The Folger Shakespeare Library has ten copies of the second edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets (STC 22344).
The first edition appeared in 1609; the second one was presumably published around the end of 1639 with an imprint date of 1640, probably for marketing reasons, a practice which was not uncommon. 1 As Hyder Edward Rollins explains in his A new variorum edition of Shakespeare, this second edition of the sonnets was John Benson’s piracy of the text of Thomas Thorpe’s 1609 edition. Scholars have generally been unimpressed with Benson’s edition, in large part because of its reordering of the sonnet sequence: Benson “jumble[d] together in a new, unauthorized, and deceptive order all but eight sonnets (18, 19, 43, 56, 75, 76, 96, 126)—some of them with verbal changes designed to make the verses apply to a woman instead of a man […].” 2 (More recent scholarship has recuperated some aspects of Benson’s edition, however. See, for example, Megan Heffernan’s article in the current issue Shakespeare Quarterly, “Turning Sonnets into Poems: Textual Affect and John Benson’s Metaphysical Shakespeare.” 3
John Benson was certainly tinkering with the text, but many owners have also been tampering with the physical book. That becomes clear when one begins to survey all ten of the Folger copies.
When the Folger collections have more than one copy of an edition, the one that is identified as “copy 1” is often the “best” one. And indeed STC 22344 copy 1 is, as George Daniel put it in pen on the front paste-down in July 1844, “a very fine copy.” It has all its parts: the engraved portrait by William Marshall, the preliminaries (*4), and the book proper (A-L8 M4). Both title pages, on fol. *1r and on A1r, are preserved (which is not always the case), and all is held by what looks a contemporary, simply blind-tooled leather binding, with the bookplate of former owner Thomas Jolley on the front paste-down right below Daniel’s little note. Those and other traces left by previous owners are still there and waiting to be studied.
In contrast to copy 1, copy 10 seems to be, as one could expect on the basis of its ordinal, in the worst condition of all copies. The leather binding already shows the wear and tear of an intensive usage, and when the book is opened, the damage to this object is obvious.
The copy-specific annotations in the Hamnet record for this copy sound like an understatement: “Imperfect: lacking the portrait, gathering *, leaves A1, B3, and D4-5.” Moreover, fol. M4 is partially torn away, and the entire object looks pretty shabby.
But what a wealth of information when one starts to survey this poor little object. It contains many notes of different owners, including some verses. From a scholar’s point of view, this copy deserves perhaps more attention than many of the other “perfect” ones in the Folger’s collection.
Whereas the poorly rich tenth copy bears witness to a vast history of contemporary and later uses of the book, copy 2 represents the perfect example of a totally different world, the world of nineteenth-century bibliophilia. What looks like an impeccable copy—“Perfect, with original frontispiece & both titles”—in a splendid gold-tooled, red goatskin binding with gilt edges and opulent marbled paste-downs and flyleaves, may be in many ways richly poor in the eyes of present-day curators and scholars. However beautiful and intact the binding may be, the actual textblock is not any longer in a true pristine state. Of course, the margins have been trimmed down in order to gilt the edges. The original binding—starting from the assumption that there was one—has been removed along with the original flyleaves. In addition, the leaves show a number of repairs, and the portrait has been mounted. Not as “perfect” or “original” as the book lover James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (1820–1889) and his contemporaries may have believed.
But it could have been worse: the hand-written annotations in the book are preserved and not, as was so often the case, washed out by puristic men in the trade. As you can see on the following image, the first gatherings of copy 2 contains a series of corrections and alterations in a later hand.
Copy five in the series is my favorite. Interestingly it comes in a very similar binding as the first copy. The edges are not painted red but a blue or green that has almost completely faded. The front flyleaf bears a fingerprint testifying to the men and women working in the book business, and the edges of this and the following leaves show the traces of the oil which was released by the leather turn-ins. What I also like is that you can still feel the dent caused by the moveable type. It has not been pressed out in this copy, as it was done by so many other copies that made it into the nineteenth century.
Possibly a reading lamp caused the burning away of the corners of the first leaves. Shakespeare’s sonnets themselves, however, survived the threatening fire. And we are treated to an object that carries with it marks of use as well as poetry.
- H.E. Rollins (ed.), A new variorum of Shakespeare. The sonnets. Philadelphia & London, 1944. Vol. 2, pp. 18–19. We know that Christophe Plantin sometimes post-dated editions to make them appear more up to date, for instance when the books still had to be shipped to the Frankfurt book fair.
- Rollins, A new variorum, vol. 2, p. 20.
- Megan Heffernan, “Turning Sonnets into Poems: Textual Affect and John Benson’s Metaphysical Shakespeare” Shakespeare Quarterly 64 (2013): 71-98.