This controversial edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets and miscellaneous poems was published in 1640 by John Benson (d. 1667). It opens with a portrait of Shakespeare engraved by William Marshall – a smaller, reversed version of the famous image by Martin Droeshout that appears in the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1623). Benson includes the majority of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets (omitting only seven). These are printed alongside longer poems like ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ (1609), ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (1601) and others selected from The Passionate Pilgrim anthology (1599). It also has an appendix of poems by ‘other Gentlemen’ like Ben Jonson and John Milton.

Why is this edition controversial?

This edition of the Poems is often viewed as corrupt because Benson rearranges the sonnets into new groups, altering the order used by Thomas Thorpe in the first 1609 edition. Benson gives them new descriptive titles (where they formerly had only numbers) and he merges many of the 14-line sonnets into longer poems. Strikingly, he also removes some features which reveal that the first 126 sonnets are addressed to a ‘fair youth’ or young man. Some critics have seen this as a form of early censorship to avoid provoking questions about Shakespeare’s sexuality, and these changes were preserved in subsequent editions until 1780.

For example, in Sonnet 101 Benson changes the male pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ to ‘she’ and ‘her’ in the final line of the poem (though he keeps the phrase ‘Because he needs no praise’). This sonnet appears under the title, ‘An invocation to his Muse’, alongside Sonnet 100 (sig. E1r–v). Similarly, in Sonnet 108 Benson replaces ‘sweet boy’ with ‘sweet-love’ conforming to more traditional rules of heterosexual love poetry. This sonnet is combined with Sonnet 107 under the title ‘A monument to Fame’ (sig. F6r–v). In places, Benson’s titles explicitly define the subject of the poem as female: ‘Selfe flattery of her beautie’ (Sonnets 113, 114 and 115, sig. E4r–v) and ‘An intreatie for her acceptance’ (Sonnet 125, sig. E7r).

Leonard Digges’s poem in praise of Shakespeare

This edition includes a verse in praise of Shakespeare, by the poet and translator Leonard Digges (1588–1635). Digges was connected to the playwright through his step-father, Thomas Russell, who was named as one of the overseers of Shakespeare’s will, and Digges had already contributed a commendatory verse to Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623).

Digges’s verse is full of enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s ‘unparaleld’ art (sig. 3r), particularly by contrast with the works of other ‘upstart Writers’ (sig. 3v) like the playwright Ben Jonson. However, Digges makes the mistaken assumption that Shakespeare’s works are entirely original, without borrowings from Latin or Greek or plagiarism from other writers (sig. 3r).

Digges singles out particularly well-loved characters who ‘ravish’d’ (sig. 3v) Shakespeare’s audiences in the early 17th century, before the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642. In particular, the rebellious witty couple from Much Ado About Nothing are seen as fail-safe crowd-pleasers: ‘let but Beatrice / And Benedicke be seene, loe in a trice / The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full’ (sig. 4r).