The Question of Shakespeare’s Prejudices

Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary

by Don Paterson
Faber and Faber, 500 pp, £17.99
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V&A Images, London/Art Resource
‘Man Clasping a Hand from a Cloud’; miniature, thought by some to show William Shakespeare, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588

Toward the end of his recent book The Tainted Muse, Robert Brustein quotes the opening of a famous poem about Shakespeare:

Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge.

The bard had managed, Matthew Arnold continued, to “walk on earth unguess’d at,” too shadowy and various for anyone even to start the interview. This proposition wasn’t strictly correct. Before and after Arnold, Shakespeare had taken quite a few questions and been abundantly guessed at. All kinds of people were sure they knew who he was, who his mistress was, why he left his wife his second-best bed; were certain that he was lame, that he had syphilis, that he was not Shakespeare at all but Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.

But a certain mystery remained, and remains. The mystery is essential to Borges’s sense, for example, that Shakespeare was “everything and nothing.” And modern scholarship had until recently made a reasonable peace with what it didn’t know, even deriving a wry discipline from its limitations. “William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual,” Stephen Booth wrote in his great commentary on the sonnets. “The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter.” Only a year or so ago, in his Contested Will (2010), a witty and lively history of the claims of other contenders for the Shakespeare portfolio, James Shapiro firmly said, “Even if Shakespeare occasionally drew in his poems and plays on personal experiences, and I don’t doubt that he did, I don’t see how anyone can know with any confidence if or when or where he does so.”

Recent biographers strike this note of caution too. Stephen Greenblatt, near the beginning of his Will in the World (2004), says, “There are huge gaps in knowledge that make any biographical study of Shakespeare an exercise in speculation.” Jonathan Bate, in Soul of the Age (2009), recalls Barbara Everett’s insistence that Shakespeare’s biography “has to be…in the plays and poems, but never literally and never provably,” and says himself that “there is no way of knowing whether the dark lady was created out of an imagined relationship or inspired by a real affair.” Indeed pretty much every serious writer on Shakespeare makes a disclaimer or two of this kind at some point.

Yet something has changed in the realm of the Shakespeare mystery, and the language of several of these critical quotations half-opens a door it may seem to close. Booth and Shapiro float possibilities (the first says that the sonnets “probably reflect a lot that is true about their author,” and the second, as we have seen, doesn’t doubt the presence of personal experience in the poems and plays). Greenblatt embarks on a very successful exercise in the speculation he warns …

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