Elaine Scarry. Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. New York: Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016. pp. 291.
Review by David Bevington
The roster of Elizabethan aristocrats and gentleman who have been promoted to candidacy as the mysterious “Mr. W. H.,” to whom William Shakespeare’s sonnets were dedicated in the first printed edition of 1609, is considerable. The guessing game of identifying the unnamed gentleman to whom the sonnets are seemingly addressed as love poems is no less intense. Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, born in 1573, to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his early poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in 1593 and 1594, has long been a favorite choice, along with William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, codedicatee of the 1623 Folio complete edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare’s dedications to Wriothesley of his early poems sound affectionate and personal. Yet these speculative identifications are famously uncertain. We cannot even be sure that the sonnets are autobiographical. Sonnet sequences in the 1590s and 1600s were fashionably legion, and they were often overtly fictional.
Elaine Scarry now proposes a new candidate for the young man to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed, the “sweet boy” who is “master-mistress of my passion,” possessed of a “woman’s face” and “woman’s gentle heart” but without the “shifting change” that is all too common in “false women’s fashion” (sonnets 108 and 20). Scarry’s nominee is Henry Constable. This gentleman had himself written an early and influential sonnet sequence, Diana, published in 1592, about the time Shakespeare had arrived in London and had established himself as a poet and dramatist. Born in 1562, two years before Shakespeare, Constable had studied at St John’s College, Cambridge. As the son of Sir Robert Constable, Henry enjoyed a pedigree that seems consistent with the gentlemanly portrait we find in the sonnets. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1591, lived in exile for some years France and Italy, then returned to England after the accession to the throne of King James I and VI, whereupon, though well known to the King, he was imprisoned and deprived of his inheritance. In 1610 he was granted permission to return to Paris. He died some three years later, in Liège. He was highly reputed as a poet in his day. Diana went through a second edition in 1594, augmented by some poems of Sir Philip Sidney and others, and subsequent editions in 1597 and 1604. In the view William Hazlitt, Constable’s “The Shepherd’s Song of Venus and Adonis,” published in England’s Helicon in 1600, was a precious gem of English lyric poetry.
Scarry’s book gives a comprehensive and detailed argument for the candidacy of Constable as the young man whom Shakespeare urges in his early sonnets to marry and perpetuate his family’s honor by siring a child and heir. Scarry reads Constable’s Diana as the birthplace of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She is convinced that the Dark Lady of the late sonnets is Shakespeare’s own wife, Anne Hathaway, and that Constable portrays himself in his own poems as the guilty betrayer for having slept with his friend’s mistress, as subsequently dramatized in Shakespeare’s Dark Lady sonnets. Searching out a new identity for the rival poet who gives the speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnets such jealous anxiety, Scarry passes over the usual candidates—George Chapman, Christopher Marlowe, Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser—in favor of Scotland’s King James VI, who was to become James I of England in 1603. James and Constable knew each other. Both had written poems in 1589 about the delay of the arrival in England of Princess Anne of Denmark, who would soon be Queen of Scotland and then of England. The two poems, printed side by side, show comparable phrases and themes. Constable wrote a sonnet “To the King of Scotland” that James sufficiently admired to have it printed as the opening of the King’s His Majesty’s Poetical Exercises at Vacant Hours,” 1591. James was famed for his learning. His preoccupation with shipbuilding, Scarry argues, finds a comparable fascination in Shakespeare’s sonnet 80, with its deprecating image of Shakespeare’s own literary production as a “saucy bark” and “worthless boat” that is vastly inferior to the “tall building” of the proud sail commanded by the poet’s beloved friend. James appears to have written at least one poem to Constable and, as Scarry interprets the matter, concealed that name cryptographically in at least one line of James’s verse. Scarry hesitantly proposes some new additions to the Shakespeare poetic canon that have heretofore escaped authorial identification, though acknowledging that such claims can prove to be a hard sell.
