When Thomas Thorpe published Shake-speares Sonnets [sic!] in 1609, the sonnets (or at least a subset of them) had already circulated in manuscript for some time. Francis Meres already mentioned these circulating manuscripts in his Palladis Tamia, published in 1598.

Some of the sonnets had previously been published by William Jaggard in 1599 in the anthology The Passionate Pilgrim. However, of the 20 poems in this anthology, only five are considered authentically Shakespearean.

We don't know with certainty what sort of manuscript Thorpe used for the 1609 edition of the sonnets, but scholars now regard him as a reputable publisher. William Jaggard is less reputable, both because of The Passionate Pilgrim and the False Folio of 1619. His access to manuscript of authentic Shakespeare sonnets must have been limited.

Since the sonnets had circulated privately in manuscript form, it is worth asking whether any such manuscripts have survived. If yes, how many of them? And were any sonnets more popular than others?

Note: The question title intentionally reads "manuscripts of Shakespeare sonnets" instead of "manuscripts of Shakespeare's sonnets", because such manuscripts may have been incomplete.

1 Answer 1


The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450–1700 (CELM) has a list of manuscripts of Shakespeare sonnets:

  • 1 (‘From fairest creatures we desire increase’) — c.1650s
  • 2 (‘When forty winters shall besiege thy brow’) — 12 manuscripts, mostly c.1630–1650; earliest c.1620s
  • 8 (‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’) — c.1627–c.1673
  • 32 (‘If thou survive my well-contented day’) — mid 17th century
  • 33 (‘Full many a glorious morning have I seen’) — c.1650s
  • 68 (‘Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn’) — c.1650s
  • 71 (‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’) — mid 17th century
  • 106 (‘When in the chronicle of wasted time’) — 2 manuscripts, c.1630s
  • 107 (‘Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul’) — c.1650s
  • 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’) — c.1630s–1650s
  • 128 (‘How oft when thou, my music, music play’st’) — late 17th century
  • 138 (‘When my love swears that she is made of truth’) — c.1640s

So none of the surviving manuscripts are from the Elizabethan period, and only possibly the earliest copies of sonnet 2 are from the Jacobean period.

G. Blakemore Evans, in the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the sonnets, notes that

In the case of most of these sonnets the manuscript copies are derived from the printed texts (either the 1609 Q[uarto] or the 1640 Poems)

but in the case of the copies of sonnet 2:

eleven bear witness to a text of 2 that is believed to represent an earlier state of Shakespeare’s text, of which the Q[uarto] text is generally considered to be a later revision

  • It might be worth mentioning that since Shakespeare died in 1616, we have no mss. of any of the sonnets from his lifetime at all, and that all extant mss. postdate the 1609 quarto.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 11:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.