Scholars and Crackpots

By Rowse, A. L. | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Scholars and Crackpots


Rowse, A. L., Contemporary Review


It is well known what confusion has ben made of the life and work of our greatest writer, the Elizabethan Shakespeare. As that clever man, Harold Macmillan, wrote to me, 'What a mess they have made of it'. Since Shakespeare was the most historical of dramatists - one third of his plays are history plays - it needs an historian, especially an Elizabethan historian to throw light on them and him.

He was also the most autobiographical of dramatists - the only one of them to write an autobiography in the Sonnets. So this needs a practising writer, who knows how real writers actually write, to help here. The trouble is that most people writing about Shakespeare have neither of these qualifications.

When my first biography of Shakespeare came out J. I. M. Stewart wrote that it had the advantage of being written by someone who was both a scholar and a poet. Perhaps this was an unfair advantage, but the subject needs both.

We need not waste time here on lunatics who want to think that the erratic Earl of Oxford wrote the plays (a Dr. Looney was the patron saint of this tribe). Or Bacon, or Marlowe - anybody but William himself; or Enoch Powell's nonsense about Shakespeare's plays having been written by a committee! Even the best scholars have contributed to the confusion. The dedication of the Sonnets, years after they were written, created much of it.

This dedication to a 'Mr. W.H.' was written by the publisher, T.T., i.e. Thomas Thorp. So Mr. W.H. was the publisher's dedicatee, not the young man for whom the Sonnets were written - the obvious person, the poet's patron, young Southampton. Nobody ever noticed the significance of this, until I did. As Agatha Christie, a good Shakespearean as well as detective, wrote, 'Everybody misses the significance of the obvious'. So they missed this.

A more difficult point it takes an Elizabethan scholar to clear up. Namely that it was regular form to refer to a knight as Mr. Everybody knows that you could not refer to a Lord as Mr. - though, blinkered as to the fact, they tried. It took a woman's perception, Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, to see that Mr. W.H. was Sir William Harvey, Southampton's stepfather, to whom his mother left all the household goods and chattels, including the manuscripts. Mrs. Stopes's good work was disconsidered by imperceptive male heavyweights like Sir E. K. Chambers. She was right, but could not prove her insight, not knowing the regular etiquette of calling a knight Mr., i.e. Master, the rule in the Elizabethan House of Commons.

The great bulk of literary scholars have always known that the Sonnets were written, along with Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, in the years 1591/2 to 1594. But it took an Elizabethan historian to prove this, from the topical references that run consistently from late 1591, through 1592, 1593, to the winter of 1594. The topical references of Sonnet 107, 'The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured' relate to two events of the year 1594: they coincide and thus give us certainty. 'The mortal moon' always refers to the Queen, 'the terrene moon': she has endured, i.e. come through the crisis of the suspected Lopez conspiracy. At the same time, olives of endless age proclaim peace: this is the peace of 1594, which brought an end to the endless civil wars in France recognising Henri IV (Navarre) as king. Two events in those four lines concentrate upon one point, that year 1594.

Literary scholars have an absolute need of an historian to clear up the dates for them: they do not realise that correct dating is essential, for it defines and limits the circumstances when and, often, where. Professor Leslie Hotson wrote a whole book to re-date the Sonnets. He had no idea of dating, and could not see that the traditional dating was quite right. He put forward the nonsense that the 'mortal moon' was the Spanish Armada, and that 'terrene' referred to the Mediterranean! So he put back the writing of the Sonnets to 1588, before Shakespeare got going as a writer and before he attracted the attention of the young Earl with his Henry VI in 1591.

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