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Vol. 9 No. 3 · 5 February 1987

Search by issue:

Mrs Shakespeare

SIR: I was enchanted by what I take to be a playful suggestion by Barbara Everett (LRB, 18 December 1986) that Shakespeare’s wife believed ‘rightly or wrongly’ that the Sonnets had been ‘mostly addressed to herself’, and that it was she and her brother who were responsible, in 1609, for their publication. Miss Everett likens this to a certain designer, quoted in a Sunday newspaper, having a sketchbook published without his permission and dedicated to him, just as Master William Hathaway and Thorpe dedicated the Sonnets to their ‘onlie begetter’, Shakespeare himself.

I expected that the next Letters page of the LRB would be devoted to responses to this wholly distinctive reading of the old enigmas, and was astonished to find no reply at all in your current issue. Perhaps the scholars, each with some cherished view of the Sonnets, are made angry by Miss Everett. I, who am no scholar, was impressed, but totally unconvinced. I was impressed by the sort of Balzac novel which Miss Everett had evidently written in her head before she penned her essay. Here is a picture of appalling provincial intrigue and marital duplicity, two stupid greedy people rifling a locked cupboard in New Place, and coming upon the poems; their immediate reaction: ‘there be money in sonnets.’ Master W.H. getting on his nag and riding off to London while his sister stuffed ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ into the saddlebags. Miss Everett professes ‘real sympathy’ for the latest editor of the Sonnets ‘when he brushes aside the cloud of biographical enigma cant’. But she must not be allowed to dismiss her own original theory with such characteristic sprezzatura.

I love it. But I can’t believe it. Let us suppose that Barbara Everett is right – not about the Hathaways pinching the MS and flogging it to Thorpe, but in her more general point that the Sonnets are a sort of metaphorical marital journey.

To begin at the beginning – why is Shakespeare urging his wife (Sonnets 1 to 17) to get married? Why is he, eight years her junior, addressing her as if she were a man considerably younger than himself? Why does he regret (Sonnet 20) that Nature has ‘pricked thee out for women’s pleasure’, an unmistakable suggestion that the addressee has male sexual organs? One answer could be, if we followed Miss Everett, that these early Sonnets represent the mannish elder woman addressing the younger man who is perhaps unwilling to marry her. But since the one thing we know about the months previous to Shakespeare’s wedding is that Ann Hathaway was pregnant, how do we understand those frequent injunctions and entreaties to ‘get a son’? The young man in Sonnets 1-17 has obviously done nothing about reproducing himself. If she was pregnant already, would she beg Shakespeare to ‘make thee another self for love of me’ etc?

Then again, there are all the Sonnets which suggest that the young man is of an appreciably higher social class than the poet, one who can expect a marble tomb when he dies, and someone over whose head the poet helped bear a canopy (Sonnet 125). Why – when the Hathaways were not a notable gentry family – would Shakespeare, even in jest, write in this way to his wife?

Turning to the Dark Lady, it is arresting to discover that in Miss Everett’s view she, too, is ‘at least in part Anne’. If she is both the Young Man and the Dark Lady, I don’t understand those Sonnets in which aching jealousy is expressed for the love which has grown up between them. How can you be jealous of a relationship which someone has with themselves? The Dark Lady is represented in the Sonnets as a dishonest trollop riddled with VD. Why, when she came across the poems in the cupboard at New Place, was Mrs Shakespeare so convinced that (in the words of Nevill Coghill to Dr Rowse upon the discovery of Emilia Lanier) ‘this was the Woman. This was She’? I feel that if Mrs Shakespeare was half the things she thought Shakespeare thought she was – or half the things Miss Everett thought she thought Shakespeare thought she was – it would more than explain Aubrey’s note that Shakespeare was not ‘a company keeper … and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’ With such a spouse, pain would be inevitable. But with such real-live drama going on at home, how could he ever tear himself away to the comparatively colourless world of the theatre?

