It may, however, be fully admitted that the Sonnets stand in a very different category from that of the plays. Not only does the poet of this kind speak ex professo from his heart, while the dramatist speaks ex professo as an outside observer and “representer,” but there is no poetry of this kind which approaches Shakespeare’s Sonnets in apparent vehemence and intensity of feeling. There is even hardly any which mingles, with the expression of that feeling, so many concrete hints, suggesting so broadly a whole romance of personal experience, as they do. How are we to take all this?
One of the best known things in Shakespearean study—even to those who have hardly dabbled in it—is that one of the ways in which it has been taken is an endless series of earnest and almost frantic attempts to reconstruct this romance as a history. The personality of the Mr. W. H. to whom the complete edition of 1609 is dedicated, though perhaps the chief, is but one, of the points of dispute. The reality and identity of the fair young man and the dark lady who are by turns or together concerned in the Sonnets themselves come next, and with some enquirers, first; while the incidents and sentiments, expressed, implied, commemorated, in them, have occupied a not small library of discussion, appreciation, attack, defence and so forth.
The extravagance of much of this has always been perceptible to impartial observers; and, perhaps the extravagance of most of it—except the particular theory to which they are themselves inclined—has been clear enough even to the theorists themselves. Sometimes—and of late with especial learning and elaboration by Sidney Lee—a sort of general caveat has been entered on the ground of the peculiarly traditional and conventional character of sonnet writing, especially at this particular time. Sometimes, all attempts to interpret have been shaken off, angrily, contemptuously or critically, according to temperament. And it may be suspected that some people who would confess it, and more who would not, have always inclined to Hallam’s curious but courageous wish that Shakespeare “had never written them.”
But he did write them—there is hardly a thing of his as to the authorship of which—what with Meres’s early ascription, the publication with his name seven years before his death and the entire absence of denial, counter-claim, or challenge of any kind—we can be so certain. And, probably, there is no lover of poetry as poetry who would not wish that anything else “had never been written,” so that these might be saved. But, undoubtedly, the mean is very hard to hit in the interpretation of these poems. Although it is quite certain that the sonnet tradition, starting from Petrarch and continued through generations of Italian, French and English practitioners, had resulted in a vast and complicated “common form” of expression—a huge mass of publica materies of which the individual builder took his store, sometimes directly from other individuals, sometimes indirectly—it is possible to lay too much stress on this. After all, even if the sonnet thoughts and phrases were as stereotyped as the figures of a pack of cards—and they were not quite this—there is infinite shuffling possible with a pack of cards, infinite varieties of general game and still more of personal play, above all, infinite varieties of purpose and stake. You may play “for love” in one sense or “for love” in another and a very different one. You may play for trifles or for your last penny—to show your skill, or merely to win, or to pass the time, or from many other motives. That Shakespeare was the Deschapelles or Clay of sonnet whist is pretty certain. But that he did not play merely for pastime is almost more so to any one who takes the advice of Sidney’s “Look in thy heart” and applies it to reading, not writing.
The Sonnets, then, are great poetry, that is to say, in a certain sense, great fiction; and they are intense expressions of feeling, that is to say, in another certain sense, great facts. But to what extent and degree are this fiction and this fact dosed and proportioned? How are we to separate them? How do they colour and react upon one another? Here, no doubt, is the rub—and it is a rub which it seems to the present writer impossible to remove or lubricate. Once more, to those who have accustomed themselves really to weigh evidence, it is impossible to accept it either as proved or disproved that “Mr. W. H.” was Pembroke, or Southampton, or any other friend-patron of Shakespeare, or merely somebody concerned with the publication, or, in fact a “personage” of any kind in this play. Nor is it possible to extricate, from the obscurity in which, to all appearance designedly, they were involved, either the other dramatis personae or even, save to the vaguest extent, the scenario itself. Friendship and love—bene velle and amare—exchange parts, combine, divorce, sublimate or materialise themselves and each other in too Protean a fashion to be caught and fixed in any form. The least unreasonable of all the extravagant exegeses would be that the whole is a phantasmagoria of love itself, of all its possible transformations, exaltations, agonies, degradations, victories, defeats. The most reasonable explanation, perhaps, and certainly not the least Shakespearean, is that it is partly this—but partly, also, in degree impossible to isolate, a record of actual experience. And it is not unimportant to observe that the Sonnets, a lock in themselves, become a key (Dryden would have recognised the catachresis) to the plays. How far they reveal Shakespeare’s facts may be doubtful; his method of treating fact, his own or others, is clear in them.
This document was originally published in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume V. The Drama to 1642, Part One. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons; Cambridge, England: University Press, 1907–21.
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Here's a review from current issue of The American Scholar of a new book on the identities of the personalities of The Sonnets. The author thinks the object of Will's affections was a fairly obscure poet named Henry Constable, the dark lady was Anne Hathaway, the rival poet James I, and some other intriguingly bizarre ideas.
