In 1964, the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth, two very different books appeared. Anthony Burgess’s tribute to the poet, Nothing Like the Sun, was a boisterous biographical novel full of sugared sack and bawdry, with sombre undertones of decay. Taking literally the references in Shakespeare’s sonnets to a mistress ‘black as hell’, Burgess made the Dark Lady of his story a voluptuous East Indian who, after seducing the dramatist, inspired the tragic plays of his maturity by giving him a dose of syphilis. A.L. Rowse, meanwhile, edited the sonnets themselves. Already the author of a large-scale life of the poet, and, as a historian, well-placed to deal with at least one aspect of the verse, Rowse produced a volume that was ultimately unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, his edition was recognisably a work of scholarship, displaying some of the prudence looked for in the form. Unlike Burgess, for instance, Rowse refused to identify or sketch a Dark Lady, because he thought the evidence insufficient. The last two decades have changed all that. While Burgess has pursued the spirit of Shakespeare through a film-script, a popular biography and, now, an Enderby novel – feigning, in the process, notable images of the poet – Dr Rowse has drifted into fantasy. Having discovered a Dark Lady in the Bodleian, and been seduced by her, he has ended up writing, in the latest version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, fiction disguised as scholarship.
The history of Shakespearean fiction is long and motley, like Feste’s coat. Arguably, it starts with Scott. Earlier tales about the Bard – his deer-poaching at Charlecote, the drinking bout at Bidford, holding horses at the theatre door – were fallacious rather than fictional. Starved of facts about the national poet, and eager to endorse the little that was known, 18th-century antiquaries trusted in Warwickshire gossip, or, like William Ireland, forged what they wanted to find. The display of collective folly was extraordinary, yet the impulse behind it was not strictly fanciful: it stemmed less from a neglect of the facts than an uncontrolled craving to possess them. When Scott introduced Shakespeare to Kenilworth as an established writer and ‘gamesome mad fellow’, he was obeying another instinct. Scott knew that the poet had been a child during Leicester’s courtship of Elizabeth, but he chose to ignore it for the sake of romance. Once Shakespeare became a character, a romantic hero like Rob Roy, known facts were suddenly flexible. Apocryphal episodes like the deer-stealing became, in the wake of Scott, not a means of authenticating Shakespeare, but novelistic material ennobled by him; and lacunae left in his biography by 18th-century commentators incited authors to flights of fancy rather than silence, or research.
From Emma Severn to the Comtesse de Chambrun, for a hundred years or more, Bardic Romance was a major form. Forgotten now, or doomed to be read only by critics, books like Miss Severn’s Anne Hathaway; or, Shakespeare in Love enjoyed mass appeal in Victorian England. One fatuous confection by Robert Folkestone Williams, The Youth of Shakespeare, went through six editions in three countries, besides being translated into German, and the author was encouraged by its success to complete a Shakespearean trilogy. Since, as Helen Gardner says, ‘the facts that are clearly established’ about Shakespeare’s life ‘could be written by a neat writer on two sides of a postcard’ (LRB, Vol. 6, No 6), this represents a considerable feat of expansion – but no other kind of feat. At its best, Bardic Romance rose to the sort of picturesque realism that Stephen Dedalus pastiched in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’:
The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings ...
At its worst, as in Folkestone Williams’s trilogy, the same traditions churned out clichés from Merrie England: drunken varlets, swashbuckling knaves, bountiful patrons like Sir Marmaduke de Largesse, and country cottages with woodbine round the door.
In his first Shakespearean fiction, Anthony Burgess recycled these topoi, but eyed askance or turned askew. Like Dedalus in the Irish National Library, trying to impress A.E., John Eglinton and Mr Best with his theory of Hamlet, the narrator of Nothing Like the Sun throws in lots of local colour, freely kitsched with quasi-Elizabethan compounds and archaic turns of phrase. Moreover, following Dedalus’s example in Ulysses, Burgess insists that Shakespeare was trapped into marriage with Anne Hathaway and then cuckolded by his brother Richard. Hence the queen in Hamlet, adulterous with her brother-in-law, while Shakespeare plays the ghost; and hence Richard III, where sly Dick seduces Lady Anne. Perhaps the Joycean influence became unhelpful here. Certainly, it contributed to the structural oddness of the novel. Though dealing vividly with Shakespeare’s early years – cuckoldry at Stratford, the Dark Lady in London – Burgess’s narrative falls away circa 1600, with the Globe just built, Hamlet in the offing, and the dramatist at the threshold of his major achievements. Instead of completing its expected course, the novel fizzles out in ten appended passages designed to mark the progress of the spirochaete through Shakespeare’s ailing system. If, as Burgess recently declared, ‘a good novel contrives ... to trace a parabola,’Nothing Like the Sun is not as good as it should be. Its trajectory is interrupted, mission aborted.