A.N. Wilson

Barbara Everett writes: I am glad that A.N. Wilson loved my review. It would have been nice – perhaps even nicer – if he had managed to read it as well. For what he ‘takes’ he mistakes; and all its priorities he quietly reverses. My argument was the importance of the Sonnets’ Dedication, which shows that Shakespeare didn’t himself authorise these poems. This textual argument supports an impression more purely literary: the Sonnets take their power from their essentially private nature, not from their status as conventional court poetry. The important issue is the nature and value of Shakespeare’s poems, and to this any question of provenance is quite secondary. Yet the Sonnets have, too, their own ‘readerliness’, a brilliance of rhetorics – and we can parallel with this the sense that if these poems were pirated, then we owe a real debt to those responsible, without whom we ourselves might never have had the poems to read. The pirates could, in fact, be said to reflect in their character the double quality in the poems themselves: private in origin yet certainly public in effect. The most obvious source is Shakespeare’s own family. In his brother-in-law I conjectured a ‘genuine admiration’ for the poet as motive, because the Dedication displays it; Anne I called ‘clever’ because (among other reasons) I can’t believe in a Shakespeare who loved and married a fool.

A.N. Wilson’s dark fiction of ‘stupid greedy people’ has nothing to do with any of this. All his letter suggests is some limitation in conjugal experience, which in his case has apparently never included persuasion by a wife to do for his own good what he didn’t much want to do; and which leaves him incapable of believing that a wife might evidence her pride in a husband’s work by actually initiating its publication herself – a gesture all the more natural in a society which considered poets to be gentlemen, but practising dramatists only something near to vagabonds.

The ‘appalling provincial intrigue’, the ‘rifling’, ‘pinching’, ‘flogging’ – perhaps these are emanations of that playfulness he thinks characteristic of scholars: like his idea that I might in a single sentence overturn my entire argument, or like his projection onto me of some ‘theory’ of the Sonnets in a review whose whole thesis militated against the formation of any such simplifying theory. These are fun and games that don’t suggest any real desire for clarification. Nonetheless, it would be discourteous not to meet Wilson’s questions.

Let us note the concrete case he specifies, that of Sonnet 125. This opens:

Wer’t ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honoring,
Or layd great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than wast or ruining? …

Wilson calls this representative of ‘all the Sonnets which suggest that the young man is … someone over whose head the poet helped to bear a canopy’. He thus imposes on the poem a light, bright literal sociality. But if we suppose that ‘bore the canopy’ is literal, we had better interpret line 3 as alluding to Shakespeare’s stint as a bricklayer. A ‘canopy’ was the ‘hood’ over a throne, or its simulacrum carried in procession: Queen Elizabeth is under one in Robert Peake’s picture of her, used by Roy Strong to introduce his ‘Gloriana’ section in The Elizabethan Image – and there is an even better-known canopied Elizabeth in the Wedding at Bermondsey. Wilson has precedents: the occasional Victorian scholar not too much at home with Shakespeare’s imagery has tried to persuade readers that the poet must have conducted a longstanding affair with Elizabeth or James or both. It seems saner to agree with ordinary readers, as with Aristotle, that metaphor is the soul of poetry. If we assume that the person under the canopy is the beloved, then the canopy has to be metaphorical. If the person under the canopy isn’t a king, he can be anything down to a ploughboy. Or a ploughgirl.

But to assume that the person under the canopy is the beloved is, in fact, a simple and flat mistake. For Wilson seems not to have noticed the powerful ‘conditional’ quality of the sonnet. The first questioning line could (just) mean ‘Would it matter at all to me that I carried the canopy?’, but in view of its context it’s far more likely to mean ‘Would it matter at all to me even if I had carried the canopy’ – ‘bore’, that is to say, as a subjunctive like ‘were’. This profound wistfulness, this resolute facing of what might have been, is not only opposed to Wilson’s simple social literalism (as if the poem were gossip): it also becomes the entire moral point of the poem. The loved one first heard of in line 9 – ‘Noe, let me be obsequious in thy heart’ – brings with her or him values precisely opposed to those of the octave: hence the force of ‘Noe’. Love is wholly unlike the life of court ceremony and power evoked in the first eight lines. Therefore, whoever the person under the canopy is, there is one person he/she can’t be: the beloved. The ‘trew soule’ (line 13) is opposed to what is ‘extern’ and ‘outward’ – since the world is only well lost for love by those who know at least roughly what they are losing. If this is a poem about the ‘trew soule’, then the lower the worldly position of the addressee, the better. And, as Wilson himself benignly comes near to making plain, you can’t get much lower than a woman.

