This letter from SOS President Matthew Cossolotto appears in the September 2009 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
My name be buried — marking the 400 anniversary of Shakespeare’s posthumously published sonnets
“A booke called Shakespeares Sonnettes” was registered for publication on May 20, 1609, by publisher Thomas Thorpe. That much we know for sure. It is assumed by most scholars that the book bearing the rather bland title Shake-speare’s Sonnets was published shortly thereafter.
It’s fair to say this book, which contains 154 sonnets and a short narrative poem titled “A Lover’s Complaint,” has perplexed casual readers and expert commentators alike over the past four centuries. Winston Churchill’s famous 1939 description of the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” can aptly be applied to the publication of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.
Questions and uncertainties abound regarding just about everything associated with what is arguably the most famous collection of poems in the English language, perhaps in any language. While I am fascinated by all of the mysteries surrounding the sonnets – including such things as the identity of the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady, and the Rival Poet – this column will focus on one specific issue: The hypothesis that this book of sonnets was published posthumously in 1609.
I thought members would be interested in a quick progress report on the ongoing project I have referred to as the Posthumous Sonnets Project. In recognition of the 400th anniversary of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, the SOS Board of Trustees has declared 2009 to be the Year of the Sonnets.
I talked about the Posthumous Sonnets Project during my presentation at the annual conference in White Plains last October and encouraged SOS members and others undertake a cooperative research effort. Since then I have launched a posthumous sonnets blog at http://www.ShakespearesSonnets1609.wordpress.com and have formed an informal posthumous sonnets group (PSG) to brainstorm ideas, compare notes, and test hypotheses and possible scenarios. The deliberations of the PSG have been quite useful and I want to thank participants for their valuable input.
We haven’t completed our work but I believe we have hit on many key pieces of evidence that support the hypothesis that the book of Shakespeare’s Sonnets published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609 went to press after the poet’s death. The idea of this project, ultimately, is initiate a complete communications effort behind the posthumous sonnets hypothesis before the end of this year.
The most important element of the communications plan is the publication of a research paper or monograph that lays out a compelling case for posthumous publication. We also expect to issue a series of press releases, craft several shorter articles for publication in various newspapers and magazines, circulate our findings online via blogs and even YouTube videos, conduct interviews with the media, and go forth aggressively to deliver presentations and lectures on this topic at Shakespeare-related conferences and seminars, along with community organizations, libraries, high schools and colleges. I plan to present the findings of the research on our annual joint conference scheduled for this November in Houston.
I believe this research – and the PR effort behind it – has enormous potential for positively shaping the Shakespeare authorship debate in the years to come. It’s essential that we take advantage of the news “hook” provided by the 400th anniversary to make the best case we can for posthumous publication.
Making the Case for Posthumous Publication
In looking into the posthumous publication topic, I have been somewhat surprised that the posthumous case has not yet been fully developed. Several writers have touched on the posthumous publication topic – including Thomas Looney in his landmark Shakespeare Identified. But it is often treated on an offhand manner, almost as a throw-away item worthy of only a few supporting arguments. In effect, I think the posthumous publication issue has been given short shrift over the years and deserves much more scholarly focus.
Biographers of the Stratfordian persuasion cannot even contemplate the idea that the 1609 book of sonnets was published after the death of the poet – no matter how much compelling evidence is staring them in the face. Nor have many Stratfordian skeptics over the years been motivated to compile the strongest possible case for posthumous publication. The notion of posthumous publication is anathema to Stratfordians and most anti-Stratfordians for one simple reason: establishing that the poet William Shakespeare died before 1609 would eliminate just about every authorship candidate with two exceptions – Marlowe (died 1593) and Oxford (died 1604). Taking all of the available evidence into account, Oxford’s death in 1604 fits the posthumous publication theory like a glove. Marlowe – although dead by 1609 – would appear to have died much too early to be the author of the sonnets, not to mention many other works of Shakespeare.
Every other major authorship candidate was still alive in 1609 and for several years thereafter: Roger Manners, fifth earl of Rutland (died 1612); Henry Neville (died 1615); William Shakspere of Stratford (died 1616); Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (died 1621); Francis Bacon (died 1626); William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby (died 1642). The 1609 posthumous publication theory would eliminate all of these candidates from consideration.
Oxfordians, in particular, should be keen to make the posthumous publication of the sonnets a central plank in the case for Oxford’s authorship – hence this Posthumous Sonnets Project. One of the arguments we’re developing relates specifically to the Stratfordian paradigm. My observation about the Stratfordian authorship theory for many years is that most so-called Stratfordians are emotionally – almost religiously — attached to their theory of authorship. This strong belief in the theory prevents Stratfordians from seriously considering the substantial evidence that contradicts their theory. Theirs is a firmly held belief – similar in many respects to faith in the pre-Copernican geocentric model of the solar system.
Given this firmly held belief in the Stratfordian theory, there are many blind spots that keep Stratfordians from seeing evidence that tends to undermine their belief. Stratfordians will see the evidence against the Stratford theory only when they believe there is ground for reasonable doubt. Until then, they will continue to ignore any and all countervailing evidence.
