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|TLS Reviews of Sonnets Projects|
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0252 Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Date: Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Subject: TLS Reviews of Sonnets Projects
[Editor’s Note: The following appeared in the April 19, 2013, edition of TLS. –Hardy]
He was so bloody clever
Published: 19 April 2013
THE SONNETS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Touch Press. £9.99.
Aubrey Burl SHAKESPEARE'S MISTRESS The mystery of the Dark Lady revealed 288pp. Amberley. £20 (US $29.95). 978 1 4456 0217 2
William Shakespeare SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS An original-spelling text Edited by Paul Hammond 512pp. Oxford University Press. £75 (US $150). 978 0 19 64207 6
Shakespeare’s Sonnets are self-conscious about the technologies that created them. Shakespeare considers whether “Time’s pencil or my pupil pen” can produce a beloved youth as effectively as another kind of “lines”, those of his lineage, his descendants; the poet imagines his “papers (yellowed with their age)”. Those sonnets early in the sequence are particularly concerned with the survival of the poems and the ways in which future readers will receive them. The most recent embodiment of the Sonnets uses new technologies and presents a different kind of reading experience from those Shakespeare could have imagined.
Touch Press’s iPad app The Sonnets of William Shakespeare allows users “to hear with ... eyes” (as Sonnet 23 has it) and ears, too. It features beautiful filmed readings of the Sonnets by actors including Simon Callow, David Tennant, Fiona Shaw, Simon Russell Beale, Diana Quick, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Dominic West and Adetomiwa Edun. It also presents the text of the poems in multiple forms; you can flick between digital images of the 1609 Quarto and a modern-spelling transcription. These texts are accompanied by the detailed notes from Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Arden edition and commentary on each poem from Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Don Paterson’s controversial commentary (see Alastair Fowler’s review in the TLS, January 14, 2012). While this material has been published previously in print, the app brings these components together with the film clips and images of the Sonnets very productively in a slick and appealing resource.
The Sonnets have often been herded into small groupings within the longer sequence, as clusters of poems are associated by narrative connections or shared imagery and tone. As each of the actors on the app reads several sonnets from different parts of the sequence, further, perhaps more random, clusters emerge. You could, for example, listen to all those sonnets read by Patrick Stewart, which would place “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” between the rather less often anthologized Sonnets 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”) and 127 (“In the old age black was not counted fair”). The app also allows you to concentrate on an individual poem, listening to the performance, while also reading the notes and commentary, and viewing the original 1609 printing while making your own notes on screen. Alternatively, you could watch and listen to all 154 consecutively.
Alongside the performances of each sonnet, the app provides further video material in a section of “Perspectives”, short film clips of discussion of the Sonnets by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Henry Woudhuysen, James Shapiro, Don Paterson, the RSC’s Director of Voice and Text, Cicely Berry, and the actor Ben Crystal. The films of these commentators discussing topics such as “The sonnet form”, “Language of the sonnets” or “Who is Mr W. H.” are presented alongside a transcription of their commentary, so the experience is something like that of watching a documentary on the sonnet, while holding in your hands both the relevant sonnets and also the script of the presenters.
These clips present different voices, expressions and gestures, fully exploiting the audiovisual potential of an app. Cicely Berry offers a roguish smile as she swears and then asks, “Is that all right to say?”. Berry also comments from the perspective of a theatre practitioner: “academics have stolen Shakespeare from us ... it’s not their fault, I mean he was so bloody clever”. As this suggests, different styles of interpretation are represented too, from academic to poet, actor and voice coach. For Paterson, the Sonnets are “all-too familiar with all the twists and turns, and ups and downs, and hideous, all-consuming passions and jealousies and self-disgust and post-coital freak outs”. Of Sonnet 20’s “master mistress of my passion”, Paterson writes with exasperation: “Oh come on, people. The guy’s in love with a bloke”.