Shakespeare, the biography which Burgess published in 1970, in a sense extends the quest. There we eavesdrop on the poet in Jacobean London, revel in the sick imaginings of Timon and follow Shakespeare into bourgeois retirement at Stratford. Joyce moved to the fictional from the academic – a dozen lectures given at Trieste in 1912-13 laying the basis for Stephen’s disquisition – but Burgess went the other way, from the novelistic to something, as he puts it, ‘all too sound’. He overstates, of course. Despite its huge display of caution, the book is riddled with myths offered as fact, and with wild critical misjudgments. Moreover, though syphilis is displaced from the centre of the story (Burgess concludes that the poet died after a surfeit of Rhenish wine and pickled herrings), Shakespeare’s sexuality remains obsessively dominant. Burgess has always looked for a ‘strong male thrust’ in literature, and, in Shakespeare, he enshrines that principle in the name of his hero, Will. Glossing the sonnet ‘Who euer hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,/And Will too boote, and Will in ouer-plus,’ Burgess writes: ‘Will Shakespeare – the name is a small hymn to male thrust, Him that Shaketh his spear and breaketh hymens. From now on we shall say Will, and not William.’ The preference seems puerile. Was Shakespeare such a prick?
Lacanians might say ‘yes’, identifying Will with the elusive phallic signifier around which Burgess’s text revolves; and, to the extent that Shakespeare is missing from a book which is all about him, they would be right. In the novel too fantastic to be credited, and in the biography too under-documented to seem quite human, Shakespeare emerges from both Burgess’s books as ‘an O without a figure’, an absence, a lack. A realist and, in his way, a modest man, Burgess is ready to admit this. Looking back on the novel in his essay ‘Genesis and Headache’, he quotes the curse which guards the poet’s tomb in Holy Trinity Church:
GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE:
BLESTE BE THE MAN THAT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE THAT MOVES MY BONES.
‘Perhaps,’ Burgess the tomb-robber reflects, ‘the curse is the curse of finding nothing but bones.’ Shakespeare ends similarly, with the inscription invoked and Burgess admitting that, in biographers’ hands, the dead bones do not live. All he can offer by way of consolation is a specular image of the Bard. ‘To see his face,’ he says, ‘we need only look in a mirror.’ Another cue for Lacanians: Shakespeare at the mirror stage.
What makes Enderby’s Dark Lady so winning an addition to this series of Shakespeare sketches – and so obviously its outcome – is the play it makes with the notion that, being incorrigibly elusive, the poet is most visible when least directly looked for. Grubby, efflitic Enderby, having side-stepped the heart attack which killed him in The Clockwork Testament, turns his hand, in this new novel, to Shakespearean fiction. Short stories by him about the Bard begin and end the book; and, in the hundred-or-so central pages, Burgess has Enderby script a musical on the poet’s love life. Ghastly from the start, Enderby’s lyrics are further debased when he arrives at the Peter Brooke Theater, Terrebasse, Indiana (‘To be or not to be/Smitten by you/Bitten by you ...’), and Shakespeare, outraged, fights back. Enderby is not surprised. ‘We were all warned,’ he says Burgessly, ‘about disturbing his bones. There’s a curse waiting.’ Ominous thumping at an after-dinner séance, and a hotel fire which carries off the intruments of Enderby’s inspiration (an electric kettle and box of strong tea bags), prove these fears well-founded. Yet Enderby himself is hardly at fault. Indeed, he starts to look Shakespearean. Swayed by the Terrebasse company, like the Bard by Burgess, Kemp et al., he gives the public What it Wills, As it Likes It, while falling for the Dark Lady of his show, a ravishing asthenic negress named April Elgar. In a final, farcical sequence, the two bards osmose. When the male lead flounces out, just before the press night, Enderby finds himself in hose and a codpiece, playing Shakespeare to a packed, responsive house. He does rather well – not least when pawing April on her upstage daybed; and, back in the dressing-room, he finds a clear sign of supernatural approbation. ‘Shakespeare looked at Enderby from the mirror and coldly nodded.’
