First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1590-1790

Faith Acker. First Readers of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1590-1790. Routledge, 2020.

The EMPOP interview with the author

EMPOP: Congratulations, Faith, on the publication of your book. It’s a major event for EMPOP. The volume counts as one of the three book projects that the original EMPOP stars discussed in draft, when we started meeting on Zoom (before everyone else started using Zoom). It also hosts EMPOP’s first appearance in print:

EMPOP: Your book starts introducing non-dramatic poetry manuscripts to Shakespeare studies with the very first volume that we chose to transcribe at EMPOP: Folger MS V.a.339. You reproduced an entire page opening featuring transcripts of several poems from The Passionate Pilgrim. You say that the compiler must have copied the poems from the printed book. You also argue that the compiler intentionally selected and arranged the poems. What do you want readers to understand about this manuscript, or what does it demonstrate about the importance of manuscripts for Shakespeare’s sonnets?

Faith Acker: Shakespeare has been a household name for centuries, and so the manuscripts that contain extracts from his works have become disproportionately popular. It’s hard to tell from the images, but you and I (and all of EMPOP) have worked with V.a.339, and it is tiny! I think it’s a little bit larger than a pack of index cards, and not more than an inch thick. It has almost six hundred pages of text, although they weren’t all written in the seventeenth century, and maybe eight or ten of those have extracts from Shakespeare’s sonnets or plays. The collection on its own doesn’t single out Shakespeare; he just happens to be one of many authors the compiler read, and one of the also many authors whose words or images the author preferred. Even the leaf I discuss in my book doesn’t really prioritize words that are Shakespeare’s; only two out of the six poems are his! So this volume really illustrates one of my book’s overarching arguments: that Shakespeare’s sonnets weren’t really anything extraordinary at the outset. People read them, and they liked them, but early readers didn’t copy out his complete collections or treat them in ways that were unusual. The sonnets were enjoyable poems in a sea of other, presumably equally enjoyable poems.

EMPOP: Unless you count a single sheet of paper at the Bodleian, the next manuscript to appear in the book happens to be the very next Folger volume that EMPOP began to transcribe, Folger MS V.a.103. You discuss this manuscript even though Sonnet 2 has been cut out of it:

Folger Shakespeare Library MS V.a.103, ff. 32v, 33v.

EMPOP: Wouldn’t it be good to transcribe the sister manuscript to this one (Portland MS PwV 37), if the University of Nottingham would ever facilitate that? What do these and the other manuscript copies of Sonnet 2 tell us about the relatively unique circulation of this poem?

Faith Acker: Oh, absolutely, yes! I think we would all like to see the Portland MS digitized and then transcribed. Being able to compare these texts would give us invaluable insight into the compiler’s methods. Where Sonnet 2 is concerned, the Portland MS and Folger V.a.103 seem to provide more evidence that some of Sonnet 2’s early readers didn’t encounter any of Shakespeare’s sonnets in print, but rather found this isolated poem in their colleagues’ verse miscellanies, where they also didn’t necessarily know it was Shakespeare’s. As with V.a.339, this is another instance of Shakespeare’s poetry being given equal weight alongside other equally (or more) enjoyable poems. 

EMPOP: Do you think that we should post scans of the few pages that you have published on V.a.339 and V.a.103 on the EMPOP webpages for both of these manuscripts?

Faith Acker: I’d love to do this as soon as I can get access to an e-text of my book, and if Routledge will allow it. Actually, I think the V.a.339 bits should be available on Google Books, which has a preview of the full first chapter.

EMPOP: Is it safe to say that MS V.a.148 would get your vote for the next manuscript for the Folger to photograph for EMPOP transcription?

Faith Acker: I certainly think MS V.a.148 merits full digitization and much more attentive study. I’ve actually already photographed and transcribed all the poetry in the manuscript, and I’m hoping that I will be able to edit it for publication sometime in the future, either as a print facsimile like Ernest W. Sullivan’s excellent edition of The First and Second Dalhousie Manuscripts, or digitally, in the style of the excellent Digital Donne pages hosted at Texas A&M University.

EMPOP: You cite more manuscripts and unique copies of printed books from the Folger than from any other library. Do you have anything to say about that?

