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Sample 2

Extract from Part I of Shakespeare:
a Hidden Life Sung in a Hidden Song



England's most famous author stands blurred in the shimmer of history. Some even challenge his authorship, so hazy is the detail of his life.

Consequently, although Shakespeare left us nearly one million words and a horde of characters, his own character and most of his activities have remained elusive.

Such mystery extends seemingly to his sonnets. These poems were, on contemporary observation, intended for private consumption1. Their language is often archaic and it is easy for us, living over four centuries later, to miss the subtleties and double meanings designed to stimulate their original audience, who had the advantage of context and background.

Nevertheless, with the many insights afforded by generations of analysts and a number of discoveries outlined below, the Sonnets shed startling light on the Stratfordian, his complicated love-life and several of his contemporaries.

Similar assertions have been made before. Each has lacked sufficient evidence and has failed to win general acceptance. Yet, in the following outline I expect to persuade anyone of an open mind that here survives part of the record of an extraordinary private life!

Shakespeare's Sonnets

In 1609 a collection of one hundred and fifty four poems, entitled Shake-speares Sonnets, was published by one, Thomas Thorpe, who provided an enigmatic dedication of these poems to their “only begetter”, a Master “WH”. Given its association with so popular an author at the summit of his career, this work was incongruous. It carried no acknowledgement from the poet. Its themes were often offensive to contemporary culture, yet sometimes boringly mundane. It attracted hostile comment2. And it sank into obscurity until interest arose some two centuries later, centred largely on what the work might reveal of the author.

The poems are presented in a structured order. Sonnets 1-126 (all of which lack any absolute indicator of a female subject) appear to be addressed to or for the benefit of a young man; Sonnets 127-154 appear largely to concern a dark-haired woman, whom the poet describes as his mistress. Observers have long recognized that the poems suggest an underlying story:

  • Initially the poet urges an anonymous, effeminate-looking young aristocrat to secure his lineage through the fathering of a son in marriage.
  • However, he becomes taken with the young lord. The urgings to marry cease and an intimate relationship develops between the two.
  • The aristocrat then betrays the poet, being seduced by the latter's unidentified mistress, of dark hair and eyes, who has plagued the smitten poet in a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship.
  • The distraught poet contrives to forgive the aristocrat, but is then superseded in the latter's esteem by a rival, who is preeminent among poets competing for the young lord's benefits.
  • The poems continue with some bitterness and recriminations at this development until suddenly the rival disappears, with no explanation.
  • The poet attempts to patch things up with the aristocrat, but is unsuccessful. And he loses his mistress.

For some two centuries, commentators have been divided on whether the sonnets contain biography, and, if so, who were their characters.

Sonnet Theories

There are three widely held orthodox theories. The first asserts that there is little to be read into the Sonnets but their artistry3. The appearance of an underlying story is regarded as coincidence, as part of their fiction or as contrived by editorial ordering of the poems. However, the odds are long that so many of the sonnets contribute by chance to the unusual, coherent and fictionally unattractive themes outlined above. Nor does such scepticism adequately explain the many highly prescriptive messages encountered in the collection4. The theory is essentially a default position, reliant on the absence of better explanations.

The Pembroke Theory

The second popular theory is based on the presumptions that Shakespeare controlled the publication of the Sonnets and that he dictated their dedication by Thorpe to Master WH. The latter is taken to be William Herbert, who became third earl of Pembroke in 1601. As the “only begetter” of the dedication, Pembroke is cast as their inspirer and hence as the young aristocrat of the sonnets5.

There is a superficial plausibility to this notion, first aired by James Boaden in 1837. Pembroke resisted marriage in his youth6 (as implied of the young aristocrat in the early sonnets) and, with his brother, he was a dedicatee of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, produced by the playwright's colleagues in 1623, several years after his death. That dedication is expressed in terms which suggest that the brothers had been enthusiastic supporters of Shakespeare and his plays.

However, at the time Pembroke was Lord Chamberlain and hence responsible for the control of publications (a position in which he was succeeded by his brother). He would have been a natural choice as dedicatee for such a high profile work, particularly if he had enjoyed the drama presented therein7. Apart from this inference that, like many playgoers of the time, the Herberts were fans of the playwright, there is nothing to connect Pembroke closely to Shakespeare: no relevant dedications by the latter, no documented crossings of path, no contemporaneous gossip, anecdotes or plausible satirical allusions even.

In addition, on even a cursory inspection, the case is racked with strain and weaknesses. Thorpe's use of the title, “Master”, indicates that his dedicatee had the social rank of Gentleman: an honorific applicable to only a small fraction of the male populace8. However, the use of such title in a public address of the Lord Chamberlain (or even a lesser aristocrat – any of whom would be socially superior to an ordinary Gentleman) would have been an unacceptable faux pas, which cannot be explained by ignorance or a misguided sense of familiarity. Thorpe and Shakespeare knew the form, as each had shown in other dedications to the aristocracy9. Nor, under the necessary interpretation of “begetter” as “inspirer” could Pembroke be regarded as the begetter of those sonnets concerning the Dark Mistress.

