The Sonnets of Shakespeare
About the life of Shakespeare, who did not live in an era of literary biography, we know as much as, or even more than, might have been hoped. Yet the hard facts could, without undue compression, be set down in an article the length of this one. E. K. Chambers, for instance, provides such an outline in under four pages of his Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare, before describing the main source, of information in Tenurial, Ecclesiastical, Municipal, Occupational, Court, National, and Personal Records, and telling anybody who cares for the labor how to add to the facts by record research as in this century Wallace and Hotson have done. For a reference book one could put it:
W. Shakespeare, b. 1564 (or perhaps 1563), to John Shakespeare and Mary Hathaway (mis-spelled “Whateley” in one document) Nov. 1582. d Susanna (b. 26 May, 1583); twin s. and d. Hamnet and Judith, 2 Feb. 1585 (Hamnet dec. 1596). Known residences: Henley St., Stratford; Bishopsgate, (1595); Southwark, 1599; Cripplegate 1604; Blackfriars, 1613 (owned, perhaps not occupied, by S.). Much property in Stratford. Will, 25 March, 1616, dec. 23 April, 1616. Various litigation in lower courts; testified in action Belott vs Mountjoy (his Huguenot landlord in Cripplegate), 1612. From 1594 “sharer” (shareholder) in Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later King’s Men) and Groom in Ordinary of the Chamber. Dedicated two books to the Earl of Southampton. Procured grant of arms for father (1599?). Made impresa for Earl of Rutland, 1613. Dramatic works pub. various dates and collected 1623.
There are a few facts I haven’t squeezed in, and a fair number of contemporary allusions to the author and his works. Traditions of various kinds—concerning his youth, his friends and his women, his early days in London and his acting, his fortune and his last years, were soon added to the mix. Some of the works, notably the sonnets, occasionally invite biographical inferences. It might be added that there is a notable lack of information as to Shakespeare’s activities at certain periods, especially for several years preceding Greene’s dying attack on him in his Groatsworth of Wit (1592).
Obviously you could make this vita much longer before launching into fiction, and Chambers’ sober William Shakespeare: Facts and Problems uses two volumes to get in everything reasonably sensible and relevant that was known in 1930. Also you can write about sixteenth-century Stratford or about London at the turn of the century, and about playhouses and publishers and patrons; but your book may turn into a Life and Times with the two halves very tenuously connected, unless you can show a certain degree of positive involvement by Shakespeare in the historical events and conditions described—the kind of thing Masson could more easily achieve with Milton. Here is the short cut to fiction and eccentric guessing; and here also is an explanation of the fact that we now have two more very long lives of Shakespeare, by Dr. Rowse and Mr. Quennell.
How does the biographer tackle this dangerous assignment? He has, as his first class of data, the information scantily summarized above. The second class is what can be relevantly used of all that is known concerning his family (with such safe inferences as his attendance at Stratford Grammar School), his associates, his dramatic company and its theaters, his service at court, and so forth: more difficult ground, but still reasonably secure. A third is to use what seems good of the Tradition (Shakespeare as calf-killer, schoolmaster, deer-stealer, Shakespeare as “gentle,” as D’Avenant’s father, etc.). A fourth consists of information to be inferred from contemporary events and from the activities of well-known figures with whom he could have had contact. This is dangerous. A fifth, always used in conjunction with the others and the most dangerous of all, is made up of inferences drawn from the works. It is in their use of the fourth and fifth classes that biographers show their mettle, and distinguish their books from those of their predecessors. And since it is only good journeyman work to write up the undisputed facts and refer to traditions, the reviewer has to concentrate on these later classes.
Very large claims are made for Dr. Rowse’s book, no less than that by a “proper application of historical method,” something held to be outside the scope of conventional literary scholars, the major problems about Shakespeare’s life are now for the first time solved. It is none of my business to defend professional Shakespearians, though it surprises me to find, for example, G. E. Bentley, who probably knows more than any living man about the theater at the relevant period, treated as a scholarly fusspot. He and his peers will look after themselves, no doubt, and if Dr. Rowse’s fondly contemptuous manner is inseparable from the achievement of solving what he calls “the greatest problem in our literature,” “throwing a flood of light,” and bringing the Sonnets-game “to an end for good and all”—all this without benefit of “doubtful theories” and “eccentric theses”—the victims will simply have to put up with it.
