© 1995, 1998 Hardy M. Cook and Ian Lancashire. ISBN 1-896016-00-6
Most of what we are ever likely to know about these works begins with appreciating what this simple-looking book is and contains. For this reason, we begin with an account of the quarto volume itself. Because anyone who writes on this work must be mindful of E. K. Chambers's observation in 1930--"More folly has been written about the sonnets than about any other Shakespearean topic" (1.561)--the introduction next describes how history has received them. It might be said, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" ... forgiveness, that is, for adding to an already overwhelming body of historical scholarship and critical analysis, and for doing so electronically in as open a forum as the World Wide Web. Ronald Bond in his generous review of the first RET volume asked why the series should turn to Shakespeare's sonnets, one of the first publicly available literary texts on-line. Our reason was to find out whether computer editing could uncover something interesting about one of the most familiar books in English literature.
Our introduction thus moves into a discussion of some useful applications of computer-based text analysis. In some ways, what it does best is to help us to notice the obvious: the variant spellings of words, and word frequencies and collocations. Orthography has some bearing on the establishment of a good text, and on Shakespeare's own spelling at this time. Word frequencies help understand content and style.
Although it would truly be folly to argue that the meaning of the sonnets depends on reconstructing what went on in G. Eld's shop when the Sonnets was being produced, many scholars before and since Chambers have paid attention to the details of how this quarto was printed. Following Alice Walker and Philip Williams in reviewing the distinctively different spellings of a few words, MacD. P. Jackson found that two compositors worked on the quarto in Eld's shop. Jackson associated them with the two men who composed his edition of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Hyder Rollins by then had identified half a dozen variant readings among the thirteen copies. Randall McLeod employed his own invention, a collating device, to detect the kinds of changes in the titlepage when the name of John Wright replaced William Aspley as the stated bookseller of the quarto. These variations show that Eld took seriously the need to produce a book that was both accurate--his pressmen stopped the printing of sheets on formes in order to change the type used to set certain pages--and visually attractive. Such painstaking studies all confirm Katherine DuncanJones' argument that Eld and the publisher Thorpe created a product that was both marketable and respectable, one of which Shakespeare would not be ashamed. Nothing points to the 1609 quarto as a product of unscrupulous entrepreneurs interested only in a quick profit. This fact has a bearing on how the sonnets, especially, were publicly regarded in the early seventeenth century.
Computer-based word analysis also has a modest role in criticism. Unlikely as it may seem to readers who are, by training, intent on ambiguity, irony, and other textual absences or shadows, a text's most frequent words may signal its main preoccupations and meaning. In sonnet 105 Shakespeare explicitly linked the theme of his book to three words and their synonyms. Frequency analysis helps to evaluate his reading of his own work.
A historical perspective can also make readers suspicious to what degree they, as twentieth-century speakers of English, understand even the most common of words as Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have. Any word's meaning arises both from the contexts in which a period employs that word and from how the language industry of the time--the lexicographers and their dictionaries--explain it. Studying a text in a very large computer-readable corpus of Early Modern English texts enables us to recover ancient beliefs about language, beliefs that, as the centuries process, will gradually require his readers to translate his works into their own English.
The last part of the introduction concerns the electronic edition that makes analysis of this kind possible. This edition makes available as much of the basic technical information as we can put in machine-readable form in the hope that future researchers will be able to discover more about this remarkable book. The character set employed here corresponds to the type used to set the quarto. The encoding scheme allows us to relate words and phrases in the text to the bibliographical structure employed by Eld and his printers in making the book. With this kind of electronic text, we have tested some conclusions drawn by others about the 1609 quarto. As a result, there is some new information here. However, we believe that what others will do with electronic texts such as this will far outweigh our own observations. Like many others in the 1990s, we are finding our way with computer-aided literary analysis.
Hardy M. Cook is mainly responsible for the transcription and for the sections on the quarto and on the reception of the sonnets. Ian Lancashire is mainly responsible for the text encoding, for the section on text analysis, and for the appendices. We have shared the rest of this edition.
We wish to thank the Internet Shakespeare Editions, edited by Michael Best, for making available its images of pages in the facsimile of the Chalmers-Bridgewater Copy (Aspley imprint) in the Huntington Library.
Our sincere gratitude also goes out to two scholars who read and made detailed criticisms of this edition, and to members of WIPE (Work in Progress in English) at the University of Toronto for their helpful comments on the introductory section treating computer applications.
March 1998; revised March 2004