbling.” Oh, she complains about, “The stiff infelicity of expression, the quaintness, quibbling and utter want of harmonious flow.” And she’s talking about pretty much all poetry from Chaucer to Spencer, but she says that this is particularly true of Shakespeare’s poems. She says, “The detached poems of our immortal Shakespeare are strongly tinctured with them.”

BOGAEV: Huh. So she doesn’t like the—it sounds like—the poetry, the style, the technique.


BOGAEV: Or was it that they were too lewd?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I don’t think it’s to do with the subject matter particularly. I think at this point it’s more the Samuel Johnson hatred of puns. Quibbling is seen as a bit lower class. I think it’s a bit juvenile. Quaintness, obscurity, and also want of harmonious flow.

The ideal sonnet form at this time is the Miltonic, or Italian sonnet. Where you have the octave and the sestet and you have fewer, but more repeated, rhyming sounds than the Shakespearean sonnet which is quatrains and a couplet. This sense that Milton is the classical Italianate sonnet that you should all aspire to write and Shakespeare’s are just a bit less intellectual. It’s easier, potentially, to write a Shakespeare sonnet.

BOGAEV: So is this how most people thought of Shakespeare’s sonnets? That they just weren’t that good?

KINGSLEY-SMITH:  Yeah. I think people were… from the little criticism we still have—and Wordsworth is making this point around the turn of the century that this idea of them being difficult and obscure and potentially, I suppose, embarrassing. That their attitude towards language is, again, kind of overly complicated and just this discomfort with “quibbling” just does seem to have ruined their pleasure.

BOGAEV: Interesting. Interesting. Well Nicholas Rowe published a new edition of Shakespeare’s complete works in 1709 that seemed to make them a lot more approachable. He brings out the six volumes that are small enough that you can actually pick them up as opposed to that one huge folio volume.

He also partially modernizes the text and he has engravings of key moments in performance and their list of characters for the first time. So he’s really kind of, you know, an idiot guide that to [LAUGH]. Which is wonderful. We can all use ‘em.


BOGAEV: So the plays get a huge boost. But does he include any of the sonnets?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: No. And Nicholas Rowe is kind of fascinating in this context because there’s a bit in… I think it’s the dedication to the reader where he says that lately it has come to his attention that there’s a book of poems. But as he hasn’t had time to make a judgment about it he’s not going to include them.

BOGAEV: That’s a dodge.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: And there’s a kind of whiff of that anxiety about authenticity again, though. I don’t… I can’t remember exactly what he says. He says, “As I can’t pretend to have made a judgment on them.” That word pretend I think is quite revealing. There’s a kind of, “Are these really by Shakespeare? I’m not going to publish them just in case.”

BOGAEV: Right. And this is an ongoing discussion over whether Shakespeare actually wrote these poems. But one book you write gives support that came out the year after Nicholas Rowe’s book, Remarks on the Poems of Shakespeare by Charles Gildon. So explain Gildon to us and how does Gildon damage the reputation of the sonnets?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Well Gildon brings out what he calls Volume the Seventh, which is an addition of the poems. It includes narrative poems and it also includes Benson. He’s obviously marketing this as an add-on or a supplement to Nicholas Rowe. So it’s like he’s read this challenge in Rowe’s preface and thought, “Well, you know, I believe these are by Shakespeare so I’m going to bring them out.”

He kind of starts a critical debate about the poems which had never existed before really. There’s very little critical engagement with them. And starts… he provides a glossary so the poems will be easier for you to read and understand. He makes connections between the poems and the plays a little bit. In many ways anticipating what Malone would do at the end of the century but doing it much earlier than I think people often imagine.

BOGAEV: And so how does he give ballast to the doubters?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean, he makes his own fairly dubious claims. You know he says things like, “There’s not a single poem in this collection that doesn’t bear the stamp of its author.” And again that’s just obviously not true because Benson is printing poems by Herrick and Milton and there were eulogies to Shakespeare, so he can’t possibly have written his own eulogies. There’s a lot of exaggeration. But he also makes a point about Rowe and says, “Rowe is printing all these apocryphal plays. Should we be trusting his judgment?”


KINGSLEY-SMITH: So he’s really trying to kind of undermine Rowe rather than provide much positive evidence for their authenticity.

BOGAEV: Well what does Gildon think of them as poems?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, he thinks that there are some fine phrases. He thinks that they’re a little bit too passionate. He’s not very keen on, again, kind of puns or witticisms. So he finds them a little bit contrived, but still thinks that they’re worth reading and worth talking about. That’s quite a rare thing at this point.

BOGAEV: Well there’s not only the Gildon book, there’s also this edition by Bernard Lintot. And we talked about Lintot a little bit the last time you were on the podcast.