Dr. Rowse’s main source of light is, of course, the Sonnets. The Friend sonnets, he says, are addressed to Southampton, “as we shall see unmistakably later.” Of the many contenders for the role, the two chief are Southampton and Pembroke, so there is nothing very striking here except the claim to absolute proof. But “as we shall see” is a favorite expression of the author’s, and it merges into “as we now know” without the intervention of anything I could recognize as a proof. There are many assertions, based on what is described as the now “firmly established chronology.” but all we really get is the historian’s assurance ex cathedra that one sonnet refers to some contemporary event, another to another—precisely what commentators, however weak on historical method, have done for centuries. Thus “Great princes’ favourites” is certified as referring to the disgrace of Raleigh in 1592, though the point is very general and other great favorites fell in this reign. The passage about “barren sisters” in A Midsummer Nights’ Dream refers, oddly—but, it seems, incontrovertibly—to Southampton’s celibacy. The famous and vexed sonnet “Not mine own fears,” which the professors have made such heavy weather of, is easy if you know how: it refers to the submission of Henri IV to the Church (as “the price of Paris”) in 1593, and to the Lopez conspiracy. But the stubborn professors will doubtless still say that these are very dubious assertions. The “mortal moon” sonnet fits the death of Elizabeth and the revival of Pembroke’s fortunes much better, as Dover Wilson, (who subtitles his essay “For the use of Historians and others”) has no difficulty in showing.
In fact Pembroke remains at least as good a contender as Southampton for the role of Friend, and I do not understand how Dr. Rowse can think he has produced indisputable proof to the contrary. His manner really is extraordinarily assertive. Thus he says “Mr. W. H.” is Sir William Hervey, who married Southampton’s mother: this is an old theory, held by various people over the last hundred years, and for a while by Dover Wilson himself; but the fact that Dr. Rowse endorses it is apparently supposed to end the argument. He tells us the rival poet was Marlowe, but says nothing to shake anybody else’s preference; Chapman’s is still arguably a better case, though there is a long list of claimants, practically all as good as Marlowe. I do not think the historical method has ousted other chronologies or identifications. About the Dark Woman he says “we shall never know” who she was, which may be true, but is not simply to be inferred from his not knowing it. (Incidentally, Dover Wilson has the notion—new? and attractive—that the girl herself must have given the sonnets to Thorpe for publication, since neither Shakespeare nor his Friend would be likely to do so.)
Dr. Rowse clearly saw his work as important and definitive, and it is painful to disagree flatly with a scholar of his eminence. But I’m afraid there are other things about the book I find equally disagreeable. When I read that “The Phoenix and the Turtle” is not “as many have thought, inexplicable,” I look for an explanation. “It is a funeral poem,” reveals Dr. Rowse. When I read that the author is “anxious…to avoid the suggestion of crude transfer of experience” I wonder what he thinks he has been doing, and why he thinks both Hamlet and Achilles are closely drawn from Essex, and Polonius from Burleigh. I wonder why, on the historical method, Trodus and Cressida can be treated as a prophetic diatribe against the welfare state, and why the speech on Time in Trouus is said to be about ingratitude, and how the author can say there is no difficulty about the date of All’s Well because in his view it “visibly comes between Troilus and Measure for Measure.” As a literary critic Dr. Rowse is capable of calling Two Gentlemen of Verona “very close in character and texture” to The Comedy of Errors, and of many other remarks, which do not seem to match the blurb’s “Magical…lit by a poet’s perception.” The book is written throughout with a somewhat cloying familiarity of manner, and for all his great learning in the history of the period Dr. Rowse never quite seems to treat Elizabethans as grown up; he speaks of them rather as he does of literature professors. It seems impossible to speak of this book other than harshly. It will do no good. It abuses the fourth class of evidence in a perfectly old-fashioned way, and in handling the fifth suffers from an absolute inability to come to terms with Shakespeare as an autonomous imagination.
