Pillors of Fier

Frank Kermode

  • Nothing like the Sun: reissue by Anthony Burgess
    Allison and Busby, 234 pp, £7.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 7490 0512 2

Arguing – redundantly? disingenuously? – that ‘every Shakespeare-lover’ has the right ‘to paint his own portrait of the man’, Anthony Burgess published his version in 1970. Though ‘eschewing invention’, he confessed to an element of ‘conjecture’, adding that the reader should spot his venial departures from fact and excuse them as inevitable in the work of a fiction-writer, his hand subdued to what it had hitherto worked in. Conscience compelled him to end one speculatively ‘onomastic’ paragraph, in which he fools around with the names of Shakespeare’s children, with the words: ‘The whole of this paragraph is very unsound.’ Here is an example of candour rarely matched by Shakespeare’s biographers.

Any biography of Shakespeare has to mix conjecture with established fact since there must be a measure of continuity in the narrative that the known facts cannot themselves provide. It is not always easy to draw the line between such conjectures and fiction. That Shakespeare wrote the long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece for his patron the Earl of Southampton at a time when the theatres were closed because of the plague is certain. But when biographers need to say something about ‘the lost years’ between the last sighting of the poet in Stratford and his appearance on the London scene – roughly speaking, the 1580s – they are obliged to meditate on the scraps of evidence that provide clues and proceed, with varying degrees of caution, to do some invention. The story may then become so complicated that even reasonably sober academic biographers have to alter the whole shape of the early career to accommodate their guesses. When the fiction is provided by someone whose business is precisely the writing of fiction the invention may be far less cautious. The Burgess version did not please the most eminent of biographers and scrutineer of other biographers, Samuel Schoenbaum, who knew no evidence for Burgess’s claim that Shakespeare’s brother Gilbert was an epileptic, or that the poet was ever betrothed to somebody called Anne Whately. He couldn’t bring himself to say anything about the mature Shakespeare finding his wife in bed with his brother. Yet Burgess’s biography, granted the unstoppable flow of his fancy, is well enough in its way, yielding no more bravura excursions than might be expected from a novelist who, while always retaining much respect for learning, could not leave the tale unadorned by his exuberant invention.

The biography was not his first writing about Shakespeare; he says in its preface that he had earlier composed the script of a Hollywood biopic, presumably never made, and ‘a novel composed somewhat hurriedly’ to celebrate the quatercentenary of 1964. Nothing like the Sun, ‘containing a great deal of guesswork, as well as some invention that has no basis even in probability’, has now been republished. Even allowing for the obvious generic differences, it is clear that Burgess changed his mind about certain matters between the writing of the two books. Some identifications remain: in 1970 as in 1964, the young man addressed in the Sonnets is the Earl of Southampton, not, as some still think, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The Rival Poet of Sonnet 86 remains George Chapman, not, as some think, Samuel Daniel or Michael Drayton or Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson or, since his was assuredly an ‘alien pen’ (Sonnet 78), Torquato Tasso. Candidates for the doubtful honour of being the Dark Lady are discussed (so far as the list went in 1970) and a slight preference is registered for Mary Fitton, who had a good run for many years but, when investigated, turned out to have a fair complexion, her hair merely brown. But there is no definite decision. ‘It is best to leave the Dark Lady anonymous, even composite.’ Burgess was writing before A.L. Rowse, exercising his superior historical method and unmatched intellect, announced that she was incontrovertibly Emilia Lanier. Burgess might have liked that idea, which has a certain glamour because of Lanier’s close connection with the astrologer Simon Forman, a man who kept a journal record of his sexual conquests. He also saw Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline at the Globe, and brought off a final trick, not all that wonderful if you think about it, by correctly predicting the date of his own death. But despite all this glamour the Lanier theory seems already to have lost support.

It seems that the sonnets about this dark woman (127-152, or some of them) did not stir the interest of Burgess the biographer of 1970, but to the novelist of 1964 they were irresistible. Sonnet 144 was then a central document in the poet’s life. Burgess accepts the theory that Shakespeare had a mistress unfashionably dark in colour, not just black-haired and of dark complexion like Rosaline (‘a whitely wanton with a velvet brow’) in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but really, exotically, black. The idea that she was a West Indian had been mooted before (with the added conjecture that she was associated with the black prostitutes who frequented Clerkenwell) but Burgess, remembering his own youth, brought her rather from the East. This woman became the poet’s lusty mistress, but was seduced by his aristocratic friend, the Earl of Southampton.

