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Thomas Thorpe Issues the First Edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets


From a copy in the Folger Shakespeare Library.

On May 20, 1609 English publisher and "procurer of manuscripts" Thomas Thorpe issued from London, without the author's permission, Shake-Speare's Sonnets. The volume contained 152 previously unpublished sonnets, and two (numbers 138 and 144) that had previously been published in a 1599 miscellany entitled The Passionate Pilgrim. This earlier collection, falsely attributed in its entirety to Shakespeare, had been published by William Jaggard, who would later, in 1623, publish the so-called "First Folio" of Shakespeare's plays.

Thorpe's "apparent disregard for Shakespeare's permission earned him a poor reputation, although modern author Katherine Duncan-Jones has argued that he was not such a 'scoundrel' as he was portrayed, and the amiable and admirable [Edward] Blount would certainly not associate with him if he were a scoundrel. It has even been suggested that Shakespeare did sell his manuscript to Thorpe, because of his acquaintance with [Ben] Jonson as an actor in Sejanus, who may have recommended Thorpe to him as a good publisher. The dedication, which is addressed to a mysterious Mr. W.H., may have been written either by Shakespeare himself or by Thorpe. Popular belief, however, is that Shakespeare is the author of the dedication, but the identity of Mr. W.H. is not known. Thorpe was probably responsible for the arrangement of the sonnets, with 1-17 being the "procreation sonnets", 18-126 being love sonnets to the Fair Youth (for the most part), and 127-154 being written on a variety of subjects, including politics, sex, and the Dark Lady. Critics have failed to agree whether or not his arrangement was the most apt, but most detect a logical coherence in the order, which is generally retained today: (Wikipedia article on Thomas Thorpe, accessed 05-21-2009).

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