BOGAEV: He’s that guy who published the sonnets but he seems to be kind of negligent. You say there’s clear evidence that he never read them.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I think it’s very unlikely that he did read them. Because in this composite volume that he produced in 1711 he’s essentially reprinted two of the poems twice. because you can read 130 and 144 in The Passionate Pilgrim, and then you can read them again in the quarto sequence. So you’d think as an editor you might kind of point that out or…

BOGAEV: That’s just sloppy.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, exactly. You might do something with that. But he doesn’t because he doesn’t really care about them particularly, I don’t think.

BOGAEV: Okay. So what is the upshot of these Lintot and Gildon editions? I mean is this when the sonnets finally get included in a complete works by major publishers?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. They start to. Gildon is the one who has the influence. So when Pope produces his Famous Works of Shakespeare there are still no poems in there. But George Sewell in 1725 produces the poems of Shakespeare, and he uses Gildon’s edition. And then the odd works will start to incorporate them. But there’s still a huge amount of time in the 1730s, ‘40s, ‘50s where it’s just fine not to include sonnets in the works. They don’t—they still haven’t really found their place in the canon.

BOGAEV: Okay. And this is nine years after Lintot and Gildon that Pope comes out with the edition of Shakespeare that just has the plays?


BOGAEV: But this Doctor George Sewell comes out with The Poems of Shakespeare and it seems like it—was he also kind of piggybacking the way Benson piggybacked off the First Folio. That Sewell…?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, absolutely. Yes, yes. It’s still that notion of them as a kind of supplement where you could make a certain amount of money by people wanting to just extend that collection with one more volume.

BOGAEV: And Sewell makes this case that the sonnets can teach you something about Shakespeare’s biography. Which, was this…

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, this is interesting.

BOGAEV: How does he do that first of all? Make that case and is this a new idea?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: It does seem… to be the earliest comment I’ve found on this is Meres in 1598. A kind of early attempt to start to think about why they might be valuable.

He makes a comment and it’s slightly tricky because no one talks about the sonnets specifically. They tend to talk about poems or epigrams at this point. So you can’t always be clear what an editor critic is talking about, but he does suggest that in the first flush of one’s infatuation for a mistress one might produce these kinds of poems, which is interesting because there’s a long history of not being certain when Shakespeare wrote the sonnets. So he thinks they must be early productions. Benson had kind of suggested they were really late.

But he also talks about the notion of—I mean he doesn’t use the phrase rival poet, but the idea that the poet Shakespeare’s in competition with in these poems is probably Spencer. But unfortunately he doesn’t use a sonnet to back up this argument. He goes back to A Passionate Pilgrim poem called, “If Music and Sweet Poetry Agree” which actually talks about Spencer. So, you know, there’s still this difficulty of making an argument about the sonnets and specifically using sonnets to back it up.

BOGAEV: Okay. So the Sewell’s edition then comes out and it makes it into the 1728 complete works. But then the sonnets just disappear again.


BOGAEV: And they’re not in a whole bunch of editions that come out in decades really. What happened there?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. It’s difficult to say. I mean I think one of the problems is that they don’t get into any of the 18th-century anthologies—like Beauties of English Poetry, that kind of William Dodd’s collection— because those kinds of anthologists tend to go back to a volume like Pope’s or Theobald’s or somebody’s to get these extracts. And obviously the poems aren’t there. I mean Pope had actually put little asterisks or little stars behind bits that he thought would be worth putting in an anthology. So that made the job of those people very easy.

So you don’t have sonnets in kind of general circulation as part of this kind of poetic culture of English literature. They’re just not really there. Those decisions to keep excluding them from the prestigious works have this kind of knock on effect.

It’s really only, I think, when there’s a more antiquarian interest in Shakespeare. So it’s partly to do with library building. You know, Garrick has this famous Shakespeare library of quartos, and Malone starts collecting quartos. Then anyone who has a copy of the 1609 sonnets might think that that was worth talking about or publishing. This is 1766 when George Steevens publishes the quarto. And that’s part of this collection Twenty of the Plays of Shakespeare. I mean, it’s not even in the title. But it’s just, “I’ve got this Quarto. If you’re a Shakespeare fan you might think this is interesting.” So that’s the kind of next time they start to come back in.

BOGAEV: So is this why a lot of people have the misconception that the histories of the sonnets is blank until they were discovered, quote, unquote, by Edmond Malone in 1780?


BOGAEV: Because as you make the case in your book, it’s not that they were undiscovered. They’d been discovered a couple of times but then they would disappear again.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I mean there does seem to be a problem with the accessibility of the quarto. There obviously aren’t many copies that you can find in catalogues or they do seem to have been quite hard to get hold of. But Benson and The Passionate Pilgrim, there do seem to have been more copies. There’s a sense in where Shakespeare’s reputation is as a dramatist and if you introduce poetry, that’s just slightly confusing. And, you know, they didn’t have any really prestigious champions.

