1. The Quarto

The first documentary evidence of the existence of at least some of the poems that constitute Shakespeare's 1609 volume remains Francis Meres's 1598 praise of the author in his Palladis Tamia:

As the {s}oule of Euphorbus was thought to liue in Pythagoras {s}o the {s}weete wittie {s}oule of Ovid liues in melli{fl}uous |&| hony­tongued Shake{s}peare,witnes his Venus and Adonis,his Lucrece , his {s}ugred Sonnets among his priuate friends,|&c|.

That this encomium refers to sonnets by Shakespeare in circulation at the time is not in doubt (cf. Lee 27), and in the following year, two (138 and 144) were published in The Passionate Pilgrime, a miscellany containing twenty poems by various poets. The title page to the second edition contains the ascription "By W. Shakespeare," but only five of the poems appear to be his. Up to the 1940s, scholars were aware of only two printings of The Passionate Pilgrime--1599 and 1612--both by William Jaggard. As it turns out, however, there was yet another edition that preceded the surviving Jaggard of 1599 (cf. Rollins 1.353). The issue of the relationship between The Passionate Pilgrime versions of Sonnets 138 and 144, the first two poems of the volume, and those of the 1609 Quarto is still unresolved (cf. Booth 476­77, 496­97). Despite the significant differences between the versions of these sonnets, the only emendation of a substantive universally followed by modern editors is Malone's "{{s}i}de" for "{{s}i}ght" in line six of Sonnet 144: "The quarto has--from my sight. The true reading is found in The Passionate Pilgrim" (20.349). Nonetheless, Stephen Booth, although he adopts Malone's emendation, entertains the possibility that "sight" may not have been a misreading (496­97).

The 1609 quarto entitled Shake­speares Sonnets was published by Thomas Thorpe, printed by George Eld, and sold by William Aspley and William Wright. On May 20, 1609, Thomas Thorpe was granted a license to publish "a Booke called Shakespeares sonnettes" as this entry in the Stationer's Register attests: "Thomas Thorpe Entred for his copie vnder thandes of master Wilson and master Lownes Warden a Booke called Shakespeares sonnettes" (qtd. in Chambers 1.556). The ensuing quarto of Shake­speares Sonnets is the only complete edition of the sonnets and of A Lovers Complaint published in the author's lifetime. It is also the only printed source and the only surviving text for all but two sonnets and the complaint.

To print his edition, Thorpe enlisted George Eld. To sell it, Thorpe selected William Aspley, whose shop was then at the sign of The Parrot in St. Paul's Cross Churchyard, and William Wright, whose shop was at Christ's Church Gate near Newgate. Sidney Lee speculates that the two booksellers split the copies equally:

The booksellers arranged that one­half of the copies should bear one of their names in the imprint, and the other half should bear the other's name. The even distribution of the two names on the extant copies suggests that the edition was precisely halved between the two. The practice was not uncommon. (31)

Lee, however, was aware of only eleven of the thirteen extant copies: four with the Aspley imprint, five with the Wright, and two without title pages. Rollins identifies thirteen extant copies--two more Wright imprints than Lee mentions. We can only conjecture about the distribution of the run between Aspley and Wright, but Lee's speculation remains plausible. This issue notwithstanding, Randall McLeod, based on his analysis of the title pages of the two imprints, offers evidence that suggests the Wright imprint was the later (1979: 203) of the two.

Thorpe provided the dedication to the volume with its mysterious "T O . T H E . O N L I E . B E G E T T E R," a phrase that has generated legions of commentary on its meaning and on the identity of the person addressed. Unlike the two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), the publication of which Shakespeare most likely supervised, the quarto of the sonnets and A Lovers Complaint contains no dedication by the author himself. For this fact and for a multiplicity of other reasons, many have questioned its authority.