While the bones stir and the mirror glisters, Burgess attacks America. Using Shakespeare as his implied measure, he tries US culture and finds it sadly wanting. True, he betrays a sneaking regard for the Deep South Baptist community in which Ms Elgar has her roots, but he mocks the gracelessness of Middle America without mercy. Highballs at dinner, truculent cab-drivers, blue jeans, junk food: all such evils make him prickly and satiric. Burgess’s xenophobia or Enderby’s? You can’t read something like the account of dinner with Mrs Laura Schoenbaum – the theatre patroness who shares the name of Shakespeare’s best biographer – without feeling that it’s the author who’s grinding axes. When, to take one instance, an idiotic lawyer rounds on the innocent Enderby, over the cake and coffee, with ‘We don’t need smartass, pardon me Laura, Europeans coming over here to knock American institootions,’ the hint of phoneticism lets Burgess make the man a butt by degrading his institutions orthographically. Time and again in the Terrebasse chapters, the reader enjoys easy laughs, uneasily.
Less tendentious are the stories which bracket the central novella. In the first, supposedly penned by Enderby before the action, Ben Jonson betrays the Gunpowder Plotters to Robert Cecil through Shakespeare’s mediation, and Shakespeare emends the proofs of Psalm 46 in the Authorised Version. Presumably the inspiration here was Kipling’s story ‘Proofs of Holy Writ’, but the idiom is straight Bardic Romance: ‘New Place, when he got there, was bright as a rubbed angel, Anne his wife and Judith his daughter yet unmarried having nought much to do save buff and sweep and pick up hairs from the floor. The mulberry tree was doing well.’ Yet, if Enderby begins as Folkestone Williams, he is closer in the final story to the sci-fi Burgess of The End of the World News. Zooming back from the 21st century, with transcripts from the Folio in his scrip, a scholar called Paley visits Shakespeare in his London lodging to discover what he was writing in the mid-1590s. Unhappily for Paley, Shakespeare turns out to be a hack and a scoundrel who seizes his visitor’s manuscripts and consigns him to Bedlam. The fiction ends with Shakespeare copying The Merchant of Venice from Paley’s folio papers, ‘not blotting a line’. Jorge Luis Burgess thus shows the texts authorlessly creating themselves out of a time loop. It’s a clever plot, and only a reckless pedant would object that, since the Quarto Merchant of Venice differs from the Folio, and since Q is by general consent close to Shakespearean manuscript where F is not, the circle is incomplete.
Such pedants deserve the dreary lives they lead, totting up variants or tracing bits of broken type through Jacobean quartos; but their dull routine is alleviated, from time to time, by the arrival of The Stratford Tragi-Comedy,a newsletter devoted to the theory that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare. Resourceful as ever, the current number uses notices of Enderby’s Dark Lady to demonstrate ‘the continued decline in our belief in William of Stratford’. Nicholas Shrimpton, D.A.N. Jones and others are cited in such a way as to make them suggest that, when not translating the 46th Psalm, Shakespeare was copying Paley’s papers. Burgess and his reviewers may resent their conscription into the anti-Stratford camp, but the company is distinguished there. Hawthorne, after all, supported the speculations of Delia Bacon; and Freud underlined his significance as a literary critic by arguing that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford. One notable the Enderbians will not find at their side, however, is A.L. Rowse, who crops up in The Stratford Tragi-Comedy saying that, though we know more about Shakespeare than about any other Elizabethan dramatist (we don’t, of course), this ‘won’t stop the crackpots fancying that the plays were written by Queen Elizabeth I or Archbishop Whitgift – for most people don’t really know how to think’. This is the chief puzzle of the newsletter. Why have these imperiously orthodox sentiments been admitted to an anti-Stratford journal? Is there a suggestion that, since A.L. Rowse thinks Shakespeare wrote the plays, he can’t have done?
