William Logan at The New Criterion:
About the early history of the sonnets, we know almost nothing. The first reference comes in 1598, when Shakespeare already had a reputation on the stage—the plays behind him included A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Richard III, and The Merchant of Venice. That year Francis Meres praised him inPalladis Tamia as the “most excellent” English playwright, like Plautus and Seneca a master of comedy and tragedy. Shakespeare had first come to attention as author of a popular pillow-book, Venus and Adonis (1593), and what he called a “graver labor,” The Rape of Lucrece(1594). Meres remarked that the “sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus andAdonis, his Lucrece, his sugared Sonnets among his private friends.” The sugared sonnets were eventually published in quarto as Shake-speares Sonnets (1609).
Who those private friends were and what they possessed has excited speculation ever since. If not an outright liar, Meres was close enough to that circle to have heard of these private verses. Perhaps he had seen a few—“sugared” sounds like firsthand acquaintance, not gossip. In the surviving manuscripts of the next century, there are almost 250 copies of Sidney’s poems, over seven hundred of Jonson’s, and more than four thousand of Donne’s. Of Shakespeare’s there are only twenty-six, almost all dating to the 1630s or later, none probably earlier than 1620. Either Shakespeare’s private circle was very small, or its members guarded the sonnets closely. The poems were probably untitled and for the most part unpunctuated, like his contribution toThe Book of Sir Thomas More.