Faith Acker: The Folger Shakespeare Library has supported me at every stage of this project, and I don’t think I can even express how grateful I am. I first met many of those manuscripts and unique copies back in 2008, when I was a graduate student working on a MA dissertation. I was able to revisit those and several others at more leisure in the summer of 2011 when you and I participated in Peter Beal’s Folger seminar “In Praise of Scribes: Early Modern Manuscript Culture,” which transformed many of my approaches to early modern manuscripts. And, more recently, I had the spectacular luxury of working at the Folger as an independent scholar during the year or so in which I was revising my doctoral thesis into this book. It’s probably safe to say that this book is completely indebted to the Folger’s collections, librarians and support staff, and larger community. 

EMPOP: What’s the most important source, for your book, from another repository, besides the Folger? This question excludes the Folger’s copy of The Passionate Pilgrim and the remarkable Sammelband of which it is now a part. Do you have to say one of the copies of Thorpe’s 1609 edition of the Sonnets—or of Benson’s 1640 edition? You wouldn’t choose another manuscript, would you: George Morley’s wonderful little verse miscellany (Westminster Abbey MS 41); or St. John’s College, Cambridge MS S.23; or Beinecke, Osborn MS b205?

Faith Acker: Oh, this is hard! I think this is like choosing one’s favorite child. Benson’s edition is at the heart of my research, but, ironically, I don’t have a specific non-Folger copy that stands out. I also learned a great deal from the Capell collection and manuscripts at Trinity College’s Wren Library in Cambridge, and from the several British Library manuscripts that contain Shakespearean sonnets, along with the three very different manuscripts containing Sonnet 2 that you reference in your question. Beinecke Osborn MS b205 gets a few pages in the book because it and several other manuscripts seem to treat Sonnet 2 in very similar ways and surround that poem with similar texts.

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library MS Osborn b205, f. 54v.

Faith Acker: But the sources that really influenced my book the most tend to be not the typical ones (if one can call any early modern manuscript “typical”) but the odd ones: the musical setting for Sonnet 116 in NYPL MS Drexel 4257… 

New York Public Library MS Drexel 4257, no. 33

Faith Acker: …or the two copies of Sonnet 106 in Pierpont Morgan MA 1057 and Rosenbach Foundation Archives MS 1083/16. Those latter two are particularly fascinating; they don’t get a lot of space in the book, but they complicate questions about the sonnets’ early readers in some really important ways. It’s likely that the compilers were somehow affiliated, or shared a common source for the sonnet, but there’s less overlap between the two collections than you might expect. Each manuscript is really distinct. The Rosenbach one, probably assembled by Robert Bishop, is really hard to classify (you and I have even disagreed about whether it could count as a “commonplace book,” given its initial running headers) and begins as this fairly formal collection of poems on life, women, and death before wandering into proper miscellany territory. It challenges definitions of manuscript genre as well as creating a perplexing riddle for scholars of the sonnets, and I still don’t exactly know what to make of it! It might not be the most important non-Folger volume for my book, but it has certainly challenged my thinking on numerous occasions.

EMPOP: Are we making too big a deal about the manuscripts just because we’re manuscript nerds? Or are they a crucial part of the intervention that your book makes to scholarship on Shakespeare’s sonnets? How do or should these manuscripts help reorient study of the sonnets?

Faith Acker: As a fellow manuscript nerd, I guess it’s possible that we are making too much of these manuscripts, but I don’t think so. Ironically, one problem that I have with a lot of the research we do on Shakespeare is that so much of our work is Shakespeare-centric. Obviously, that’s the point of research on Shakespeare, but here’s why this becomes a problem. By the mid-eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s texts were one of the standards of English literature, thanks, in great part, to his renowned eighteenth-century editors and to the publishing dynasties that made his works accessible and respectable. Editors like Edward Capell and Edmond Malone weren’t just studying Shakespeare, but they were also buying all the editions they could find, consulting and advising about the “best” editions, and purchasing and collecting other texts specifically because (or as) they related to Shakespeare. The notebooks of nineteenth-century collector James Orchard Halliwell Phillips, some of which the Folger also holds, are another terrific example of this. He would buy books, cut out the pages that were relevant to Shakespeare, and glue these into scrapbooks. (I think you and I have even discussed the possibility that the missing Shakespearean sonnet from Folger MS V.a.103 might be located in one of these scrapbooks). So the result of this is that we have a disproportionate number of editions of Shakespeare, and even a disproportionate number of loose pages or other ephemera that relate to Shakespeare, and people are so focused on Shakespeare that arguments about his books go both ways. Someone might argue that Shakespeare’s books were obviously popular because there are so few copies left that they were literally read to pieces, and someone else might argue that Shakespeare’s books were clearly valued because so many copies have been so carefully preserved. The manuscripts I mention in my book are disproportionately famous specifically because they contain Shakespearean sonnets. And so part of the point of my book is that these attitudes towards Shakespeare’s specific value exist because of those later editors and collectors. When a Shakespearean sonnet appears in a manuscript, it is almost never attributed to Shakespeare, and it is usually squashed between lots of poems that aren’t studied any more even though most of those other poems were–as far as we can tell from the texts we have left–copied out and shared as frequently or more frequently than any of Shakespeare’s sonnets in the century after they were written. At least where short lyric poems are concerned, the poems of Donne, Drayton, Henry King, William Strode, and dozens of their contemporaries were just as popular as those of Shakespeare (if not actually more popular) for the better part of the seventeenth century. Thus, in many cases, these manuscripts show Shakespeare’s lack of exceptionality. Most of these early collectors weren’t transcribing whole sequences of Shakespeare and celebrating his rhetoric above all other writers. Instead, they were responding to ideas and images in a host of different poems by many different authors, and collecting these all together, and treating them all in relatively similar ways. Sonnet 2, in particular, just happened to get caught up in that flow, and then the collections with the sonnet in them have been highlighted because of the sonnet, and now–four hundred years later–it’s easy to say that the sonnet was valued by these early readers and completely ignore the dozens or hundreds of other equally “valued” poems that surround Shakespeare’s sonnet or sonnets in every single extant miscellany.

