This review of the book "Shakespeare Unbound" in the Dec. 18 Style section incorrectly said that William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were inspired by a "fair youth." Of the 154, only 1 through 126 were about the young man.
The Inner Bard
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Decoding a Hidden Life
By René Weis
Henry Holt. 479 pp. $35
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate."
Maybe, just maybe, a decent number of Americans could identify the author of those lines as William Shakespeare. But how many know that the love object is a young man? Or that this same fair youth, very likely the Earl of Southampton, inspired 154 poems in the English language's most famous sonnet cycle?
None of this seemed to bother Shakespeare's contemporaries, but within a few decades, editors were neutering the most offensive poems, and ever since, heterosexual critics have turned themselves into pretzels trying to explain why Shakespeare reserved his most passionate love lyrics ("You are my all the world") for a member of his own sex. To this day, one would be hard-pressed to find a high school English teacher willing to out the great Bard.
Even the redoubtable scholar Rene Weis, who is game for nearly any speculation, can't imagine the relationship with Southampton as anything but "platonic" -- although he can, on much scantier evidence, send Shakespeare to bed with rival playwright Christopher Marlowe. Not to mention throwing him into the arms of Emilia Lanier, an Italian-born Jew thought by many to be the Dark Lady of the later sonnets, and Jane Davenant, whose son may have been a little more than Shakespeare's godson, if you get my drift.
Our William, it seems, was a conqueror. Perhaps the only one who failed to get a rise out of him was his own wife, Anne Hathaway, who, despite bearing him three children, was famously fobbed off in his will with a "second best bed."
If all these rustling sheets sound a shade prurient, please know that Weis's intentions in "Shakespeare Unbound" are strictly honorable. He wants to find the man behind the poetry. "Again and again," he writes, "Shakespeare's plays chime with details and events from his life. He emerges as someone who wrote compulsively, not only to earn a living but also to control and impose meaning upon contingent events. . . . Beneath Shakespeare's iambic pentameters the private self beats its drum with percussive ardor."
In summary: Pound the text hard enough, and a life will bloom forth. There's not much else to do with Shakespeare because he gave us so little biography to work with -- and left us free to remake him in our own image. Each new book about him becomes one more raised voice in an argument that has been going on for centuries. By that score, Weis has the misfortune of following hard on Stephen Greenblatt's eloquent and searching "Will in the World," one of the finest examples of biographical criticism in recent memory. "Shakespeare Unbound," by contrast, wades a bit too deep into real estate transactions and the lineages of Stratford bourgeoisie. It is an imaginative endeavor that permits virtually no imagination on the part of its subject.
For once you are committed, as Weis is, to making art into autobiography, everything becomes grist for your mill, and literalism reigns. A metaphorical reference in Sonnet 37 -- "So I, made lame by fortune's dearest despite" -- leads Weis to suppose that Shakespeare was genuinely lame. The plotline of "Hamlet" (borrowed from Danish legend) inspires the entirely unsubstantiated theory that Hathaway slept with one of Shakespeare's brothers. The medical miracle that seals "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" -- well, surely, that could have happened to Shakespeare's own daughter?
Unless it didn't. As any author will tell you, not everything turns up in a work because it has been directly experienced. Sometimes, God help us, the author makes it up, or borrows it. And if the author is an eminently practical Stratford burgher with shares in his own theater company, some of his choices might even be driven by commerce. ("Hmm. A melodrama about a Moor and a hot Italian gal . . . ")
Nonetheless, Weis does forge striking linkages between the work and life -- a nifty parallel, for instance, between the poet and fair youth of the sonnets on one side and Falstaff and Prince Hal on the other. He makes a good case that Antonio's leave-taking of Bassanio in "The Merchant of Venice" parallels Shakespeare's own parting from Southampton, "the last salvo in a contest of gay and straight sex." He persuasively argues that Shakespeare's two daughters have been passed down to us as Rosalind and Viola.
And like Greenblatt, he dramatizes the sectarian minefield Shakespeare had to negotiate all his life. Born to secretly Catholic parents, young Will would have seen the heads of Catholic martyrs adorning London Bridge and would have known firsthand the climate of state-sponsored Protestant terrorism that marked Elizabethan England. Somehow, he kept a straight course without ceding too much to either side. "Hamlet," as Weis writes, is a "balancing act between the old and new faiths . . . between the Protestant student from Wittenberg and the restless Catholic soul of his father's ghost in Purgatory."
Thanks to insights like these, Shakespeare's serenely beautiful lines do buzz with a new life. For the first time, I began to imagine the seven ages of man as the Bard experienced them: "the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms . . . the lover, sighing like furnace." And most particularly, "the whining school-boy, with his satchel/And shining morning-face." Young Will, in other words, squinting into the Stratford dawn, "creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school."