The story supposedly embedded in these sonnets is not told continuously, but by skipping a bit one could argue that 127 introduces a dark woman, 128 flatters her skill at the virginals, 129 (‘Th’ expense of spirit’) seems animated by disgust at sexual excess, 130 says he’s glad she’s not a blonde, 131 that she is truly and wickedly black in her conduct rather than in her appearance, and 132 that her blackness after all suits him very well. At 133 it begins to appear that his friend has taken up with the woman, and 134 suggests that the poet has in consequence lost both friend and mistress; 135 is bawdily sad, saying that she will accommodate the friend’s ‘will’ but not Will’s will in her will (slang for ‘penis’, also for ‘vagina’). Gloomy jokes about ‘will’ continue in 136. They are followed in 137 by a bitter complaint against his fate, which is that he foolishly cannot stop wanting to anchor ‘in the bay where all men ride’; and 138 is a wonderfully and bawdily resigned poem (‘When my love swears that she is made of truth/I do believe her, though I know she lies’). The next two, 139 and 140, continue his complaints about the woman’s cruelty. In 141 and 142 he is still her wronged vassal, and 143 pleads for some show of kindness. But 144 opens another topic.

Two loves I have, of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman coloured ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turned fiend
Suspect I may, yet not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell.
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The real difficulty, if one is looking for a story, lies not in the quatrains but in the concluding couplet. Like everybody else, the poet has a guardian angel and a tempting devil in continual competition for his soul, but the devil has seduced the good angel – who therefore no longer serves as a guardian – and has turned her attention to the fair young man and may be corrupting him; if so the erstwhile angel will doubtless, as a devil, find an appropriate place in ‘hell’, her vagina. The poet arrives at this conclusion not on direct evidence but by inference: mistress and friend have disappeared, presumably together, and although the conclusion may seem obvious he remains, one supposes painfully, in doubt. The last line is usually taken to have a double sense: expel him from her ‘hell’ (and presumably by extension her life) as foxes were smoked out of their holes; or/and, give him a venereal disease.

Much divergent interpretation has been devoted to this line, but there seems to be pretty general agreement about the infection idea. Shakespeare’s most recent biographer, Katherine Duncan-Jones, who incidentally thinks the young friend was William Herbert, not Southampton, has a good learned note in her edition about contemporary accounts of men getting burned by the female genitalia – ‘thus was his paradice turned into his purgatory . . . his pricke of desier into a pillor of fier’ – but even this is not necessarily a reference to venereal disease, for it is an anonymous author’s way of expressing his hope that the Earl of Leicester, the lecher under attack, may get his comeuppance in hell by being required to consort incessantly with a female devil. On the whole Duncan-Jones, having thus thoroughly looked into the matter, seems to concur with the general editorial opinion, usually expressed with no shadow of a doubt. Yet it does seem a little doubtful. Nobody has found another example of ‘to fire out’ meaning what it is here taken to mean, and I notice that David and Ben Crystal, in their new glossary Shakespeare’s Words,[*] do not admit the venereal sense, giving only ‘to drive away by fire’. The poet is not even sure the parties have slept together, and could only have been certain of the consequence accepted by these commentators if he had been infected himself; and that he does not say.

Burgess was clearly impressed by the infection theory. The subtitle of his book is ‘A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life’, so the episode of the dark mistress, here held responsible for the poet’s eventual death, is central to a book that tries to get everything in and to do so with a pseudo-Elizabethan swagger, and not without a touch of Joyce. The youthful Shakespeare has lines from future plays running in his head. His epileptic brother Gilbert, ‘the family idiot’, also suggests future material and, sometimes a wise fool, makes a memorable remark: ‘We know what we are but know not what we may be.’ Though the family had some vague claims to gentility on the mother’s side William seems destined to be a glove maker like his impoverished father. A local character, ‘a palliard, a wild rogue’, a sort of proto-Falstaff, catches hold of William’s little sister Anne and says: ‘I have thee, nops, sucket, little ringcandy’; there is a lot of Elizabethan vocabulary around, not all of it known to the OED nor verifiably to Shakespeare; we may suppose he knew some words he did not use, though probably not as many as Burgess. These lexical gymnastics are kept up with Burgess’s usual rather frenzied energy.

