Published on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s sonnets, So Long As Men Can Breathe is Christopher Heylin’s riveting account of the tangled publication history of one of our literature’s most famous, and infamously mysterious, volumes. Heylin begins by defining “booklegs,” essentially bootlegs, arguing that the Sonnets are in fact the most well known “booklegs” of all. He then makes an extended comparison between Shakespeare and Dylan.
Why all the Bob Dylan references? It’s difficult to think of a musician as “bootlegged” as Dylan, for whom Heylin has served as biographer (Behind the Shades) and discographer (Revolution in the Air). Indeed, a Renaissance man in his own right, Heylin applies his encyclopedic mental database of the ways and means of bootlegging with a scholarly but entirely unstuffy zeal, revealing in the bargain commonsensical answers to the questions the sonnets have provoked for centuries: Who was Thomas Thorpe? “Mr. W. H.?” The “Onlie Begetter?” The “Fair Youth” and the “Dark Lady”? What hand did Shakespeare actually play in his sonnets’ arrangement and publication?
In Renaissance showbiz, as in today’s music business, most monies accrued to the publishers, not the artists themselves. Shakespeare, an astute businessman, owned part of the Globe Theatre and its productions, and as a result, by 1609, when the Sonnets appeared, he was the most successful playwright in London. While he couldn’t prevent pirated editions of his work—the “bad quartos,” for example—evidence points to Shakespeare’s enabling such piracy in the case of the Sonnets, a crux that Bardists have long sought to solve with interpretations of their notoriously baffling preface. (Heylin believes it was written by Thorpe, a man whose ambitions, if not talents, rivaled Shakespeare’s.)
Every imaginable (for me) question raised by every subsequent edition of the Sonnets is taken on by Heylin, and answered with passion and substance. What finer anniversary present could their author have asked, except, of course, the fulfillment of his wish that they be read—even misread—“so long as men can breathe?” Heylin makes a successful case that Shakespeare knew what the world’s reply would be even as he dipped his quill.
Diann Blakely has been short-listed for the Georgia Author of the Year Award for her most recent collection of poems, Cities of Flesh and the Dead (Elixir Press).