One of the points Gary Taylor makes about the creation of Shakespeare’s identity is that all these incredibly erudite and respected literary figures are the ones who are doing Shakespeare editing. But they’re not the ones who were editing the sonnets. They’re giving all their attention to the plays.

BOGAEV: And it sounds like at the time Malone was gathering material for his work on the sonnets that there was just a lot of handwringing about whether the sonnets would hurt Shakespeare’s reputation in this long process of Shakespeare building. Explain that for us.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, definitely. So, for example, Steevens, who as we said publishes them in 1766—he may be talking about the apocryphal plays because he publishes some of those as well. But there’s a question of whether one should publish all the works of a great author or whether one should hide things that might be thought a disgrace to him.

There’s a bit that I think is perhaps worth reading. He says, “Life does not often receive good unmixed with evil. The benefits of the art of printing are depraved by the facility with which scandal may be diffused and secrets revealed, and by the temptation by which traffic solicits avarice to betray the weaknesses of passion or the confidence of friendships.” And he doesn’t say he’s talking about the sonnets there but that language does seem to suggest disgrace, betrayal, the weaknesses of passion, that he may be worrying about what he’s doing by publishing the sonnets.

BOGAEV: And what exactly is the scandal? Is this all about just they’re not good?


BOGAEV: Nobody thinks they’re good, or because they’re too passionate or they’re not passionate enough? What?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I mean it’s definitely… Steevens is one of the first people who comes out and says, “These are love poems about a man. How disgusting. You know, we should feel disgust and indignation,” particularly when you read Sonnet 20. So there are questions of—I think for him—so called moral depravity.

BOGAEV: And it’s not just a man. They’re written to—as we talked about in the last broadcast—they’re written to a number of women. Not just one woman.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I mean he’s responding to, obviously, that theory that the majority of the sonnets are to a man, which obviously we talked about before that Malone discusses. But also, you know, in a sense he’s refreshingly honest. because you read Sonnet 20 which has this phrase, “The master mistress of my passion,” which talks about how nature has basically added a thing to his love object—has added a penis. And he says, “This is clearly a poem about a man and about erotic desire for a man.” And no one had really said this so openly before.

So, although his attitude is obviously deplorable, at the same time he is engaging where he’s actually reading the poems carefully as opposed to… is it Lintot, who called them 154 Sonnets, all of them addressed to his mistress. Which obviously suggests he hadn’t read them at all.

BOGAEV: Okay. So now we’re getting into the scandal part of things. But there’s another example of the sonnets getting no love in 1774 when someone named Francis Gentleman publishes Poems Written by Shakespeare. What does he think about the poems? Because it seems to be more about the quality of them, and he seems to think the poems are no good. But if they’re no good, why is he publishing them?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, I mean he’s clearly evidence of this increasing desire to have all of Shakespeare, even the dubious parts of Shakespeare—you might want them to be accessible. He has scruples about, I think, their emotional content. He says, “If Shakespeare’s merit as a poet, a philosopher, or a man was to be estimated from his poems, though they possess many instances of powerful genius, he would in every point of view sink beneath himself in these characters.” So this idea that Shakespeare as a man is not at his best in the sonnets.

That might be to do with the fact that he admits to committing adultery in some of the sonnets. There are sonnets, obviously 129, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Is lust in action…” This is not how you wanted to think about Shakespeare in the 18th century. So he has scruples.

BOGAEV: No. But it sounds like at the beginning of the 1800s the poets start taking the Sonnets more seriously as poetry, as opposed to biography of Shakespeare.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. I think the two go hand in hand to some extent. And particularly with Wordsworth. You know, Wordsworth is one of the key champions of Shakespeare’s sonnets and is really quite influential. He publishes this essay as a preface to his Poems of 1815 in which he defends Shakespeare’s sonnets and talks about their exquisite sentiments, I think, he has felicitously expressed. So he starts to defend their style to suggest that they have beautiful sentiments in, rather than things that you might just find embarrassing.

He also picks… I think it’s 27 of his favorites. And this list of his favorites actually starts to have some traction. There’s an article in Blackwood’s Magazine—I think it’s about three years later—which says, “Wordsworth thinks that these Shakespeare sonnets are wonderful. So, let’s look at them. Let’s engage with them.

