Shakespeare’s sequence of sonnets has attracted a far greater volume of commentary than both of the narrative poems together. As John Kerrigan notes in the introduction to his edition, however, ‘much of the literature tends to lunacy and is dispensable’.1 This lunacy comes about not just because of the desire of many readers to find Shakespeare himself in his sonnets and thus to fashion a biography from them, but also because the poems offer so many mysteries that there has been great temptation to find bizarre solutions. And yet after all this commentary, the mysteries (if in fact it was Shakespeare who wrote the sonnets; when and for whom he wrote them; what they might have to do with his own life; if the ‘characters’ can be identified; if he oversaw their publication and intended them to follow the order in which they appear; if that order embodies a coherent narrative) remain virtually unresolved. Recent scholars and editors have attempted to free the sonnets from some of the lunacy in a variety of ways. Some, like Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler, have offered readings based almost entirely on the formal properties of the poems.2 Others, such as Peter Stallybrass and Heather Dubrow, have considered some ways in which the history of editing and scholarship itself may have distorted understanding of the poems.3 Still others, like John Kerrigan and Katherine Duncan-Jones in introducing their editions of the poems, have striven to bring about a more reliable knowledge of the facts that can be ascertained about the original writing and reading of the sonnets. I shall not attempt a broad survey of this history, but address what is relevant to my present concerns.
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