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Leicester Special Collections

Section 5: 'Words, words, words'

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Front page of an 'unofficial' 1609 edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Image courtesy: British Library.

In the preface of the First Folio, Ben Jonson, who was Shakespeare’s rival poet and dramatist, wrote what is arguably the most famous eulogy to his late friend: ‘Soul of the age! The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage (…) He was not of an age but for all time!’

The elevating discourse on Shakespeare that spread around the world after the 18th century and the celebrations of his death every centinary have led some to interpret Jonson’s sentence as a claim for Shakespeare being above his own time; as if his genius and his work were hovering above us all for centuries past and centuries to come – immortal, eternal, timeless... This view has been lately replaced by a more historically contextualized perception of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal. As Terry Eagleton points out, Shakespeare is ‘for all times’ precisely because he is not above time, but because in each century, each historical period, each generation of readers and theatre-goers for over 400 years have found in his plays and poems something that speaks closely to them, to their own times, in the here and now.

Neither does the genius of Shakespeare reside in creating original plots and characters. Originality as a measure of greatness in literature is an 18th century Romantic concept. Instead, Renaissance writers, poets and dramatists alike, were expected to use the materials they had at hand and, in doing so, they were expected to try to surpass them. Shakespeare's mastery was in his outstanding capacity to copy, imitate, combine, amplify, contest, and creatively modify the sources he selected and used.

The result of his creative approach led to the production and publication of three long poems which were immensily popular during his lifetime. His 154 sonnets were unoffically published and, we understand, circulated widely among his friends and acquaintances. Howevever, when it comes to his dramatic writing, no text was officially published under his name until seven years after his death when his friends put together a collection of 36 plays in a huge volume that we now call the First Folio.

(Hamlet, 2.2)

Section 5: 'Words, words, words'