Charles Knight in 1841 became the first of these questioners: "It is impossible to assume that they have been printed with the consent of the author as they now stand" (95). In particular, Knight was distressed Shakespeare would authorize the publication of poems that would suggest the great dramatist "is bound to the youth by ties of strong affection" (117). If Shakespeare had authorized their publication, he surely, according to Knight, would have indicated which of the sonnets were works of fiction (95). On the other side of the issue, George Wyndham, in his edition of 1898, offered the strongest defense up to that date of the authority of Q1609. Wyndham's study, in Rollins's summary, "upheld the text in nearly all particulars and tried to establish Sh.'s own responsibility for it" (2.7). Nevertheless, in his assessment of Wyndham's work, Rollins asserts that Wyndham went too far: "Wyndham credits Sh. with more linguistic knowledge and interest than he could have possessed" (2.8). Sidney Lee was the earliest to respond to Wyndham: "Shakespeare had no great concern in Thorpe's issue" (34). The basis of Lee's judgment involved his evaluation of the state of the text: "The corrupt state of the text of Thorpe's edition of 1609 fully confirms the conclusion that the enterprise lacked authority, and was pursued throughout in that reckless spirit which infected publications of the day" (40). E. K. Chambers initially appears to agree with Lee's assessment, citing as Knight does the lack of a dedication by Shakespeare himself:

The 1609 text of the Sonnets is not a very good one. It may rest upon a fairly authoritative manuscript, but there are sufficient misprints, including misprints of punctuation not explicable upon any theory (cf. p. 195) of rhetorical punctuation, to make it clear that the volume cannot have been overseen by Shakespeare, as Venus and Adonis and Lucrece may have been. The absence of any author's epistle is a further indication of this. (1.559)

Chambers, however, at least suggests Shakespeare may indeed have authorized publication of the sonnets:

The 1640 text does not rest upon any fresh reference to a manuscript, although the sonnets, of which eight are omitted, have been regrouped in a new order under fancy headings, and the pronouns altered so as to suggest that those really written to a man were written to a woman. In this respect at least they cannot be, as Benson claimed, 'of the same purity, the Author himselfe then living avouched'. For what it is worth, however, the phrase seems to imply a belief that the original publication was not contrary to Shakespeare's desire, and perhaps the same inference might be drawn from William Drummond's statement about 1614 (App. B, no. xl) that Shakespeare had lately published his works. Drummond may not have been in a position to know much about it. (1.559)

Regarding the Drummond passage, Chambers maintains that "It was in 1614 that Drummond made the acquaintance of Alexander to whose Aurora as well as Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609) he seems to refer" (2.220). In the passage itself, Drummond, after commenting upon the treatment of "the Subject of Love" by Surrey, Wyatt, Sidney, Daniel, Drayton, Spenser, Ralegh, and Dryer, says, "The last we have are Sir William Alexander and Shakespear, who have lately published their Works" (2.220­221). Wyndham and Chambers notwithstanding, until recently, the dominant critical opinion of the twentieth century resoundingly has agreed with Knight's and Lee's claims that Q1609 was unauthorized, as we see in Steven Booth's "Since most people guess the 1609 Quarto to be unauthorized, we have no strong reason to assume the 1609 order to be either the order of their writing or the order in which Shakespeare would have wanted them read had he published them himself" (545).

During the past fifteen years, several challenges have been mounted against the hegemony of Knight's and Lee's position. In her 1983 "Was the 1609 Shake­speares Sonnets Really Unauthorized," Katherine Duncan­Jones presents a cogent case for the proposition that Shakespeare probably sold the text directly to Thorpe. Duncan­Jones argues "for the substantial integrity of the 1609 Quarto" first on the grounds of "Thorpe's practice and associations as a publisher" and second on structural grounds--"Within the 1609 text many elements of thematic and structural coherence are to be found which commentators have failed to recognize" (154­55). Duncan­Jones summarized her own thesis in her piece on "The Non­Dramatic Poems" in Shakespeare: A Bibliographic Guide:

My own examination of the rest of Thorpe's publications has suggested that Shakespeare is quite likely to have sold the text directly to Thorpe, who had recently done good work for Jonson and Marston, among others; and a comparison of the 1609 quarto with other sonnet volumes points to its being an artistic unit not unfamiliar in the period, made up of sonnets, 'anacreontic poems' (153­4), and 'complaint'. (75)

