Arden's third series illuminates the continually-shifting priorities of the moment as well as the Shakespearean texts themselves. Katherine Duncan-Jones devotes less space to such arcane matters as the practices of the Jacobean printing house and relatively more to what we now consider to be all-important: the sonnets, their meaning and literary significance. She considers that although some sonnets were obviously written before Meres's first mention of them in 1598 ('sugred Sonnets among his private friends') most were the products of the mature, Jacobean Shakespeare - hence their often knotty complexity and their relatively bitter, 'salty' tone. It is an unconventional view, like many others in this radically different edition.
By any account, this is an erudite, thoroughly researched and thoroughly readable edition with sonnet-by-sonnet annotations that don't assume undue expertise. Unlike previous Arden editions, therefore, this third series issue is ideal for readers wanting an in-depth and accessible analysis of poems that have long had the reputation of being difficult ('laboured perplexities', in the words of the C18 Shakespeare scholar, George Steevens).
Like the sonnets themselves, Duncan-Jones is often highly ingenious. Certain sonnets she considers numerologically significant. She detects a 'strongly misogynistic bias' throughout the sequence. Even those sonnets addressed to a female (ie 127-54) arouse her suspicions that the speaker has a male audience in mind as he exhibits a strong distaste for the female form generally and for 'the negative connotations of menstruation' in particular. These suspicions are strengthened on realising that the total number of these 'Dark Lady' sonnets is 28 - one for each day of the lunar cycle. (Duncan-Jones is the first to draw our attention to this detail.) Other numerical correspondences are more literary. The great central sequence (18-126) comprises 108 sonnets, thereby matching Sidney's collection. Sonnet 12, meanwhile, alludes to the number of hours in a day; 60 to hour/'our minutes'; 70 (threescore and ten) is followed by the sonnet which begins 'No longer mourn for me when I am dead'; 144 is concerned with the 'gross'-ness of his evil angel, and so on. Whether or not such decoding has unearthed Shakespeare's original intentions, there is no doubt that the sonnets were written for a highly sophisticated literary culture that, unlike ours, 'knew the rules' governing cryptic conceits.
But if the sonnets themselves aren't sufficiently full of puzzles, here's another: in her Preface, Duncan-Jones claims to have 'avoided' John Kerrigan's 1986 Penguin edition, although 'excellent in its subtlety and scholarship', for fear of over-reliance. Yet apart from both agreeing that 'A Lover's Complaint' is an integral part of the overall scheme (sonnets-complaint, following Samuel Daniel's model, Delia) their rival editions seem poles apart. He (JK) guards against using the sonnets to speculate about Shakespeare the man and is dismissive of such fantasies and 'crackpot theories'. She (KD-J) considers the sequence's title, 'Shakespeare's Sonnets', of paramount importance, and one, moreover, that invites, and even positively insists upon, autobiographical inference. She in turn is dismissive of editors and critics who avoid confronting the poems' homoeroticism by speaking, for example, of the cult of 'comradely affection in literature' (Kerrigan). Her verdict on such thoughts: 'Sidney Lee lives!' (Lee being a critic who, immediately after Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, sought to conceal the Sonnets' potentially explosive homoeroticism. For respectable Victorians, the Sonnets were overspiced.) So much for excellence, subtle scholarship and potential over-reliance.
Combative, therefore, as well as eloquent, this edition doesn't so much fence-sit as hurdle them full-on. Whether you agree with Duncan-Jones's stance or not, there's no denying that her case is vigorously pursued and her evidence presented with skill. Admirably, her edition preserves the arrangement of the 1609 Quarto together with much of its spelling and punctuation on the grounds that excessive modernising of spelling results in blurring potential double meanings. And punctuation? Her edition is the first modern one to restore the empty parentheses at the end of the six-couplet 'Sonnet' 126. The two pairs of brackets, she believes, represent the graves awaiting the bodies of poet and 'lovely Boy'.
Definitely not the last words on the Sonnets. But some of the more fascinating, nonetheless.