Wilson climaxes his doubts thus: ‘Why – when the Hathaways were not a notable gentry family – would Shakespeare, even in jest, write in this way to his wife?’ To this there are two answers. The first is literary or technical, and involves the startling poverty of that ‘even in jest’ as a gloss on what happens in great and greatly original poetry. Wilson is reducing the ‘writing to’ of a poem to the ‘writing to’ of a letter. Nor can we introduce the crude distinction, as I imagine he will propose, of Life and Art – the Sonnets are to my mind in no sense mere theoretical exercises, but work that demonstrates both how deep and how wide a writer may go when he writes out of experience. But to do this demands that he address no single or simple object. This is the case, symptomatically, with Sonnet 125. Lines 9, 10 and 12 do use the pronouns ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’, as of a loved one, or a loved one’s image. But the opening eight lines are profoundly meditative, self-questioning: a mode which seems plainly to return in the last two, lines 13 and 14, where ‘thou’ becomes another image in the mind, some ‘Informer’ (‘Hence, thou suborned Informer …’) who can hardly be the loved person. Similarly, the immediately preceding Sonnet, 124, invokes ‘my deare love’ throughout, but since it always uses the pronoun ‘it’, must mean by this the inward emotion, not the person. Similarly again, the immediately succeeding Sonnet 126, a sequence of couplets, addresses the ‘minnion’, ‘my lovely Boy’: but the gnomic, epigrammatic quality of the whole makes it plain that this is the first appearance of that Cupid who returns at the end of the whole, and is as little of a ‘person’ as is the suborned ‘Informer’.

Thus the whole question of ‘address’ is in poetry – especially in poetry of the Renaissance – far more complicated than Wilson hopes to make it sound What remains extraordinary is the degree to which Shakespeare learned to raise the limited conventions of Elizabethan court love poetry into a medium that could express what makes itself felt universally as human experience. This process clearly didn’t happen all at once, or without large experiment. This is why these poems vary so much in style, technique and achievement as hardly to be spoken of as one, two or any number of ‘sequences’. Deep interconnections hold them together, but they change and develop as they go, leaving outgrown conventions behind them. This is plainest at the start: for the first 16 or 18 – which Wilson was wise to choose for objection – are both highly conventional and strikingly odd, a rhetorical persuasion to marry that is original in being apparently directed from an older man to a younger: and C.S. Lewis wrote particularly well on the psychological unlikelihood of the situation. Yet these are good poems that work well as an internal debate on Life versus Art (Life wins, but only in a poem). But even before Shakespeare has quite exhausted the usefulness of this convention, he is transforming it to make it hold further and disparate areas of felt experience: the male subject, always shadowy, now starts (20) to become a ‘Master-Mistris’; and so something like a wavering, going-and-coming partial ‘story’ gets under way, involving the two images, ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’, much later codified by the Victorians into Fair Young Man and Dark Lady.

Shakespeare was so very great a writer that even his fragments and passing illusions of ‘story’ hold us more than whole novels by lesser artists. Similarly, some of the Sonnets bend and break their conventions to hold tracts of experience so individual, and so real, as to call up the sense of biography, even history. But these approximations to forms scarcely invented in Shakespeare’s time are not remotely the kind of meaning we read the Sonnets for. They are magnificent poems precisely because Shakespeare was capable of detaching, impersonalising, universalising, in a manner proper for his medium and not for another. The fiction of the conjunction of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady, cited by Wilson, nicely reveals this: it manifests the nature of an idealism that cares more for the beloved’s betrayal of herself than for her betrayal of the writer. It states in a perfect shorthand something close to the rich worldly inwardness of the tragedies: that the writer cares for the loss of both ‘mistress’ and ‘friend’, but he cares more for the fact that ‘mistress’ and ‘friend’ are destroying each other in one person, and most of all destroying the writer as his consciousness creates their tragedy.

This is what I meant by a ‘literary’ answer to Wilson’s question. But there is another answer, more simply human and even moral. The Victorian myth of the Fair Young Man and the Dark Lady is still innocently maintained by many good scholars and critics, including even the anti-biographical Kerrigan. Yet it seems to me to have been originally the work of presuppositions in themselves repellent, a quasi-romanticism thick with unstated snobberies and misogynies. Wilson, for instance, simply cannot cease to believe that if Shakespeare in a sonnet uses terms of profound respect, then he must be addressing 1. a man and 2. an earl.