The erudition of the Arden notes contrasts nicely with this more informal style. Possible contradictions also emerge: Shapiro asserts that “when it came to the sonnet Shakespeare decided not to play with the form”, while Duncan-Jones argues that Shakespeare brought “many things to the sonnet form, and there’s no preceding sequence that is at all like Shakespeare’s”. These are not necessarily opposed interpretations (Shapiro is discussing prosodic form, Duncan-Jones how Shakespeare developed a sequence and what he does linguistically), but the different viewpoints make this a rich resource for students of the Sonnets. Reading them in a print edition presents the Sonnets as seen by one particular editor, while here we have different opinions as well as different texts presented alongside each other.
Don Paterson’s least favourite sonnet, the app tells us, is number 145, an unusual tetrameter poem that opens “Those lips that Love’s owne hand did make, / Breathed forth the sound that said I hate”. Speaking as a fellow poet, Paterson suggests that it “leaves us thinking much more tenderly towards” Shakespeare partly because it is “a dreadful poem”. It has indeed long been thought to be one of the earliest in the sequence, if not the first composed, and was perhaps written when the adolescent Shakespeare was wooing Anne Hathaway. The final couplet reads “I hate, from hate away she threw / And sav’d my life saying not you”. Andrew Gurr first argued that “hate away” is a partly hidden allusion to Anne Hathaway, and “And” has also been seen as a pun on Anne. Paterson concludes, “I don’t know what on earth it is doing in this book other than as a sop, or a concession, or just a sweet little nod to his wife who, as you can imagine, does not come into this bizarre whole love triangle much at all”.
For Aubrey Burl, this sonnet is a coded narrative of a quite different love triangle, that between Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway and a certain Anne Whateley. Worcestershire church records register Shakespeare requesting a marriage licence on two successive days in 1582, one to marry Hathaway and the previous day to marry “Annam whateley de Temple grafton”. Scholars have usually attributed this anomaly to incompetence on the part of clerks, and pointed out that Whateley could be a mistranscription of Hathaway and that the clerk was also recording the business of another Whateley, so may have mistakenly repeated that name here. Burl, though, in Shakespeare’s Mistress, sees such views as the propaganda of “Hathawayites” “eager to erase ‘Anne Whateley’ from the human race”.
Burl argues that Shakespeare was betrothed to two young Annes, and that Sonnet 145 records his gratitude to Whateley for releasing him from his promise of marriage: “And [Anne] sav’d my life saying not you”. The book proceeds to present the cases for the eight most popular candidates to the title of Shakespeare’s mistress: Jacqueline Field (wife of the Sonnets’ printer), Mrs Florio (wife of the Montaigne translator John Florio), Aemilia Lanyer (A. L. Rowse’s Dark Lady), Lucy Morgan, Penelope Devereux, Mary Fitton, Marie Mountjoy and Jane Davenant.
He blends historical evidence and fiction, writing of Shakespeare’s conjectured first sight of Aemilia Lanyer at the theatre, for example, “Shakespeare sat with his quill and ink deleting lines, adding others. Then he saw her. She was standing by [Lord] Hunsdon, beautiful, hardly moving, twisting a ring around her finger. When she spoke to her lord it was quietly, with a smile”. This, Burl admits, is speculation. But he also asserts “those are facts” of passages such as the following: “Around 1588 the far-sighted, coolly-calculating Emilia Bassano ensured her security. To her considerable advantage in her late teens she became the mistress of the elderly Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon”. Lanyer, née Bassano, may have been “coolly calculating”, but the evidence does not necessarily demonstrate as much, nor perhaps might a teenaged girl see becoming the mistress of a man in his sixties as only a matter of advantage; it was probably not her decision alone. But this would complicate Burl’s portrayal of Lanyer as ruthless as well as faithless.
Burl’s work of speculative literary history and fiction contradicts, and is contradicted by, much of what is said by the commentators of the Sonnets app and by Paul Hammond in his new Oxford edition. For example, while Katherine Duncan-Jones argues that “the order we have of the Sonnets is the best we shall ever have and does represent Shakespeare’s intention in some way” and Hammond largely agrees, Burl compares the Sonnets’ order to that of a collapsed shelf of books, “replaced haphazardly by someone ignorant of the original sequence”. In response to the question of whom the Sonnets were written for, Henry Woudhuysen suggests that they may be “addressed to Shakespeare himself ... he is writing for his own pleasure and his own excitement”. More definitive still, James Shapiro asks: “Who is the only begetter of these sonnets? There’s a very easy answer to that - we have no idea. And anybody who tells you otherwise is lying”. Not, then, Anne Whateley, or Mrs Florio.
