Biography in the Sonnets


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0315  Tuesday, 29 November 2011


From:         Brian Nugent <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 28, 2011 10:32:52 PM EST

Subject:      Re: Biography in the Sonnets


I agree that the Sonnets contain a lot of autobiographical information but I don't agree that you can read so much into the dedication of some of his books of poetry to Southampton. (Personally I think any references to 'mistress' would have to be Queen Elizabeth because throughout his works he was always careful with correct, polite, aristocratic terminology and that would be it for 'mistress'. I also think the person he is talking to who should get married would naturally be his son, or daughter, who are regularly pestered by their parents to produce a grandson/daughter, especially as heirs in aristocratic families!) If the author was Joyce, or whoever, one wouldn't assume that half the book was based on the person the book was dedicated to. Often, in Tudor times, it was only dedicated to somebody that they thought would reward it with money (and that's irrespective or how gushing the dedication sounds!) it would have no more significance than that.


I think a more substantial way of approaching Shakespeare is to work on the new thinking about his religion. Obviously a consensus seems to be slowly emerging that he was Catholic and was secretly standing up for Catholic doctrine throughout the plays. Well if that is so does it offer some insight into his identity? Is he a Catholic champion, can we see that throughout his career? Obviously its quite a stretch to read that into the known life of the actor Shakespeare, who seems more interested in money, but maybe we could get some clues on this from the Sonnets.


Well one thing I would point out is that some of the Catholic families who were put under great pressure throughout this time suffered 'attainders' as a kind of prelude to being executed, usually. An Attainder was an Act of Parliament that was passed on some traitor (i.e. a few Catholics in these times) which disinherited him and all his offspring. That last point is the interesting thing about the Attainder, it meant that not only the person himself but all their heirs were disinherited from whatever title they had, it was as if the guilt passed through the person's blood onto their descendants. Because of this phenomenon, and because the aristocratic families had such a fear of the Attainder, they had particular terms for it, including: a blood stain, a blot, and words to that effect.  


Well maybe, as a Catholic champion, that happened to Shakespeare and also that might explain his anonymity if you don't believe the Stratford actor story? On that then what about these mysterious references to blots by Ben Johnson (Timber, 1640) describing Shakespeare:


"I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shake-speare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn'd) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted."


Also, to get back on track with this thread, I wonder if these autobiographical references in the Sonnets are work considering in this context:



Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,



When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state...

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,



So shall those blots that do with me remain



I grant thou wert not married to my Muse

And therefore mayst without attaint o'erlook

The dedicated words which writers use

Of their fair subject, blessing every book



I am attainted



So that myself bring water for my stain.

Never believe, though in my nature reign'd

All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,

That it could so preposterously be stain'd,



The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,


Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,


Ok, it’s true, I admit I have somebody particular in mind here! Not Marlowe though. I was thinking that Ireland might be a happy hunting ground for oppressed, and hence needfull of anonymity, Catholic champions of the 1590-1620 period. It was said, by Sir Nicholas Malby, a governor of Connaught in Tudor times, of the well-known Irish candidate that he "has established O'Rourke [a Gaelic chieftain] in the roomishe religion which rule he holdeth for his only quarrell." (State Papers 63/83/63)


[Editor’s Note: A gentle reminder that authorship discussions have no place on the SHAKSPER list.  Brian Nugent is the author of Shakespeare Was Irish! , which can be found in Google Books: -HMCook]


Updike on Hamlet


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0314  Tuesday, 29 November 2011


From:         Chris Kendall <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 28, 2011 11:47:01 PM EST

Subject:      Hamlet


[Richard Waugaman writes: Updike writes, for example, "Several Shakespeare commentaries, especially one by the Spanish thinker Salvador de Madariaga, helped me see that Hamlet is in fact the callous, egocentric villain of Hamlet." By contrast, "I love Gertrude, and always have.”]


I long to read it. For the death of Ophelia, I can't pardon him. Polonius was a meddling fool, but it was a rash act to stab him with unseeing hand. And his stumbling, protracted revenge results also in the death of his mother and 3 unwitting tools of Claudius, not to mention the loss of the kingdom. 


How could he have done worse, in the situation?


Biography in the Sonnets


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0313  Monday, 28 November 2011


From:         Ian Steere <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 25, 2011 10:07:54 AM EST

Subject:      Biography in the Sonnets


Now that the Thomas of Woodstock thread is in abeyance, I thought that I might offer another bone for the forum to chew over.


The concept of reliable biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets is often dismissed out of hand these days - despite the potential value were it to become evident.


Partly this is because accretions in the evidence tend to come to light piecemeal. Partly, however, resistance to the topic seems to be a matter of fashion (given that there is no evidence that the Sonnets are mainly fiction).


I should like to invite a reading of my article on the subject and - more importantly - a testing of the evidence presented therein. Significant parts of this are new and, I dare suggest, thought-provoking. For example, there are previously undetected ambiguities in the Venus and Adonis dedication which point comprehensively to the poetic Rivalry suggested in the Sonnets.


