Mrs Shakespeare

Barbara Everett

  • William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ edited by John Kerrigan
    Viking, 458 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 670 81466 0
illiustration of dedication of the sonnets

Not many stories about Shakespeare that are either credible or interesting survived the poet: but one can be found in an additional note to Aubrey’s Brief Lives, which recalls him as ‘the more to be admired q[uia] he was not a company keeper, lived in Shoreditch, wouldn’t be debauched, and if invited to, writ: he was in pain.’ This sounds true in more than one way; perhaps Shakespeare did suffer from headaches as well as high principles and good manners. But what makes the anecdote memorable is that it so nicely sums up a writer’s struggle against another kind of takeover bid: that made by the ‘Society’ of readers and of criticism. He needs to be read, but read on his own terms. Shakespeare said in the Sonnets: ‘Noe, I am that I am.’

The Sonnets are in themselves a monument to that struggle, a battle both lost and won. The attempt to make Shakespeare a ‘company keeper’ even conditioned their first appearance. In 1609, late in the dramatist’s career, a small volume called ‘SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS’ came into print, with a dedicatory page so curious that it has been used, from at least the earlier 19th century, to throw light on poems found obscure or simply not read for a hundred years or more before that. Victorian readers in practice resolved the difficulties they met by taking the dedication to indicate a simple human drama narrated in the Sonnets and involving two personalities as well as the poet’s: the ‘fair young man’ and the ‘dark lady’. For a very long time – this approach still dominates at least the more conservative or biographical criticism – the Sonnets have been read as telling some kind of love story, the objects a man and a woman (Sonnets 1-126, 127-152): and the far more important figure of the man is to be met in that ‘Mr. W.H.’ whom most commentators take to be addressed in the dedication as the ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’ of these poems.

In the later 1860s a French librarian, M. Philarète Chasles, published in the Athenaeum an observation largely dismissed at the time and only very occasionally glanced at since. I hadn’t myself heard of him when some years ago I pleasedly ‘discovered’ what I only later found this almost-forgotten foreign scholar had propounded a century earlier. And Shakespeare’s biographer, Samuel Schoenbaum, even now refers to him in a footnote as ‘a singularly gullible gentleman’, and to his suggestion as ‘this tormented reading’. What Chasles tried to point out in 1867 was that the Sonnets volume begins with what is recognisably a lapidary or monumental inscription.

Some of what Chasles proposed about the dedication is wrong – he couldn’t get clear of the whole ‘fair young man’ imbroglio, and insisted on seeing the book as dedicated to Southampton. All the same, he looked at the page in front of him with aesthetic intelligence. Curiously, many commentators on the Sonnets, a work perhaps more intensely debated than anything else Shakespeare wrote, have pondered the complications of the dedication without mentioning a simple fact. Every word in it is separated from every other by full stops. Roman inscriptions divided their close-packed words just so. When this literal habit is added to the visual form of the dedication – shaped seemingly with a conscious attempt at pattern, even perhaps intending the design of a Classical urn – then it becomes clear that the maker of this dedication has a perfectly definite purpose. He has worked in ambitious deference to a fashion then beginning to hold its own in the visual arts of Renaissance Europe.

What Chasles couldn’t do was to make complete sense of what he saw. If this is easier now, the reason must be partly the help more recently given by such learned work on the art of inscriptions as John Sparrow’s, whose Visible Words, Line upon Line and Lapidaria are gratefully quoted in this and the following paragraph. For some three hundred years after the mid-15th century, a new art born in Italy swept Europe, accompanying the greater visual arts. Sculptors, painters and then printers started to imitate Roman stonecutters, ‘never surpassed for the beauty of their lettering’. Simple paragraphing gave way to a new and distinctive lineation, ‘a significant text and a spatial representation of that text appropriate to its meaning’ (a form most readily called to mind now by good Augustan tombstones, suitably the relic of the art that has proved most enduring in England). Latin was par excellence the language of inscriptions because of its linguistic character, its inflected flexibility, its freedom from ‘articles and particles’. Inscriptions are laconic; and during the Renaissance the new art forged had a ‘calculated and felicitous ambiguity’.