This gives rise to the following imaginative scenario: Imagine that this “booke called Shakespeares Sonnettes” was registered and published exactly as we have it today, only 10 years later — in 1619 instead of 1609. I present this scenario in the spirit of opening minds so the evidence compiled for posthumous publication has a fighting chance of not being reflexively resisted and ignored.
What would have to change about this book of sonnets if it had been published in 1619 instead of 1609? Clearly, if published in 1619 – three years after the death of William of Stratford – those of the Stratfordian persuasion would readily accept this as a posthumous publication. Every argument, every piece of evidence that Oxfordians present for posthumous publication in 1609 would be admitted without objection by Stratfordians for a 1619 publication.
Posthumous publication in 1619 would explain, for Stratfordians and Oxfordians alike, all of the following:
· The absence of a dedication by the poet himself, even though William Shakespeare wrote dedications for his two narrative poems “Venus & Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece”. Shakespeare knew how to write a dedication.
· If still alive, a poet would normally contribute some kind of dedication in a publication containing his poetry. It’s highly unusual not to have a dedication from the poet.
· The generic title of the book – Shake-speare’s Sonnets – suggests that this is the complete set of sonnets by Shakespeare and that we should not expect to see any more sonnets from this poet.
· The apparent absence of the poet from the entire publication process, that helps to explain the number of errors contained in the text, including, for example, the inexplicable repetition of the phrase “My sinful earth” in “Sonnet 146” and the absence of a concluding couplet in “Sonnet 126”.
· The total silence of the poet after the publication of the sonnets. If the sonnets were pirated – the consensus view among Stratfordians – surely a living poet who was as famous and favored by powerful patrons as the Stratfordians insist would be in a position to complain and/or correct the record about the sonnets. The total silence of the poet after publication speaks compellingly to the posthumous theory. Katherine Duncan-Jones tries to make the case that Shakespeare approved the publication and was even involved in the publication process to some degree. But she can’t provide any evidence to support this notion. Duncan-Jones suggests that Shakespeare had fled to Stratford to avoid a plague outbreak in London and therefore couldn’t contribute a dedication. This strikes me as a feeble attempt to overcome the obvious absence of the poet from the entire project.
· The dating of the composition of the sonnets would also support the posthumous theory. Most scholars believe the sonnets were composed in the early-to-mid 1590s, with a few sonnets written in the first few years of the seventeenth century. Curiously, few if any scholars believe any of the sonnets were written or revised after 1603/1604.
· Many references in the sonnets themselves to the poet’s advanced age, his anticipation of his impending death, and his expectation that his name would be forgotten while the name of his beloved would enjoy “immortal life.”
· Finally, I’ll just mention the coup-de-grace, the one piece of evidence that has yet to be adequately explained or refuted by Stratfordians: the reference to the poet in the dedication as “our ever-living poet.” There is no serious argument to be made against the obvious interpretation that “our ever-living poet” means the poet, William Shakespeare, was dead by 1609. Stratfordians have been trying to explain this phrase away for centuries. If the sonnets had been published in 1619 instead of 1609, Stratfordians would not have to twist themselves into rhetorical knots to rationalize this straightforward description of the poet. They could accept the phrase as meaning what it so patently means: The poet is already dead. Stratfordian Donald Foster admitted as much in a 1987 Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 102 article “Master W. H.: R.I.P.” He said: “In a fairly extensive search, I have not found any instance of ever-living used in a Renaissance text to describe a living mortal, including, even, panegyrics on Queen Elizabeth . . . though it does appear sometimes in eulogies for the dead.” (42-54) Jonathan Bate is even more concise. In The Genius of Shakespeare, Bate wrote: “’Ever-living’ was an epithet applied to dead poets, not living ones. The point was that they were dead, but they lived eternally through their work.” (63)
The above litany does not include all of the evidence and arguments we’re considering and I have only provided a very cursory overview of the supporting information. I just wanted to give members a sense of this project is attempting to do. My goal is to assemble the best evidence so we can make the following claim: Posthumous publication is the only viable explanation for all of the evidence. Some theories — such as pirated publication — can explain some of the evidence. But we can’t cherry-pick the evidence. We need to lay it all out there and come up with a reasonable and responsible explanation for all of the evidence. We must find the cleanest, simplest explanation for the available evidence.
All things considered, I believe posthumous publication of the sonnets is the explanation for all of the evidence associated with the publication of “a booke called Shakespeares Sonnettes” in 1609. We’re hard at work to make that case in the most compelling way possible. If you have any ideas, pertinent quotes, or supporting research that you think should be included in this project, please let me know. I’m eager to hear from others who have researched this topic over the years. No sense reinventing the wheel if others have already assembled some compelling evidence and arguments on behalf of the posthumous sonnets theory.
Matthew Cossolotto, President
Shakespeare Oxford Society
PO Box 808, Yorktown Heights, NY 10598-9998