March 25th

Shakespeare’s poetry was not hard to come by. Editions of Venus and Adonis were printed and re-printed, and along with them versions of The Rape of Lucrece, the sonnets, and “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” For all the printing and popularity such poems enjoyed, though, John Benson’s octavo edition of Shakespeare’s poetry represents something of a watershed moment in the imagination of Shakespeare as a poet. Printed in 1640, the collection includes poems by Ben Johnson and John Milton dedicated to Shakespeare, as well as some of Shakespeare’s more minor poems like A Lover’s Complaint and “The Phoenix and the Turtle.”

More infamously, Benson’s edition is known for imposing sexual standards of the time in the form of its editing. In the sonnets addressed to the boy lover–which outnumber by far those addressed to the “dark lady”–Benson notoriously altered the pronouns when he could to fashion the narrative of a heterosexual relationship, rather than a homosexual one.

It was not until much later that Benson’s editing, happily, was corrected–but it says something that by 1640, Shakespeare was not just a popular author or even a monumental author, but an author whom printers, publishers and readers had a serious stake of fashioning in their own image.

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