Will writes his first poems and has visions of a poetic future which includes a black woman and a golden man. He already has a preference for dark ladies. Drunk, he is seduced – ‘in a manner tricked, coney-caught, a court-dor to a cozening cotquean’ – by the wanton Anne Hathaway (Venus to his Adonis), who gets pregnant. Will reluctantly breaks his engagement to Anne Whately, a girl who, as more stolid biographers admit, is unlikely ever to have existed, and reluctantly marries this older woman.

Eventually he leaves Stratford, gets involved with a troupe of actors, has this adventure and that, and despite his mistrust of women encounters a thematically black prostitute in Bristol. Burgess was too early to benefit from the recent conspiracy to send the young man to Catholic Lancashire – a pity, for he would have enjoyed that detour. In London the young man is soon working, as most players and playwrights did, for the impresario Henslowe. But what he wants to be is a gentleman, not just a liveried player, and of course he gets what he wants.

The playhouses, the caste of contemporary dramatists – some writers of genius, some hacks – Burgess does well. He includes the hard times when playhouses were closed during outbreaks of plague, recounts the sensational building of the Globe on Bankside, revels in the squalor of London: everywhere filthy and cruel, with high and low alike as much in love with ghastly public executions as with tragedies.

Burgess went to a lot of trouble about detail, as he did about so many other things in his rapidly written books – the Lévi-Straussian fantasy M/F, seemingly wild yet carefully ordered, the strange Napoleon Symphony, product of his own musical ambitions and requiring explanations only he could provide. He liked to work on such schemes, and here the scheme is the life of an Elizabethan playwright. Its scope is considerable: if you belonged to a major company, under the protection of an important courtier (and, after 1603, of the King himself), being technically a vagabond did not prevent access to the great. So Shakespeare met his patron, the young Earl of Southampton, who was of the powerful Essex faction at court. Author and patron became friends, rather closer than might be expected from the difference in rank. His affair with a dark lady from, it now seems, Malaya or the East Indies, is interrupted by the friend, and the mixture of sexual disgust, longing, resignation and anger of the sonnets is projected onto the novel.

While this painful affair is in progress Shakespeare’s son Hamnet dies in Stratford. Going home on this occasion to his grand new house, the biggest in the town, he discovers his wife and his brother in bed; no great surprise to this rusé Londoner, who by now knew, grimly enough, what one might expect of a woman. Anne’s infidelity is a great relief, and the poet rides back to London grateful for ‘that cornuted manumission’, an expression one likes to think only Burgess could have invented. The unequal friendship with Southampton is resumed, and Shakespeare dares to warn his friend against getting mixed up in the ambitions and plots of the rebellious Essex. He also returns to his lover and catches the disease from which the young Earl is already suffering. The book ends with a sort of dark Lawrentian fantasia on that disease as the source of all evil, and possibly the true source of the truth about this world.

Thus it was that Sonnet 144, especially its last line, begot this virtuoso novel. Possibly it’s based on a misconception. But it hardly matters. It’s fair to say that Burgess does some things well, and with a lively enough sense of what London was like, across the whole social range from court to jail, at the end of the old Queen’s reign. His Shakespeare is in the end a great man because he told the truth about the evil of his world and the world generally and always.

Historical novels about writers and intellectuals rarely seem to have a lasting appeal. Henry Esmond is probably the most famous instance, and there the principal character is not a writer, though there are writers about, like Swift. I remember my youthful struggle trying to sort out who was who and what was happening in Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, which is about Erasmus or rather his father. Romola has Savonarola in it, but not exactly as a principal. There are of course novels about Jesus – in fact, Burgess wrote one of them, Man of Nazareth – and Robert Graves did Milton as well as Jesus and Claudius. Doubtless there are many more such biographical novels, forgotten or unread by me. They don’t seem very popular, though there was Lloyd Douglas’s bestselling The Robe, which amazed the experienced Edmund Wilson by its sheer dullness.

This example of the genre, though revived after almost forty years, will probably share the fate of the rest. In the end there seems to be something wrong with the idea of the bio-novel. Its non-fictional base is already a composite of fact and fancy, so that there is a phoniness built into the entire idea that no amount of randy pseudo-Elizabethanism can dispel. Given these initial handicaps, Burgess, with his fertility of fancy and love of the outrageous, coped pretty well. But by 1970 he contrives to mention this novel a little shamefacedly, without even giving it a title. It was already on its way to Schoenbaum’s lumber-room, consigned – doubtless with imperfect justice – to the company of a thousand cranks who also exercised their right to paint their own portrait of the man.

[*] Penguin, 676 pp., £20, 6 June, 0 14 101162 9.