With its reliance on Shakespeare's proactivity in publication of the Sonnets, the theory is undermined by a number of indicators to the contrary, including the unusually terse title10, disreputable contents11, the inclusion of some mediocre poetry, the absence of personal endorsement and a precedent for unauthorized poetry publications in Shakespeare's name12. In her Shakespeare's Sonnets of 1997, Professor Duncan-Jones seeks to counteract such indicators with a number of propositions put forward from time to time by supporters of the complicit author presumption:

  • numerical correspondences in the sequencing of the Sonnets are perceived to suggest that their author must have been involved in an editorial process with publication in mind;

  • a scenario depicting Shakespeare as publisher (which was postulated in 1612 by the poet, Thomas Heywood) is taken to relate to the Sonnets;

  • an undated reference to Shakespeare having “lately published” his “works” (attributed to the poet, William Drummond) is taken to relate to the Sonnets;

  • a dedication in 1616 by the author, Ben Jonson, which includes comments on change of Pembroke's title and the use of a cipher, is speculated to be a reference to a dedication of cryptic Sonnet messages to Master WH, with the inference that this was at the instigation of Shakespeare.

However, there is little or no basis for these surmises. An examination of the facts, described at Appendix A, shows that:

  • there has been no systematic correlation of numbers in the sequencing of the Sonnets; correspondences which would have been expected do not appear; other alignments occur at a frequency well within the incidence expectable by chance;

  • the publishing reference by Heywood clearly relates, not to the Sonnets, but to a third edition of The Passionate Pilgrime, published in 1612 under Shakespeare's name, without his consent;

  • his own records suggest that Drummond never encountered the Sonnets and that Shakespeare’s “works” was a reference to The Passionate Pilgrime - moreover, it is unlikely that he had knowledge of author involvement in any of the publications in Shakespeare’s name;

  • Jonson had an affectation for referring to titles in his correspondence - the whole of his lengthy dedication is perfectly explained by a wish to receive the Lord Chamberlain's protection against the reaction of those who might misconstrue the meanings of the barbed and seemingly cryptic epigrams being dedicated.

There are other weaknesses in the case for Pembroke13, but it is unnecessary to go into these. Without better supporting evidence the theory is inadequate to sustain the concept that the Sonnets were, at least in part, biography.

The Southampton Theory

The third of the popular theories is based on an identification first mooted in 1817 by Nathan Drake. He suggested that the young aristocrat of the Sonnets was Henry Wriothesley, who, at the age of seven in 1581, became the third earl of Southampton.

Southampton is the only aristocrat for whom there is any evidence of a personal relationship with Shakespeare. In the preface to his 1709 edition of Shakespeare's works, Nicholas Rowe remarked anecdotally of the poet: “He had the honour to meet with many great and uncommon Marks of Favour and Friendship from the Earl of Southampton”. The Stratford schoolmaster and historian, Joseph Greene, who discovered Shakespeare's executed will, wrote of the poet in 175914 that “the unanimous tradition of the neighbourhood where he lived is that by the uncommon bounty of the then Earl of Southampton he was enabled to purchase houses and land at Stratford”. And the Earl was the sole addressee of Shakespeare's only known dedications: those of his long poems, Venus & Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, published in 1593 and 1594, respectively.

Like Pembroke, he resisted marriage in his youth. Based on surviving portraits and descriptions, he well fits the Sonnet template of a beautiful, effeminate-looking noble15. One of Southampton's portraits as a youth was for many years believed to depict a long-haired woman: Lady Norton. Although he had a successful marriage to the woman he impregnated, there were strong contemporary inferences that he was bisexual.

The theory evolved over the years, reaching its most prominent development to date at the hands of the historian, Professor A.L. Rowse.

As depicted by Rowse in his Shakespeare's Sonnets of 1984, the sonnets, carrying strong echoes of the contemporaneous Venus & Adonis and Love's Labours Lost, were patronage poems provided to Southampton over the period 1592-5. Shakespeare loved or paid homage to the young aristocrat in platonic fashion, but was obsessed by the dark lady. Rowse identified her as Emilia Lanier (née Bassano), the former mistress of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, later a patron of Shakespeare's stage company16. The Dark Mistress sonnets were composed in parallel to those addressed to Southampton (in particular Sonnets 40-42, whose theme they mirror) and were copied to him under the unusual circumstances of his patronage and the triangular relationship17. The preeminent rival poet was Christopher Marlowe, reportedly homosexual, whose death on 30 May 1593 brought to an end his competition for Southampton's patronage18.

