Too Much Poetic LicensePrint
An attempt to identify the object of the Bard’s affections
By Andrew Motion
December 5, 2016
Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Elaine Scarry; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pp., $27
As well as writing about pain, democracy, representation, and the law, Elaine Scarry has previously spent time investigating the possible role of electromagnetic interference in the crash of TWA Flight 800. In other words, she’s a sleuth as well as a thinker—and operates as one in Naming Thy Name, the most literary of her books to date. Not literary in the sense of providing close readings or subtle appreciations of texts (her critical lexis is narrow and vague: “beautiful,” “searing,” “heartbreaking,” and so on), but in its concern with one of poetry’s most enduring mysteries: the identity of Shakespeare’s same-sex beloved in the sonnets.
Like several others before her, and no doubt several more still to come, she thinks she has the answer. Or rather, she thinks she thinks she has the answer, and she invites us to read her book in a spirit of sympathetic collusion. That’s to say: she tells us in the introduction that she “believes” her story to be true but “does not know it to be true” because that “would require more evidence than has so far been assembled.” It’s a welcome admission in some ways (because it’s honest) but problematic in others. It means that we read everything she says without knowing how much credence we can give it. Sometimes the ground in Naming Thy Name feels solid enough beneath our feet; sometimes it slips and slides; sometimes it disappears altogether. It’s a very unsettling experience.
According to Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard, the mystery man is Henry Constable, a little-known poet and contemporary of Shakespeare’s whose name will be known only to scholars of the period. Nonexperts might have appreciated a straightforward introduction to him at the beginning of the book, but Scarry doesn’t work like that. In ways that are more suggestive of her liking for puzzles than of her appetite for clear solutions, she releases hard information about her man in bits and pieces. And in the opening pages where we need a full-length portrait, we are simply told that Ben Jonson spoke of Constable’s “Ambrosiack Muse,” that Anon called him “England’s sweete nightingale,” and that he is mentioned in the obscure late-16th-century play Return from Parnassus as someone who “doth take the wond’ring ear / And layes it up in willing prisonment.” Only much later do we learn other necessary and interesting things about Constable: about his Catholicism, his position as a court favorite of Elizabeth, his career as a diplomat, his exile in France, his return to the court of James I, his imprisonment and his (probable) return to France and death there in 1613.
This unnecessary withholding means that Scarry’s book gets off to a confusing start, for which she then compensates by emphasizing how orderly she means to be in her uncovering of Constable’s “place in Shakespeare’s heart.” The Bard’s devotion to his friend, we’re told, “is present in the micro texture of the sonnets, in their overarching architecture, and in their deep fabric.” What does Scarry mean by “micro texture”? She means that she has discovered several lines in the sonnets in which most if not all the letters of Henry Constable’s name appear, scattered among the other letters that constitute the surface sense. “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,” for instance, or “That in black ink my love may still shine bright.” Predictably, she’s also found rather less felicitously managed appearances of the letters of Shakespeare’s name in Constable’s sonnets. Where these scramblings occur in lines that have to do with names and naming, it’s hard not to feel a frisson of interest. At other times, it sounds a bit crackpot. Why Henry Constable in that first line and not Sam Steele? After all, that name—and no doubt others as well—can be spelled out there, too.
And “overarching architecture” and “deep fabric”? This means that having identified Constable as a definite presence in the sonnets (yes, just like that), Scarry also feels she has proof that he really is Shakespeare’s beloved. Strikingly, she makes only occasional mention of competing candidates and declines to go anywhere near “Mr W. H.,” to whom Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets. Instead, she spins theories about which “thefts” the two poets might have made from each other’s words, makes assertions about preferred sexual positions (suggested by the sonnets’ use of the word “above”), discusses what she reckons are strategic deployments of the word “constancy” (Constable/constancy, get it?), monitors the appearance of possible pet names (Hen, Hal, Will, and their refracted appearance in such forms as “shall”), and devises a riff on what she calls the “zigzag” of Shakespeare’s surname, which concludes with her insisting that “we need not ask from whom [he] learned to think of [it] as a lightning bolt, for the answer lies close at hand.”
Unsettling, as I say. As if this weren’t enough to make the willing suspension of disbelief seem like one of life’s Impossible Things, Scarry also finds time to make other remarkable assertions. She “believes” (but does not “know”) that the dark lady is Shakespeare’s wife, that the rival poet in the sonnets is none other than James I, and that the name of Ariel is a conflation of sounds that derive from “Harry” and “William”—making Constable the presiding spirit of The Tempest as well as the sonnets. Oh, yes, and she also tells us that the mysterious John Robinson, who lodged in Shakespeare’s Blackfriars house after he had retired to Stratford, is the same John Robinson who is reported to have appeared at his deathbed. Though in reality, he’s not John Robinson at all, but—you guessed it—Constable, who did not die in 1613 as previously thought, but lingered a while longer and then, like many another Catholic, smuggled himself back to England, and then was sheltered by his former boyfriend.
Maybe in years to come, the research into Constable that Scarry admits still needs to be done will prove that her conjectures are sound. Until that day, they must remain just that: conjectures, a polite term for unsubstantiated notions that left this reader, at any rate, feeling by turns puzzled and irritated and queasy.
Andrew Motion is the Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins University and a former poet laureate of the United Kingdom.