If so, it’s easy to sympathise. Over the last few years, Rowse has made so many insupportable assertions about the Bard that it’s become impossible to trust him – especially where the sonnets are concerned. Even in 1964, when editing these poems for the first time, he reached rashly decided conclusions; and his progress has been downhill. Admittedly, it’s a difficult field to work, because the evidence is so circumstantial that it’s easy for a scholar to construct a case which seems to him coherent but to everyone else a figment resting on the conclusions it’s supposed to support. So, if you decide like Rowse that the sonnets were written in 1592-4/5, you can find a patron (Southampton), rival poet (Marlowe) and W.H. (Sir William Harvey) to fit; but if you think an early dating wrong – as many critics now do – alternative rivals, patrons and W.H.s are not far to find. In the end, the so-called problems are only resolved, or disposed of, when readers return to the verse to realise afresh just how little the biographical background would matter, even if it were known.
To complete the jigsaw, and stabilise his busily circular argument, Rowse sought and ‘stumbled upon’ a Dark Lady. His nigrate was Emilia Lanier: ‘brown in youth’, as he learned from Simon Forman’s Diary, exotically Italian, and married to a court musician called William. Hence the blackness of her favour, the overlap with Rosaline (the dusky southern beauty in Love’s Labour’s Lost), and, above all, the three wills of Sonnet 135, picked out with italic and initial capitals in the Jacobean text: ‘Will’ the woman’s vagina, ‘Will too boote’ her husband, and ‘Will in ouer-plus’ the ithyphallic poet. This argument, initially so appealing, collapsed under scrutiny. Stanley Wells observed that Forman’s manuscript read ‘brave’ not ‘brown’, John Carey crisply noted that, if Emilia was Italian, Rosaline was French, and Mary Edmond established the true name of Lanier’s husband: Alfonso. In the new text only ‘Will in overplus’ has Burgess-like prominence: ‘will to boot’, confidently declared an allusion to William Lanier in Rowse’s second edition, dwindles to a modest roman lower case.
Little else, however, has changed. Rowse still cleaves to Mistress Lanier, though her importance is now stated, not argued for. The emperor in the tale was at least abashed when his nakedness was pointed out: Dr Rowse seems shameless. ‘To/President Ronald Reagan’, his book begins, ‘for his professional appreciation/of/William Shakespeare’. (Was Reagan wise to garnish Rowse’s text? What if the Dark Lady becomes an election issue, with Emilia v. Ms Elgar, the Italian against the black vote?) Throughout Rowse’s introduction, a tone of Olympian effrontery prevails. ‘All the problems of Shakespeare’s Sonnets – for long regarded as the greatest of literary mysteries,’ it starts, ‘have now been solved unanswerably, as in this edition.’ In careless, gestural, jabbing prose, Rowse parades his ego for another 15 pages, identifying once again the central characters of this love story – Shakespeare, Wriothesley, Marlowe, Mistress Lanier – and the hero of it all: himself. As for his detractors: ‘I greatly blame the academic Shakespeareans, who complain at all the confusion they have to contend with, for leaving the gates wide open for the crackpots to canter in, for leaving questions open and uncertain when they have been settled for them – not by themselves but, less surprisingly, by a leading authority on the age in which Shakespeare lived and wrote.’ The trouble is, confronted with claims like this, the reader starts to wonder whether Rowse means what he says.
Certainly, it’s possible to read the book as an exercise in fiction – as a sort of Shakespearean Pale Fire. Like Kinbote, finding allusions to Zembla everywhere in John Shade’s poem, Rowse interprets the sonnets with the unscrupulous opportunism of an obsessive. To gloss ‘So you o’er-green my bad’ in 112, for instance, as a reference to Greene’s attack on Shakespeare in the Groats-Worth of Witte, is as fantastic as Kinbote’s annotation to ‘the frame house between/Goldsworth and Word-smith on its square of green’, and rather less touching than his verdant allusions to Appalachia as ‘our sunny, green, grass-fragrant Arcady’. For Rowse is dull where Kinbote is poetic. As Michael Long so eloquently demonstrates in his new book Marvel, Nabokov: Childhood and Arcadia,it’s impossible not to warm to the naive ingenuity with which Nabokov’s editor works out his derangement. Rowse, by contrast, remains petulantly predictable. As a contribution to Shakespearean fiction, analogous with Enderby’s Dark Lady and in a line that stems from Scott, his edition is distinctly more interesting than the same text construed as a work of scholarship, but it commands no admiration either way.