First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Available from Routledge and other online retailers.

For more than four centuries, cultural preferences, literary values, critical contexts, and personal tastes have governed readers’ responses to Shakespeare’s sonnets. Early private readers often considered these poems in light of the religious, political, and humanist values by which they lived. Other seventeenth- and eighteenth- century readers, such as stationers and editors, balanced their personal literary preferences against the imagined or actual interests of the literate public to whom they marketed carefully curated editions of the sonnets, often successfully. Whether public or private, however, many disparate sonnet interpretations from the sonnets’ first two centuries in print have been overlooked by modern sonnet scholarship, with its emphasis on narrative and amorous readings of the 1609 sequence. First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets reintroduces many early readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, arguing that studying the priorities and interpretations of these previous readers expands the modern critical applications of these poems, thereby affording them numerous future applications. This volume draws upon book history, manuscript studies, and editorial theory to recover four lost critical approaches to the sonnets, highlighting early readers’ interests in Shakespeare’s classical adaptations, political applicability, religious themes, and rhetorical skill during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

First Readers was published by Routledge on September 23, 2020. Chapter summaries are available on, and “The Author to the Reader,” the Introduction, and all of the first chapter are visible on Google Books. For Faith’s other work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, please see her doctoral thesis, “New-found methods and . . . compounds strange: Reading the 1640 Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent. (St Andrews, 2012); available online from the University of St Andrews; the chapter “John Benson’s 1640 Poems and its Literary Precedents,” in Canonising Shakespeare: Stationers and the Book Trade, 1640-1737, eds. Emma Depledge and Peter Kirwan (Cambridge University Press, 2017); or the blog post “Sizing Shakespeare’s Sonnets” now available on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s The Collation.

Faith’s article “Manuscript Precedents for Editorial Practices in John Benson’s Poems: Written by Wil. Shake-Speare. Gent.,” also deals with early readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets and is forthcoming from Shakespeare Quarterly.

Faith Acker

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