The article is at Biography in Shakespeare's Sonnets. I would welcome any reasoned comments.



Ian Steere.


Independent MND Film Review


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0313  Tuesday, 29 November 2011


From:         Bo Bergstrom <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         November 28, 2011 7:47:53 PM EST

Subject:      Independent MND Film Review


The following review is by Prof. Mark Thornton Burnett of Queen's University, Belfast, published in Viewfinder, October 2011, No. 48, 30.  The URL is:, but the review's text is not available online.  He recommends our DVD to teachers and students . . . it has the fewest text cuts of any DVD available.


Anyone interested in further information about our DVD should visit the web site at



2010. USA. DVD (NTSC Region Free). 157 minutes. Cinesthetic Film. 


This independent film made by the Virus Theatre Group and unfolding in the mountains and forests of the Southwest U.S. is a quirky and offbeat but always illuminating film version of Shakespeare’s play. Making full use of outdoor locations – a ruined concrete building and rocky outcrops – the film transforms Shakespeare’s early modern Athenian lovers into squabbling backpackers disoriented by a displacement into unfamiliar natural environs.


Casting is imaginative and, in keeping with the general conceit, purposefully non-conventional: not only are some parts switched in terms of gender, others are given an unexpected twist. Bottom (Sam Bensusen) is a bearded would-be thespian who speaks with an Irish brogue; Oberon (Dominic Dahl-Bredine) is a dreadlocked and Gothicized type; and Puck (Becca Anderson) appears as a distinctly earth-bound spirit in glasses and dungarees. Even if most of the language of the play is retained with few cuts, which will make the DVD attractive to students and teachers, this remains a Shakespeare angled towards a radical re-envisioning of the Bard and revelling in opportunities for change and experiment.


Matching the insouciant approach to Shakespearean representational tradition, visuals are consistently inventive, functioning in such a way as to approximate the woozy dream-like experiences of the ‘original’. Shots of seas and lightning, cut into the action proper, dovetail with the dialogue and make available postmodern realizations of Shakespearean language and allusion. Greentinged filters offer reminders of the role of nature in shaping human action, while insets of animals, such as fighting stags, reinforce the sense of primal erotic conflict. Stylistically, the film is trick heavy; indeed, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM turns into a veritable showcase of imported cinematic artifice and graphic expertise. Colourful compositions show fragments of Shakespeare’s text illuminated on screen as if in acknowledgement of the reputation of the work that is being adapted, the effect of which is to place characters’ anxieties and motivations in another register. The speeding up of the physical business of the ‘mechanicals’ – hand-held camera work is to the fore – makes them akin to silent film comedians and grants their rehearsals a slapstick emphasis, while the superimposition of images gives to the whole a pronounced self-consciousness. Indeed, at several points, not least in the mechanicals’ performance, cameras are glimpsed, which highlights the labour that informs the filmic product. All is anti-realist and off-key; the stress is on surprise and provocation and on keeping the spectator in a heightened sense of critical engagement.


In diegetic terms, it is consistently centred on placing word and sound together in a productive relation. The film’s soundtrack, a specially composed score by Joseph Rivers, makes a virtue of its polymorphous influences, for Gaelic strains combine with twangy lullabies in an evocative invocation of non-western aural effects (helped by the use of the Indian flute) and Elizabethan-style musical accompaniments (sounds of the viol bring a Shakespearean world to mind). Notably successful is the way in which the film deploys music to draw attention to dialogic specifics; for example, the recreation of an early modern soundscape matches shots of beetles, snakes and spiders, apt images for Shakespeare’s preoccupation with natural denizens. The to-and-fro synthesized strains of the score also approximates the unpredictable nature of a character’s experience, as is

reflected in Helena’s (Teresa Dahl-Bredine’s) constant manipulation of a yoyo, an index of her emotional vicissitude. When, towards the close, the characters appear in smarter dress, having left behind their student-type identities, the suggestion is that, via a dream-like transformation, a greater

calm and stability have been achieved.


Professor Mark Thornton Burnett


Professor Burnett teaches at Queen’s University, Belfast. His books include Filming Shakespeare in the Global Marketplace (Palgrave, 2007) and The Edinburgh Companion to Shakespeare and the Arts (Edinburgh University Press, 2011). 


Updike on Hamlet


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0312  Monday, 28 November 2011


From:         Richard Waugaman <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Saturday, 26 Nov 2011 18:01:35 -0500

Subject:      Updike on Hamlet


My copy of John Updike's posthumous collection of essays, Higher Criticism, just arrived today. I recommend his letter to the Boston Globe, about his 2000 Hamlet prequel, the novel Gertrude and Claudius


Updike writes, for example, "Several Shakespeare commentaries, especially one by the Spanish thinker Salvador de Madariaga, helped me see that Hamlet is in fact the callous, egocentric villain of Hamlet." By contrast, "I love Gertrude, and always have." 


I'm not implying I agree.


Richard Waugaman


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