A few years after the original article, Wells and Taylor in their Textual Companion unreservedly accept Duncan­Jones's arguments:

In spite of a few cruxes, the Sonnets are not badly printed. There is no evidence that Shakespeare had anything to do with the publication; on the other hand, as Katherine Duncan­Jones has shown, Thorpe was a reputable publisher, and there is nothing intrinsically irregular about his publication. (444)

Donald W. Foster offers a more speculative thesis in his 1987 "Master W.H., R.I.P.," in which, based on his study of Renaissance book dedications, he argues that "THE.ONLIE.BEGETTER," is Shakespeare himself, that "OVR.EVERLIVING.POET" is God, and that "W.H." is a misprint for "W.SH" with the S dropped. As a result of these recent challenges to what had become critical orthodoxy, anyone writing about the sonnets and A Lovers Complaint today finds it exceedingly difficult to dismiss out of hand Q1609 as unauthorized.

MacD. P. Jackson, following from the work of Alice Walker and Philip Williams, contends that the same two compositors who set Eld's Troilus and Cressida in the same year also set the 1609 quarto, with B being the principal compositor and A helping him "sporadically, setting somewhat less than a third of the Quarto" (6). Jackson maintains that four skeleton­formes were used and supposes that "more than one press must have been used" (3). The different compositor assignments in this edition are based on a new analysis of the spellings typical of each compositor.

We cannot determine how many copies were printed, but thirteen are extant:

Aspley Imprint
  1. British Museum (Greville 11181)
  2. Bodleian Library (Malone 34)
  3. The Huntington Library (Chalmers­Bridgewater)
  4. Folger Library (Jolley­Utterson­Tite­Locker­Lampson)
Wright Imprint
  1. The Bodleian Library (Caldecott, Malone 886)
  2. The British Museum (B. H. Bright, C.21.c.44)
  3. The John Rylands Library (Farmer­Earl Spencer)
  4. The Elizabethan Club, Yale (Bentinck­Huth)
  5. The Huntington Library (Luttrell­Steevens­Roxburghe­Daniel­Griswold­Church)
  6. The Folger Library (Sir Henry St. John Mildmay)
  7. S. W. Rosenbach's private library (Lord Caledon)
Without Title Page
  1. The Trinity College, Cambridge, Library (Capell Collection)
  2. The Harvard University Library (W. A. White) (Cf. Rollins 2.1­2)

Despite the controversy involving its authorization or lack thereof, there are surprisingly few variant readings among the extant copies, as Rollins explains:

A number of small variations may be found among the thirteen extant copies of Q. The catchword at F3 appears correctly as Speake only in the Huntington­Steevens and Bodley­Malone copies, incorrectly as The in all others. At 27.6 the British Museum­Bright copy has a semicolon, not a comma, after thee; at 47.10 apparently the Rosenbach copy has the spelling selfe, all other copies seife; at 76.4, 8 the question marks are not impressed in the Folger­Locker copy; at 89.11 the Folger­Mildmay and the Elizabethan Club texts read proface, while the rest have prophane; the number of sonnet 116, elsewhere appearing as 119, is correct in the Bodley­Caldecott copy; at 150.6 the Trinity College copy has a semicolon, not a comma, after deeds. I have observed no other variants. (2.5)

An additional variant appears between the Folger Aspley and Folder Wright imprints at 87.3 where the Aspley imprint has Charter and the Wright Char ter (spaced)

Thus, in Folger Library's Aspley (Jolley-Utterson-Tite-Locker-Lampson) imprint used as the source text for this edition, the probable misprint seife for selfe appears at 47.10; the question marks at 76.4 and 76.8 are not impressed; and the F3r catchword is misprinted as The rather than the correct Speake. Probable misprints in the Folger's Aspley imprint are as follows:

Sonnet/LineAspley Imprint Probable Reading
60.6Crawls (catchword) Crawles
68.7{s}cond life{s}econd life
89.3The (catchword)Speake
129.9In pur{s}utin pur{s}ut
A Lover's Complaint
Line NumberAspley Imprint Probable Reading
58Some- (catchword)Sometime