The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 30

Book Review:
The Verdict of History

Copyright 1964 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1964.

THE preliminary trickle of new books on Shakespeare began before the turn of the year and by the time this issue is in print the market will be flooded with them. We cannot attempt to review them all individually, but something must be said about Dr. A. L. Rowse and other historians. The historians, or at least one eminent historian, and the literary scholars are at daggers drawn, for Dr. Rowse in his much publicized life of Shakespeare claimed to know all the answers to all the questions and the only reason that they have not been discovered before is that this is the first time an historian has tackled the problem. The literary scholars hastened to point out that there was nothing new in any of his “discoveries”; he had merely taken sides in certain time-honoured controversies, notably that of the identity of the dramatis personae of the Sonnets. Professor Dover Wilson, who was preparing his own edition of Sonnets, promptly published the Introduction in a separate paperback entitled: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, an Introduction for Historians and Others. There is no internal reference to Dr. Rowse’s book, but the allusion is patently to him, and not to the more chivalrous Mr. Peter Quennell, editor of History Today, who happened to enter the lists with a biography of Shakespeare at about the same time. The sabre-rattling, or speare-shaking continues and Dr. Rowse has now brought out his edition of the Sonnets, with notes to prove his case.

I have not yet read the book on the Sonnets, but in the biography, Dr. Rowse does not so much as mention the authorship controversy, though as an historian he has occasion to mention the names of most of the candidates, and throws out the usual disparaging remarks about the Earl of Oxford in particular. Mr. Quennell, on the other hand, does at least take the trouble to dispose of the controversy in his preface.

“Here, without indulging in speculative licence, I have attempted to reach the poet at once through his work and through his times. My hero is the ambitious Stratfordian player. I have become firmly convinced that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were produced, not by Derby, Oxford, Bacon, nor even Christopher Marlowe after his supposed death, but by a middle-class writer born in Warwickshire in April 1564, and that all the current anti-Stratfordian theories involve some serious distortion of the facts.”

Nevertheless, he seems to be troubled with obstinate misgivings, and on page 120 he writes:

“Nothing we know of Shakespeare would suggest that he was a shadowy, secretive or retiring personage. . . . It is especially ironic, then, that an impenetrable cloud-covering should obscure so many aspects of his life and work, and that, when he comes closest to deliberate self-portrayal, the effect he produces should nowadays seem most mysterious. Hundreds of patient and learned enquirers have already attacked the problem of the Sonnets . . . but the great majority of questions we ask still await a satisfactory answer.”

Again, with reference to the characters of the young men in the romantic comedies (p. 167):

“Was this the tone of Southampton’s acquaintance? Well, whether Shakespeare invented this ideal aristocracy or it is a reflection of a life he knew, the comedies he produced in his middle period have an unmistakably aristocratic bias. The characters he treats affectionately are without exception young and nobly born; ridicule is usually reserved for the unlettered, coarse and ill-bred. . . .”

Then, at a later stage (p. 298):

“Again we are faced with the disconcerting contrast between an artist’s personal and his literary character. Shakespeare was evidently a gregarious man; yet through his tragedies, and indeed through many of his comedies, runs the theme, lengthily developed and diversified, of individual isolation.”

Sooner or later, these disconcerting contrasts must be faced, and one historian, at least, has faced them. In an article published in November 1962, in the French magazine Realites (appropriate name!) Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, without favouring any particular candidate, gave very considerable support to the Anti-Stratfordians. Historians, too, may differ! An extract from Professor Trevor-Roper’s article was published in English in Past and Future (January 1964), and an English edition of Realities is published at 195 Sloane Street, S.W.1.

In the midst of all these uncertainties and speculations—for those who really want to know the facts of Shakespeare’s (Shaksper’s) life without the trimmings—we recommend a paperback, entitled Shakespeare a Biographical Handbook, by Gerald Eades Bentley, published by Yale University Press—in America, in 1961, and in this country, at 6a Bedford Square, W.C.1, in 1962.

Here—not, it is true, on a postcard, but in less than a hundred pages (22-118)—we are told the tale of William Shakespeare, according to the records preserved at Stratford and in London. I have purposely not counted Chapter 1, which is really an Introduction, nor the last four chapters, which deal with “The Playwright,” The Nondramatic Poet, Shakespeare and the Printers, and Shakspeare’s Reputation. Page 118 marks the end of the personal biography, and from this point on—not a point in time, but in the arrangement of the book—Shakespeare stands quite simply for the Author, as such, and with a single exception, there is nothing to connect him with the player. The name appears on the title-pages of the printed plays, in lists of poets and playwrights and in occasional literary allusions, and no-one has ever disputed this. The exception is, of course, the obvious one: the testimony of Ben Jonson and others in the preliminary matter published in the First Folio, seven years after the death of the player.

In Chapter 1 it is made painfully clear that this book was designed partly as an answer to the Anti-Stratfordians, yet in effect, it only serves to emphasize the dichotomy between “William Shakespeare (or Shake-speare)”, the poet-dramatist, and William Shakespeare (variously spelt) the player from Stratford.

G. M. B.

The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 31