BOGAEV: What are some of his favorites? Is it Sonnet 64, which got a lot of attention around this time?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes, yes. Certainly that one. Sonnet…

BOGAEV: That’s… and that one—just remind, us, that’s, “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced.” What is it about Sonnet 64 that makes it trend in the 1800s?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yes. Obviously it’s about a man’s life’s work to some extent. I mean that’s certainly how Wordsworth interprets it when he borrows from it in the prelude. This idea of having everything you love and everything you’ve achieved destroyed or washed away by time. That’s a very powerful idea, particularly for, you know, romantic poetry. It uses the word ruin powerfully at the beginning of the line, “Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate.” You can think of lots of romantic poems about ruins: Ozymandias, Kubla Kahn, The Ruined Cottage. It’s kind of chiming with a lot of preoccupations that romantic poets particularly have.

And also it’s quite kind of sentimental—surprisingly sentimental for a Shakespeare sonnet really. because at the end it talks about weeping. “This thought is as a death which cannot choose but weep to have that which it fears to lose.” It chimes with sonnets of sensibility; there’s a kind of weeping in sonnets at the end of the 18th century. So it feeds into that as well perhaps.

BOGAEV: And then later, much later, the Oscar Wilde, becomes another champion of the sonnets. You call him the most notorious Shakespeare lover of the late Victorian period.


BOGAEV: And that it… his championing of Shakespeare in his book, The Portrait of Master W.H. represents a decisive moment in the sonnets queer history.


BOGAEV: Tell us about the queer history.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: I think it’s always been there as part of the sonnets reception. You know, we can’t trace it right back to its start. But it does seem as though the sonnets have often been a way of men talking about their love for each other.

Tennyson and Arthur Hallam probably engage with each other through quoting the sonnets. The sonnets appear in, In Memoriam. And Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas obviously share the sonnets as a kind of currency. Douglas writes this poem called Two Loves which borrows from Sonnet 144, so it’s kind of partly there.

But what’s fascinating I think is that Oscar Wilde tries to use the sonnets almost as an alibi in his libel trial in 1895. So he cites them in his own defense. But at the same time this, The Portrait of Master W.H., this short story that he’s written, is so kind of homoerotic that in a sense he’s ruined his own alibi. It becomes incredibly complicated.

BOGAEV: Where do the sonnets stand now? Are they considered to be definitively the works of Shakespeare? And how do you see the echo or the shadow of these 19th-century conversations continuing on as time moves forward?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean part of the argument of the book really, I suppose, is that we’re kind of still stuck in a fairly post-Malonian moment where we think that the quarto is absolutely what Shakespeare’s sonnets are. And that each of those poems has been authenticated and there’s an argument that Shakespeare ordered the sequence and he wanted them to come out.

Actually, the 19th century is in a way much more liberal and much freer in reading the sonnets. There are discussions about whether Shakespeare’s maybe writing these sonnets on behalf of somebody else or whether a few of the sonnets might actually not even be by Shakespeare.

And in a way that’s more where our conversations about the sonnets are going now I think. because if you look at the dramatic canon, every big new edition there’s more and more collaboration, and obviously theater is a collaborative form. But there’s more and more willingness to say, “Well Shakespeare might have written this part and, you know, maybe Middleton did this bit.” But that’s not an argument that’s ever really been applied to the sonnets and certainly in the 20th century and early 21st century.

But I think there’s certainly much more room to be a bit more open and say there could be other sonnets that aren’t in a quarto. There could be sonnets in the quarto that aren’t by Shakespeare. You know, why are the final two Cupid poems, 153 and 154 so similar?

BOGAEV: And in the queer community are Shakespeare’s Sonnets still upholding this reputation?

KINGSLEY-SMITH: Oh yeah as far as I’m aware. You know, I don’t think anyone would deny now that Shakespeare was passionately in love with a man. He has an erotic interest in a man or several men that there’s really no way of denying that now.

I think one of the wonderful things about the sonnets is that they’ve given a voice to the love that dare not speak its name for so long. A question now is that I was reading something the other day about bisexuality and whether there’s a bisexual canon and whether the sonnets could be used to define that identity. I mean they’re also, I suppose, incredibly gender fluid in the sense that they don’t use pronouns quite often. You know, “master mistress of my passion” is all about gender fluidity. So maybe that’s next stage for their evolution.

BOGAEV: Jane, I have enjoyed talking with you so much and thank you for taking the time, two episodes of Shakespeare Unlimited. It’s a record.

KINGSLEY-SMITH: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me back.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Dr. Jane Kingsley-Smith is Deputy Head of the Department of English & Creative Writing at Roehampton University in London.

She edited Love's Labor's Lost for the Norton Shakespeare Series Third Edition, and The Duchess of Malfi for Penguin in 2015. She is the author of Shakespeare's Drama of 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, “Return to the Verses,” 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 helped from Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Dom Boucher at The Sound Company in London.

We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. If you are, and if 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. Thanks so much.

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,

Thanks for listening. 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

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