Mr. Quennell, though not a professional historian, has long practice in seeing figures from the past as man-sized. But he has special difficulties with the fourth class of evidence. He chooses Southampton as the Friend, and at once we are off on the old rail: if Shakespeare knew Southampton, he must very soon have encountered Essex; “he would almost certainly have been drawn” to Essex, and in Essex’s circle “may well have found…personal stimulus.” So the fall of Essex becomes “the crucial drama of Shakespeare’s later life,” and therefore merits a long chapter to itself. Shakespeare was so shocked by it that he had a Dark Period. And so on.
None of this is new, and none of it need be believed. Essex was a great man, and is mentioned in Henry V. His friends employed Shakespeare’s company on the eve of the rebellion, commanding a performance of Richard II which we know the players, considering the matter from a purely commercial point of view, were not keen to give. That Shakespeare deeply identified himself with the cause of Essex is a guess founded largely on a guess—his supposed closeness to Southampton (there is nothing to show that Shakespeare had anything to do with Southampton after 1594, seven years before the rising) and propped up by such negative evidence as his having written no funeral verses for Elizabeth. You can add that Hamlet in some moods (and Achilles in some moods, and many great men in some moods) is a little like Essex—clever, ambitious, condescending, sulky, charming. It all boils down to remarkably little: if you were doing a great man at this time you would likely enough give him a touch of the best known great man around—even if you didn’t much like very great men, as Wyndham Lewis quite plausibly suggests Shakespeare didn’t.
But it is by such extravagance that fat biographies are made. Mr. Quennell discourses urbanely on all manner of things—contemporary painting, music, building. This helps to swell the book. On the Sonnets, though he chooses the same Friend, he rarely agrees with Rowse. The “mortal moon” sonnet, he thinks with other good judges, is about the Queen’s grand climacteric (her sixty-third birthday) in 1596. He quite likes G. B. Harrison’s theory that the Dark Lady was a prostitute called Lucy Negro. He says very little about the rival poet, but seems to think it was Chapman. Mr. W. H., however, he takes to have been Hervey, as you are likely to do if you accept the Southampton hypothesis. Quennell does not, on the strength of Sonnet 20, so easily purge Shakespeare of homosexual feelings as Rowse does, and with some justice calls the sonnets “a monument to homosexual love raised by an otherwise heterosexual poet.” He is much more in touch with the sonnets as poems than Rowse, and even attends to the conventional element in them, a difficult subject. What, to choose as an instance a fact which never seems to be mentioned in this connection, are we to make of the European vogue at this time for clever poems about black and sometimes naughty women?
Mr. Quennell being a good writer, this book is always pleasant to read, though his elegance seems to have thickened a bit, and to have come to depend heavily on the semicolon. There are a good number of examples of that irritating, not to say mindless, hindsight which allows people to say that a writer was very much part of his epoch, or that it was providential for Shakespeare to have been born exactly when he was born, and that Marlowe should have been removed from the scene at just the right moment. There are also some pretty dubious statements of fact, such as the assertions that modern scholars generally believe Henry VI to have been entirely Shakespeare’s work, and that the source of Henry IV and Henry V was The Famous Victories, and that James I thought he was descended from Duncan. Towards the end of the book there are five remarkably perfunctory and entirely useless pages in which he disposes of Henry VIII, All’s Well, Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, Timon and Pericles, about a sixth of the canon, in one-seventieth of the book (the Essex rebellion alone gets one tenth). This is a better book than the other, but it must be called dispensable.
Dover Wilson’s little book proposes later dates and a different Friend, Pembroke (though it discusses, as Rowse could not, the possibility that the Friend sonnets are out of order, and deal with different occasions and more than one person). The sonnets, he thinks, ran on into the seventeenth century, and he sensibly makes the Mortal Moon sonnet refer to the death of the Queen and the peaceful accession of James. The Dark Lady is a sprightly citizen’s wife, and Chapman is the Rival Poet. Though theorizing, he tells one much more about the facts than the other books: he does not claim too much; and he understands, as you would expect, the nature of literary and bibliographical evidence. Non sanz droict, we might say if we were granting him arms: but what can we say for the others? Ne sutor ultra crepidam?