Based on a proposal by Gerald Massey in 1867, as later developed by Charlotte Stopes, Rowse asserts that the Master WH of Thorpe's dedication was Sir William Hervey, the widower of Southampton’s mother. Rowse reminds us of the then common practice of addressing knights (but not the aristocracy) with the honorific, “Master”19. And he points out that, on the basis of his wife's preserved last will and testament, Hervey would have inherited all those possessions not specifically bequeathed to another, following her death in 160720.

Rowse tacitly assumes that the Sonnets in manuscript were filed broadly in chronological order of receipt within the two categories subsequently preserved by Thorpe. He further assumes that these were accompanied by a long poem published with the Sonnets, entitled therein: A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare (the hero of which is a youth apparently similar in looks to the fair youth of the Sonnets). All of these he has passing to Southampton's mother and then, after her death, to Thorpe via Hervey.

No element of this theory is unsustainable. The Sonnets can be interpreted, with only occasional strain, to fit the theory well and there is nothing in the poems or in the generally recognised histories of Shakespeare, Southampton, Marlowe and Hervey which firmly disqualifies their identification with the characters.

However, Rowse produced little evidence outside of the Sonnets to support the relationships suggested by the theory. And there are some potential contra-indicators or gaps which he does not address.

For example, there is an indication of Marlowe's association at the time with a patron other than Southampton. There remains no collection of his poems which corresponds with that imputed to the Rival Poet of the Sonnets. And Rowse does not assess why Shakespeare's Venus dedication of 1593 appears so distant in tone, given the contemporary intimate friendship with Southampton depicted in the Sonnets; nor does he explain why the poems might reasonably have passed to Southampton's mother or why Hervey would have the Sonnets published against the likely wishes of his aristocratic stepson.

As presented by Rowse, therefore, the theory is persuasive in part, but is inconclusive.

Other Theories

Other Sonnet theories have abounded in the last two hundred years. These include the notions that the sonnets encode prophesies or secret messages, and that their author was really Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere (the 17th Earl of Oxford) or someone else........

1In 1598 Francis Meres wrote in his Palladis Tamia that “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus & Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends”.

2An original Quarto printing in the Rosenbach Library, Philadelphia, is annotated by its irate reader: “What a heap of wretched Infidel Stuff”

3This was the preferred position of Edmondson and Wells in their Shakespeare's Sonnets of 2004. Elsewhere, Professor Honan has dismissed the notion that the Sonnets are a reliable sketch of real characters, scenes or experiences.

4For example in Sonnets 26, 77, 82, 122 and 152

5As most recently championed by Professor Duncan-Jones in her Shakespeare's Sonnets of 1997 and 2006.

6Though not from any antipathy to women; he was described as a charming, handsome womanizer and he had illegitimate issue by at least two different women, not his wife.

7In his A Life of William Shakespeare Sidney Lee comments: “To the two earls in partnership nearly every work of any literary pretension was dedicated at the period”.

8It included lawyers, doctors, university dons, senior military officers, knights of the realm and persons of sufficient wealth to dress, live, spend and behave as a gentleman.

9Thorpe was aware of the publication in 1609 of a respectful dedication to Pembroke by John Healey. In his own dedication of 1610 to Pembroke (of another work by Healey), Thorpe followed this lead, addressing the earl as “the honorablest patron of the Muses and good minds, Lord William, Earl of Pembroke, Knight of the Honorable Order of the Garter” and so on. Dedications by Shakespeare are shown elsewhere in this book.

10Implying the same involvement of author in publication as Aesop of his Fables or Solomon of his Song

11With themes of masturbation, homo-eroticism, infidelity and heresies to orthodox Christianity – as brought out in Part II

12Seen in three editions of The Passionate Pilgrime, as discussed in Appendix A

13Including strains of timing and location

14In The Gentleman's Magazine

15After his attendance at the Queen's court in September 1592 he was praised along the following lines in Stringer's Latin verse: No youth there present was more comely or more brilliant in the learned arts than this young prince of Hampshire, though his face was scarcely adorned by a tender down.

16Rowse discovered the lady and her relationship with Hunsdon in the diaries of Simon Forman.

17Some of these were apparently aired elsewhere, as suggested by Meres, since two of the sonnets in this category, 138 and 144, were included, in slightly different form, in a pirate publication of 1599, The Passionate Pilgrime.

18The casting of Marlowe as the Rival Poet was first publicly proposed by Robert Cartwright in 1859.

19The Dowager Countess of Southampton applied the title “Master”, rather than “Sir”, to each of her second and third husbands, both knights. Sir Francis Bacon was referred to as Master Bacon. Rowse discovered that this common social practice was also applied in the House of Commons (where Hervey was a Member of Parliament).

20The will survives in the National Archives. A letter of 17 November 1607 from her son-in-law, the Earl of Arundel, remarks that the Dowager Countess “had left the best of her stuff to her son and the greatest part to her husband”.