Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered (1899)

First edition title page (BII SHA 1899.1)

Butler held Shakespeare in equal regard with Homer, and kept an edition of Shakespeare’s works in a special bookcase above his bed so that he could read from the plays before going to sleep. In December 1897, an article printed in The Fortnightly Review concerning the identity of ‘W.H.’, addressee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, awakened Butler’s interest. Just as he had used internal evidence in the Odyssey to find a ‘solution’ to its authorship and setting, Butler believed he could solve the ‘puzzles’ of the Sonnets by immersing himself in the work until it revealed its true nature to him.

Having learned all 154 Sonnets by heart, repeating 25 of them to himself each day ‘to complete the process of saturation’, Butler set about dating the poems and deciding upon their ‘original’ order. His theoretical innovation was to alter the position of two poems in the sequence: a crucial move which, he believed, clarified the story of their production and uncovered their true meaning.

Facsimile title page from the 1609 quarto edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets

Facsimile title page from the 1609 Quarto, reproduced in Butler's book

As with his work on the authoress of the Odyssey, Butler’s contribution was more an act of imaginative reconstructive biography than literary-critical analysis. Shakespeare's Sonnets Reconsidered was published in 1899, at Butler’s own expense, and made no particular impact on Shakespearean scholarship – though later readers, including Robert Graves, have accepted Butler’s interpretations.

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