This is not to say that Burl should have read these very recent editions (and he does quote Paterson), or even that works of fiction and speculation should attend to scholarship. By their very nature, many do not (though Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, 2007, is a notable exception). Indeed, Burl quotes many scholars, many of them asserting that we will never know who the Dark Lady was, even if we agree that she existed. But having quoted this widely accepted opinion, Burl turns his back on such views and assembles a line-up of likely candidates, suggesting, “Perhaps she was a lady, or a maid of honour, or a Londoner’s wife, or a trollop”. He admits, “it has even been doubted that there ever was a real, human Dark Lady rather than an evocation of Shakespeare’s creative mind”, but argues that “the intensely personal tone of the sonnets argues against such pessimism”. The prospect of a non-human Dark Lady aside, what is striking about this attitude is that the absence of an identifiable mistress for Shakespeare should be a cause for pessimism. Surely we love Shakespeare because of what he wrote, the thousands of lines of poetry and drama that have survived, not because of his life, evidence for which largely has not.
In Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Paul Hammond attends carefully to the linguistic rather than the biographical texture of the relationships in the poems. He strips away some of the Sonnets’ modern accretions by retaining original spelling and discarding the terms Fair Youth and Dark Lady, not least because these characters are never named exactly as such in the poems. He uses the less value-laden “Boy” and “Woman” instead. Critics dubbed by Don Paterson “homoqueasiacs” who have tried to “straighten” the Sonnets have often focused on the platonic connotations of the word “friend”, but Hammond reminds the reader that this could actually refer to an intense and erotic relationship in the period, just as “affection” could mean passion. While presenting the poems in a more early modern form than is common, Hammond is attentive to the needs of his readers. He provides a list of “Some Awkward Words” which helpfully glosses familiar words with unfamiliar seventeenth-century meanings, such as brave (showy or ostentatious), hue (external appearance) and character (writing) and a “Readers’ Guide to Using an Original-Spelling Edition”. Hammond’s introduction includes discussion of themes such as “Possession and Dispossession”, “Private and Public Spaces” and “Forms of Corruption”. These provide readers with compelling readings, and also suggest ways in which they might pursue their own lines of inquiry, connecting sonnets which are not usually read together, and thinking about themes, characters and relationships through language and form. Hammond contextualizes not Shakespeare’s life, but his style; the influence of Petrarch, of Tottel’s Miscellany and of Richard Barnfield’s sequence The Affectionate Shepheard. Barnfield is more explicitly homoerotic in his sensuous description of his male beloved’s “sweet corall lips”, but Hammond shows that Shakespeare may in fact have been more influenced by Barnfield’s legal and financial imagery, a striking feature of Shakespeare’s own sequence.
Hammond focuses his reader’s interest on the Sonnets as poetry; Burl reads them as evidence of a life. The Sonnets app succeeds in presenting both the poems and their context, though this is not of Shakespeare’s love life, but of his attitude to print, his plays and contemporary literary culture. This is not to say, of course, that we don’t get a strong sense of personality from the Sonnets. Don Paterson characterizes it as “conflicted, weird, abnormal, sort of obnoxious, sexist, brilliant”. Katherine Duncan-Jones paints a compelling picture of a kind of rhetorical personality, when she describes the Sonnets as “redolent of what the French call ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’, the spirit of the staircase”. She explains that this phrase means, “when the man of great wit, but perhaps low status, leaves a great salon and as he comes down the stairs all the things he would wish to have said come into his head”. The erudition and insight of Paul Hammond’s edition and The Sonnets of William Shakespeare app will leave many readers grateful to have in their hands many of the things they might wish to have said about the Sonnets, and will also open up new avenues of interpretation.
Duncan-Jones argues that Shakespeare brought [...]