A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Michael Schoenfeldt. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 521pp. ISBN-13: 978405121552; ISBN-10: 1405121556.

Tom Rooney
Central European University

Tom Rooney. "Review of A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets, ed. Michael Schoenfeldt."Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 10.1-10<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/13-3/revblack.htm>.

  1. In his introduction to this latest volume in the Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture series, editor Michael Schoenfeldt modestly claims that Shakespeare's sonnets "remain far richer and more interesting than anything we can say about them." (9) However, a number of the critics in this collection prove him wrong. The breadth and depth of critical thought that has gone into the essays is extraordinary, and there is much to consider here both for those new to the sonnets as well as more experienced readers.

  2. A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets includes 25 essays, only 3 of which have been published previously. They are grouped into nine sections covering a range of topics, from issues of genre and sonnet history to those of biography and editing, from the appearance of the sonnets in manuscript and print to the relationship of the poems to A Lover's Complaint and Shakespeare's plays. Three sections are devoted to specific themes: "Desire", "Darkness" and "Memory and Repetition". The contributors include editors of the sonnets (such as Colin Burrow) many established scholars (including Ilona Bell, Patrick Cheney and Heather Dubrow) as well as several whose voices, according to Schoenfeldt "are just emerging." (7) An old-spelling text of Shake-speare's Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint is included in an appendix.

  3. Schoenfeldt wisely opens the collection with extracts from two of the most important works on the sonnets published in the last 40 years: Stephen Booth's An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets and Helen Vendler's The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. While these are taken slightly out of context, and don't quite work as stand-alone essays, they still provide excellent introductions to the sonnets (especially for the undergraduate members of the target audience). The short extract from Booth includes his fine reading of sonnet 15, and it is nice to move from this close scrutiny of one sonnet to Vendler's guide to reading the collection as a whole. That she critiques Booth in the course of her work only makes reading these two essays one after the other particularly satisfying.

  4. Booth and Vendler are touchstones for anyone writing about the sonnets; indeed they are cited, and assessed, by a number of contributors here. By far the most perceptive of these readers is Lars Engle, who nicely contextualizes their work on the sonnets in relation to that done by William Empson. The only problem with Engle's essay is its slightly misleading title - "William Empson and the Sonnets"-as it offers no clue that it is as much concerned with Booth and Vendler as it is about the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity.

  5. One pleasure this volume holds for more experienced readers is how received ideas are challenged. For example, Heather Dubrow rigorously reevaluates the notion that sonnet collections (typified by Samuel Daniel's Delia) shared a particular organizational structure as well as a preoccupation with "desire and its interactions with rhetoric" (95). Ilona Bell challenges some entrenched assumptions about the so-called Dark Lady. And Richard Strier argues, against the conventional wisdom, that there is indeed a "deep continuity between Petrarch's sonnets and some of Shakespeare's". (74) These three lively essays should stir much debate in the classroom and in print.

  6. A different kind of pleasure comes from reading an essay that just knocks you out, one you want others to read straight away. There are three in particular that impressed me greatly. Colin Burrow's thoughtful "Editing the Sonnets" is the perfect companion to his excellent edition in Oxford's Complete Sonnets and Poems. Patrick Cheney's discussion of Much Ado about Nothing and the concept of authorship is simply brilliant; readers should see the play, and Shakespeare's career, in a different light. Finally, Jyotsna G. Singh's examination of sonnets 29 and 20 through the lens of anthropologist William Reddy's notion of "emotional regime" is sensitive, articulate and persuasive. She also deserves praise for relating her work on the page to that in the classroom; no one else mentions the topic, which is a shame as an essay or two on teaching the sonnets would have been welcome.

  7. Other highlights for me included Rayna Kalas's perceptive reading of sonnet 126, Mary North's situating of the 1609 quarto in manuscript culture and book history, Margaret Healey's overview of the importance of alchemical thought, and Amanda Watson's discussion of the importance of memory.

  8. Only one essay seems out of place here, critically and sequentially. Stephen Orgel's "Mr. Who He", which first appeared in the London Review of Books in 2002, is ostensibly an overview of editing history followed by brief reviews of several modern editions. In reality it is an outright endorsement of Burrow's recently published version. This is problematic for two reasons. First Orgel gives an incomplete account of editorial work since Booth, ignoring for example the contributions of G. Blakemore Evans and Katherine Duncan-Jones. (Perhaps the author should have revised the essay to take into account its new audience, or the editor should have commissioned a new review article of all editions from Booth to Burrow.) The other problem is that Orgel's essay immediately precedes Burrow's. The last line of the former reads: "I would not want to be without [Jonathan] Crewe, Booth, Vendler or [John] Kerrigan, but if the bookshelf had room for only one edition of Shakespeare's poems, Burrow's would be the one." (144) While many will agree with Orgel, they also may wince a little when they see whose article begins on the facing page.

  9. Is discussion of A Lover's Complaint out of place too? Brian Vickers has recently argued, to some acclaim, that Shakespeare did not write the poem. Jonathan Bate left it out of the new RSC Complete Works as a result, although he has made it available on the edition's website for as long as the pages survive in cyberspace. Only one essay is devoted exclusively to the poem here-the aptly titled "The Enigma of A Lover's Complaint" by Catherine Bates-yet it figures in the work of several others, including some I have praised above (e.g. Bell, Dubrow and Healey). How one responds to these writers will be influenced by what one thinks of Vickers, but readers should also be aware that this collection was more than likely in press before Vickers's latest work was published. Bates is the only one to mention him, and that is to a short essay he wrote a few years earlier on the subject.

  10. Despite these reservations, I believe the collection is a significant addition to the Blackwell series. In the 2006 film Venus, the aging thespian Maurice recites sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day") to the object of his desire: a girl of about twenty. Some argue that this was a ridiculous scene because the sonnet was originally addressed to a young man. However, Peter O'Toole's performance is riveting, deeply felt, unforgettable. For a few moments he brilliantly illuminates one of the 154 sonnets. There are many such moments-of a critical nature-to be found in the pages of A Companion to Shakespeare's Sonnets. It should stimulate thinking and writing on the sonnets for many years to come.

    Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).