The difficulty with this detailed essay is that it argument relies extensively on cryptographic searches for personal identifications encoded in the wording of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The next-to-last line of sonnet 18, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” contains within it all the letters of the name “Henry Constable”: “So LONg as mEn CAn BReaTHe, or EYes caN see.” So too with the last line sonnet 65: “That in BLACk iNk mY lOvE may STill sHiNe bRight.” Other examples are to be found. Never mind that there are quite a few more “e”s and “a”s in these lines that are needed to tease out “Henry Constable”; such vowels occur everywhere. Scarry’s contention is that one cannot readily identify names like Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, or John Donne this way. Conversely, Scarry shows us lines of verse by Constable that seemingly return the loving favor by embedding “Will Shakespeare,” as in “If ever SorroW SPoKE from souLE that LovEs.” What’s more, Scarry insists, the wordplay of this sort extends to nicknames. Shakespeare has long been celebrated for his insistent punning on his own nickname, “Will,” in sonnets 135, 136, and 143: “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,” and so on. Why not extend this search to an alternate form like “shall,” as “Hal” has the enormous potential advantage of being a familiar form of “Henry,” as in “Henry Constable”? Shall runs repeatedly through Shakespeare’s often-quoted “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments, / Of princes shall out live this powerful rhyme” (sonnet 55). Can we conclude from this, as Scarry urges, that “Time’s best jewel is Hal and he is hidden in the word “shall”? (p. 91). Are we invited to see a similar loving allusion to Constable in Falstaff’s preferred way of addressing his royal companion, Prince Hal? Is Constable’s last name suffused with an aura of constancy and thus with the poet’s fervent hope that the lovers be constant to each other? Is the derisive portrayal of Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing a coded way of complaining, as in sonnet 58, about the loved one’s abusive habit of using his discretionary power to prosecute and discipline the poet, reprimanding him as a lord might do to his vassal or a master his slave? Is the beloved given discretionary power over the poet because he himself is immune from prosecution, like Angelo in Measure for Measure? Is it valid to see the lover’s coded signature recorded in an abbreviated form like “Hen. Constable,” as in the first line of sonnet 74: “But be CONtented: wHEN that fELl ArreST”? When Shakespeare employs the word “hence,” as in sonnet 81, are we to understand an invocation of the man who could write his signature as “Hen. Constable”? What about the hen in sonnet 143 that flees the grasp of pursuing housewife? Or the guinea hen flower, Fritillaria meleagris, that is vividly recalled (though not by those names) in Venus and Adonis, The Tempest, and elsewhere?
Though I have no ready way of polling teachers and scholars in Shakespeare studies, my anecdotal impression among those whom I do know is that they are unpersuaded by Scarry’s thesis. I share this skepticism. We have had too many picklock attempts to read coded meaning in early modern texts to yearn for more. Many such attempts have been enlisted to urge that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were the work of some other author. We can be thankful at least that Scarry is not anti-Stratfordian. Her Constable may be Catholic in his sympathies and friendships, but at least he is not an Oxfordian. Nor does she argue, as does Joseph Pequigney in Such Is My Love, that the sonnets celebrate a consummated homosexual relationship. The portrait of the writer and his beloved friend that emerges from this engaging book is one of deep and endearing affection that is both enriched and troubled by sexual and poetic rivalry. Henry Constable would be a worthy exemplar of the poet’s friend, if we could believe the evidence. (Henry Constable’s absence from England during most of the 1590s is one of many difficulties with Scarry’s thesis that the book doesn’t sufficiently explain away.)
As it is, the book reads as delightful fictional biography, not least of all in an “Afterword” that, in a frankly suppositional way, asks if Shakespeare’s plays talk to us in coded language about Shakespeare’s many exiles, like that of Duke Senior and his merry companions in As You Like It. Can we sense in this story a fable about Henry Constable, who lived abroad for many of his years, engaging in ardent projects on behalf of the French King Henry IV (another Henry) and the Catholic Church? What would Henry Constable’s thoughts have been in 1609 when, in his prison cell, he received a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and joyfully understood a meaning that was to remain hidden from others’ eyes for some four hundred years? And did Shakespeare subsequently buy and expensively restore a house in Blackfriars in order that Henry Constable might live there under the disguised name of John Robinson, having (according to this astonishing speculation) secretly returned to London in 1613 at the very time when he is usually understood to have arrived in Liège?