EMPOP: You have done a wide range of teaching, much of it online. I imagine that your rich teaching experience made you better prepared for the pandemic than many other college teachers were. Has the research for this book informed your teaching? I know that it will improve at least one person’s teaching of Shakespeare’s non-dramatic poetry.

Faith Acker: Actually, I think the opposite is true–this book owes a lot to my recent teaching experience! I was teaching at two community colleges near the Folger while writing the book, including two sections of a wonderful general education course at Northern Virginia Community College called “Introduction to Literature” in, I think, the fall of 2018, right when I was finishing Chapter 3 (on Sonnet 2) and working through Chapter 6 (on all the manuscripts and adaptations that didn’t fit anywhere else). We read everything from Antigone to poems by Harryette Mullen, and I had my students make commonplace books similar to the ones you do with your students at Virginia Commonwealth University, and then in the middle of the semester I let them transcribe pages of V.a.339 in our first EMPOP transcribathon, and the whole process completely upended some of the plans I had had for my book. Both my classes were full of these smart, funny, inquisitive students who were going into really challenging, practical fields like engineering and medicine and IT and political science, and they asked amazing questions. So I’d assign a text, and maybe pull up a digital image from LUNA or another repository, and my students would talk about the text and the image and different readings as the week progressed, and then on Friday or Saturday I would be sitting in front of a similar manuscript in the Folger library, trying to write this formal academic book with my students’ questions ringing in my head. We had, I think, two weeks of early modern literature, and we might have read one Shakespearean sonnet, but I started imagining these students in my book’s audience, and I think it made me explain myself much more clearly than I had before, when I was expecting my readers to include lots of, shall we say, manuscript nerds, and maybe some book history nerds as well. So I’m really grateful to those students, and also to the students I had in other sections of that same class in the spring term, when I was finishing the book, for making me think about my own readers much more broadly and intentionally. 

EMPOP: That’s very interesting. I think that my students have changed and clarified my academic writing as well, but not all of my reviewers like that—and not many of my students are likely to read my writing anyway. 

In our first author interview, we discussed with Erin McCarthy the Marriotts’ claim to being EMPOP’s favorite print-publishers or booksellers. Would you like to nominate Benson for that distinction?

Faith Acker: Benson is certainly my favorite early stationer, but I’m not sure that he would win the votes of all our EMPOPstars. However, he has a lot in common with the Marriotts. As you discuss extensively in your own recent book Religion around John Donne, communities of local stationers could sometimes create niche markets around certain authors (such as, in your examples, John Donne and Francis Quarles). An example you use in your book is St Dunstan’s in the West, where John Marriott was a bookseller; so, too, was John Benson. Perhaps instead of narrowing it down to a favorite print-publisher or bookseller we can celebrate the greater St Dunstan’s community!

EMPOP: I can support an EMPOP sponsorship of the booksellers of St Dunstan’s churchyard. We may not want to let the Marriott/Benson rivalry die so quickly, however. It could be fun to reenact if we’re ever allowed to travel again. Thank you, Faith, for answering these questions and for sharing your research with us.

Faith Acker: Thank you as well! I really appreciate both EMPOP’s support over the years as well as this invitation to talk about my book!