On this day… 20th May, 1609 – Thomas Thorpe first published Shakespeare’s work
On 20 May 1609, the publisher Thomas Thorpe stepped off Ludgate Hill into Stationers’ Hall, and registered what was to become perhaps the most famous poetic works of all time: Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It was a slim volume on publication, containing 154 poems over 67 pages, and the edition is now extremely rare: only 13 copies survive. But its influence has been all-encompassing, providing a template for language, for literature, for love, ever since. Recent years have seen the sonnets disseminated in ways that Shakespeare could never have imagined. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is quoted 5m times on the internet.
The first 17 poems, traditionally called the procreation sonnets, are addressed to a young man urging him to marry and have children in order to immortalize his beauty by passing it to the next generation. Other sonnets express the speaker’s love for a young man; brood upon loneliness, death, and the transience of life; seem to criticise the young man for preferring a rival poet; express ambiguous feelings for the speaker’s mistress; and pun on the poet’s name. The final two sonnets are allegorical treatments of Greek epigrams referring to the “little love-god” Cupid.
Whether Thorpe used an authorised manuscript from Shakespeare or an unauthorised copy is unknown.