‘Why would Shakespeare, even in jest [my italics], write in this way to his wife?’ The only real answer to this is that made by Fats Waller to an inquirer who asked him what precisely jazz was: ‘Lady, if you don’t know, I can’t tell you.’ Shakespeare, on the other hand, does some telling in the Sonnets, which go deepest where they explore the connections of love with power. Wilson has explained the delightful absence from your columns of comment on my review by the ‘anger’ of scholars: but the kind communications I have had on the subject have been far from mentioning anger, only (among other things) pleasure in an absorbed rereading of Shakespeare’s poems.

Nuclear Power and its Opponents

SIR: I would like to reply to the review by Walter Patterson of my book Red Alert. I am grateful to him for bringing its inaccuracies and errors to the attention of the nuclear industry, since that industry can hardly have a more honourable advocate. However, he makes various charges about my work which suggest I have deliberately sought to plagiarise his own, and that it is poorly researched – a mere scissors-and-paste job – badly edited and inaccurate, giving carte blanche to the nuclear industry to rip it to shreds.

Firstly, if there are occasions when I have called upon his knowledge through his published work, then not only have I, to the best of my knowledge, said so in my own book but I am happy to pay due credit to him here and now. That page after page of mine bears a more than passing resemblance to passages in books he has written could not be avoided since both of us were not only writing about the same subject but often drawing from the same – earlier – material. (The Nugget File published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the USA is just one such source.) There are, however, whole sections of my book about which Mr Patterson has not written. As to the title, Red Alert, this was one of several I put to my publishers. The first was Going critical, and indeed my book was to have been called by that name had not Mr Patterson published a book with the same name some months before I delivered my first manuscript to Hodder and Stoughton. I was unaware that ‘Red Alert’ was a ‘series’ title under which he had written his own first book on the subject, Nuclear Reaction – a book which was, in fact, never published.

With regard to the glossary, I must confess that when Mr Patterson has defined a term so succinctly that it could not be better expressed, I have sometimes used it, although I have found – in some instances – exactly the same wording used in other glossaries in other books and not attributed to Mr Patterson. When I completed my glossary it was read over by a specialist nuclear journalist who made his own suggestions, which I incorporated. It would be possible, I suppose, to list a source for each definition but I have never seen any book which did so.

There is one charge, above all, that I must protest at – that of intellectual ‘sharp practice’. I am a journalist, not a scientist, writing for lay people and not specialists, and when I have endeavoured to explain scientific matters I have done so bearing both these factors in mind. The charge that ‘the slapdash editing is unhappily typical’ must take note of the fact that I delivered the book before the Chernobyl disaster and had to retrieve it and return it for press, updated, within a matter of weeks.

My purpose in writing this book was not simply to take sides and attack the nuclear industry but to catalogue some of its hazards. I have, on numerous occasions, argued with its representatives in the media and have felt that, as a lay person, I have been well able to hold my own. I am naturally sorry that Mr Patterson feels as he does, as I hope we share the same concerns. I think it must also be recognised that there is often a feeling of hostility from specialists towards somebody like me who is merely a concerned journalist.

Judith Cook
Penzance, Cornwall


SIR: I was surprised and distressed to the point of anger to encounter an aside of such arrogantly unsupported presumption as to destroy my enjoyment of an otherwise generous, lucid and enlightening review by Ian Hacking (LRB, 18 December 1986). Venturing ‘a colourful example’, he mentions ‘an officer cadre that would willingly follow orders at places singled out for the slaughter of colonials such as Gallipoli or Dieppe’. What a wantonly irresponsible assessment of appalling sacrifices inherent in major strategic blunders in both world wars – about which he presumably knows very little and cares, seemingly, even less. Blunders, even of this magnitude, are historically inseparable from warfare: but tragic as they undoubtedly are, they simply are not maliciously planned slaughters of courageous and invaluable voluntary allies. Why should they be? Desperate combatants need all the help and loyalty they can get. Like countless others, about half of whom survived, I served as a Volunteer throughout World War Two. Our ages then probably covered the same span as Mr Hacking is currently enjoying: which is perhaps one reason why his casually dismissive slander irks me so. He jests at scars that never felt a wound.

David Stafford-Clark
Consultant Emeritus, Guy’s Hospital

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