This ambiguity is important, for – calculated if not felicitous – it underlies the difficulty for centuries found in the Sonnets’ dedication. For English is, as Sparrow says, not at all a lapidary language. Mr W.H. and T.T. were trying clumsily to do with it what more brilliant if small-scale artists had done in this Latin inscription of 1592 on the fifth bell in the Chapel Tower of Winchester College:


This says: ‘Bell-notes are prayers from earth to heaven as well as blessings descending to earth from the skies.’ The finest inscriptions of the time (some of the best are gathered into the Lapidaria, volumes printed with great beauty by Stanley Morison) work with this grace and wit, minute yet monumental. Carefully central or final in climax, a single verb or pregnant noun will so govern contrasting predicates as to reflect the tragi-comedy of the human condition. Thus Robert Burton (‘Democritus Junior’), the sad creator of the great Anatomy of Melancholy, is commemorated (1639) in the Cathedral at Christ Church, Oxford:

                HIC JACET

I follow here Sparrow’s slightly improved and cleaned-up version: the original at Christ Church punctuates exactly like the Sonnets’ dedication, but with commas between the words instead of full stops. The play of wit is obvious either way: the intellectual withdraws from the social (‘known to few’) to make possible his own work (‘unknown to fewer’); and ‘withdrawal’ itself, in more senses than one, may be the source and condition of that melancholia which gave Burton his great Anatomy while destroying the man himself.

The dedicatory inscription of Q (as the 1609 Quarto edition of the Sonnets is known to scholars) lacks this learned or clerical economy. But its careful structure, which perhaps aspires to resemble an urn (another form of Renaissance wit – ‘figured’ writing) seems thus to attempt a classic statement. Linguistically, it falls between two stools, trying to add to the word-order of a Classical Latin sentence the syntactic ambiguity of a later age of inscription. The first half up to ‘WISHETH’ mimics in English Latin word-order: ‘Mr W.H. wishes to the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets all happiness and that eternity he, our ever-living poet, has himself promised (to another and to himself)’ is what it means. This solemn pastiche is then confounded by the bringing into play of the (in this case disruptive) bifocal verb of inscriptions. Having concluded one period, ‘WISHETH’ has to generate a second, in order to work – in theory – like ‘AUDITE’ and ‘DEDIT’ above. Not only Mr W.H. WISHETH but also and equally WISHETH T.T. the well-wishing adventurer.

The inventor of this artlessly artful device had, I would suggest, a motive beyond the saving of type and ink. And the clue to it lies in the first words of the inscription, that ‘ONLIE. BEGETTER.’ which has only begotten so much and such vexed discussion for upwards of two centuries. If academic studies of Q sometimes seem low in their appreciation of the aesthetic, they are hardly readier with the theological. Editors and commentators have with extraordinary frequency pronounced ‘beget’ in this context to mean ‘get’, ‘procure’, or ‘inspire’. But this simple word had for Elizabethans the straightforward sense it still has for us. To beget is literally to father, and metaphorically to give life. For the English Renaissance mind there was only one ‘ONLIE.BEGETTER.’: God, the Father and Maker of all things, who as the First Person of the Trinity ‘only begot’ (all alone, uniquely and for ever) the Second Person, God’s Son Jesus Christ who was the ‘only-begotten of the Father’. And it is this same God the Father who, as Jarweh of the Old Testament, defined himself by saying: ‘I am that I am.’

In their verbally-reciprocal sentence Mr W.H. and T.T. are dedicating their book with, literally, the greatest possible placatory deference (even if with also a little friendly humour). The dedicatee, the divine father who begot these ensuing sonnets on his Muse, can only conceivably be Shakespeare – the Sonnets are, after all, like children, called ‘SHAKE-SPEARES’. As the (again, literally) middle-man Mr W.H. and the publisher T.T. (whom we know to be Thomas Thorpe) render back to the poet ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’ himself, so do the inscriptional lineation and syntax work to involve the three men in a three-in-one, one-in-three pattern of mutual good. The dedicatory inscription is, in short, one of those now quite dead Trinitarian conceits or devices that haunt the art of the English Renaissance even in stone: Trinitarian (three-sided) houses were then designed and built, like Triangular Lodge, erected at Rushton, Northamptonshire, in 1594-7, with over the doorway the text: ‘TRES TESTIMONIUM DANT.’ The builder, not very surprisingly, was named Tresham.

Tresham, a converted Catholic, was putting up a brave show. The intentions of Mr W.H. and T.T. can similarly be guessed at. The very difficult doctrine of the Trinity clearly fulfils a distinct purpose in theological terms: it locates at the heart of Christianity a God creative and loving, and always in process of giving life. As such, the figure can be used for saying something about the peculiar conditions, at once private and public, of literary creativity. The middle-man Mr W.H. and the publisher T.T. are selling a nice idea about literature. And they are manifestly selling it too (and first) to their First Person, the writer himself: the dedication says winsomely that, to the withdrawn poet, the publisher and the sales manager (if that is what the Holy Ghost is) are vital to the whole business of creativity. This is why the language of the inscription pleadingly and seductively interpenetrates itself, three-in-one and one-in-three: Shakespeare is given what he gives, ‘that eternity promised by our ever-living poet’ – and what keeps him ever-living is his publisher and his middle-man.

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