Here's the review: theamericanscholar.org/too-much-poetic-license/#
By Andrew Motion
DECEMBER 5, 2016
Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Elaine Scarry; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $27
As well as writing about pain, democracy, representation, and the law, Elaine Scarry has previously spent time investigating the possible role of electromagnetic interference in the crash of TWA Flight 800. In other words, she’s a sleuth as well as a thinker—and operates as one in Naming Thy Name, the most literary of her books to date. Not literary in the sense of providing close readings or subtle appreciations of texts (her critical lexis is narrow and vague: “beautiful,” “searing,” “heartbreaking,” and so on), but in its concern with one of poetry’s most enduring mysteries: the identity of Shakespeare’s same-sex beloved in the sonnets.
Like several others before her, and no doubt several more still to come, she thinks she has the answer. Or rather, she thinks she thinks she has the answer, and she invites us to read her book in a spirit of sympathetic collusion. That’s to say: she tells us in the introduction that she “believes” her story to be true but “does not know it to be true” because that “would require more evidence than has so far been assembled.” It’s a welcome admission in some ways (because it’s honest) but problematic in others. It means that we read everything she says without knowing how much credence we can give it. Sometimes the ground in Naming Thy Name feels solid enough beneath our feet; sometimes it slips and slides; sometimes it disappears altogether. It’s a very unsettling experience.
According to Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, the mystery man is Henry Constable, a little-known poet and contemporary of Shakespeare’s whose name will be known only to scholars of the period. Nonexperts might have appreciated a straightforward introduction to him at the beginning of the book, but Scarry doesn’t work like that. In ways that are more suggestive of her liking for puzzles than of her appetite for clear solutions, she releases hard information about her man in bits and pieces. And in the opening pages where we need a full-length portrait, we are simply told that Ben Jonson spoke of Constable’s “Ambrosiack Muse,” that Anon called him “England’s sweete nightingale,” and that he is mentioned in the obscure late-16th-century play Return from Parnassus as someone who “doth take the wond’ring ear / And layes it up in willing prisonment.” Only much later do we learn other necessary and interesting things about Constable: about his Catholicism, his position as a court favorite of Elizabeth, his career as a diplomat, his exile in France, his return to the court of James I, his imprisonment and his (probable) return to France and death there in 1613.
This unnecessary withholding means that Scarry’s book gets off to a confusing start, for which she then compensates by emphasizing how orderly she means to be in her uncovering of Constable’s “place in Shakespeare’s heart.” The Bard’s devotion to his friend, we’re told, “is present in the micro texture of the sonnets, in their overarching architecture, and in their deep fabric.” What does Scarry mean by “micro texture”? She means that she has discovered several lines in the sonnets in which most if not all the letters of Henry Constable’s name appear, scattered among the other letters that constitute the surface sense. “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” for instance, or “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” Predictably, she’s also found rather less felicitously managed appearances of the letters of Shakespeare’s name in Constable’s sonnets. Where these scramblings occur in lines that have to do with names and naming, it’s hard not to feel a frisson of interest. At other times, it sounds a bit crackpot. Why Henry Constable in that first line and not Sam Steele? After all, that name—and no doubt others as well—can be spelled out there, too.
And “overarching architecture” and “deep fabric”? This means that having identified Constable as a definite presence in the sonnets (yes, just like that), Scarry also feels she has proof that he really is Shakespeare’s beloved. Strikingly, she makes only occasional mention of competing candidates and declines to go anywhere near “Mr W. H.,” to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets. Instead, she spins theories about which “thefts” the two poets might have made from each other’s words, makes assertions about preferred sexual positions (suggested by the sonnets’ use of the word “above”), discusses what she reckons are strategic deployments of the word “constancy” (Constable/constancy, get it?), monitors the appearance of possible pet names (Hen, Hal, Will, and their refracted appearance in such forms as “shall”), and devises a riff on what she calls the “zigzag” of Shakespeare’s surname, which concludes with her insisting that “we need not ask from whom [he] learned to think of [it] as a lightning bolt, for the answer lies close at hand.”
Unsettling, as I say. As if this weren’t enough to make the willing suspension of disbelief seem like one of life’s Impossible Things, Scarry also finds time to make other remarkable assertions. She “believes” (but does not “know”) that the dark lady is Shakespeare’s wife, that the rival poet in the sonnets is none other than James I, and that the name of Ariel is a conflation of sounds that derive from “Harry” and “William”—making Constable the presiding spirit of The Tempest as well as the sonnets. Oh, yes, and she also tells us that the mysterious John Robinson, who lodged in Shakespeare’s Blackfriars house after he had retired to Stratford, is the same John Robinson who is reported to have appeared at his deathbed. Though in reality, he’s not John Robinson at all, but—you guessed it—Constable, who did not die in 1613 as previously thought, but lingered a while longer and then, like many another Catholic, smuggled himself back to England, and then was sheltered by his former boyfriend.
Maybe in years to come, the research into Constable that Scarry admits still needs to be done will prove that her conjectures are sound. Until that day, they must remain just that: conjectures, a polite term for unsubstantiated notions that left this reader, at any rate, feeling by turns puzzled and irritated and queasy.
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