Comments by an unidentified author at:

The contribution is superscribed: «I Could Tell You, but You Wouldn't Understand»

It is not clear whether the author attacks the notion that every work is mainly or purely biographical or that any biographical approach is inherently erroneous. Possibly, it is not quite clear to the self-assured author himself, as appears from the following two quotes, which, if well considered, look a little bit befuddled:

Quote 1:

"These different approaches to reading Shakespeare, Shapiro argues, collapse into one simple question: can fictive literary works exist as independent creations wholly removed from their authors' experiences and feelings? In other words, does the author of a written work of fiction necessarily stamp her head and heart onto every page of her creation [my emphasis], leaving her true self buried somewhere in her art, where it patiently waits to be teased out by those perceptive enough to uncover it?"

Quote 2:

"As Shapiro makes clear, such readings of Shakespeare are all based on a singularly modern (and mistaken) way of interpreting the works, one which assumes that all writing is, on some level, autobiographical [my emphasis]. We want to find Shakespeare somewhere, and given the dearth of other information about him, what he wrote down is the best and only country we have to explore."

To begin with, I note a logical fallacy in the author's comments. The first quote is about "absolute autobiographicality". Do we have, the author seems to mean, to look for the author's life "on every page of her [or his] creation"? The second quote is about autobiographicality to a certain degree.

Water boils at 100 degree C°. At half that value water does not boil. Our author concludes: at 50 degree C° there is no water.  It is of course the author's conclusion that holds no water.


In SHAKESPEARE The Invention of the Human (New York, 1998) Harold Bloom writes: "Falstaff surely got away from Shakespeare, but I would be inclined to judge that Shakespeare could not get away from Hamlet, who was built up from within, whereas Falstaff began as an external construction and then went inward, perhaps against Shakespeare's initial will. Hamlet, I surmise, is Shakespeare's will long pondered and naything but the happy accident that became Falstaff. .. Between them, they occupy the center of Shakespeare's invention of the human." (p. 403)

So, according to Bloom, Hamlet came from within Shakespeare, whereas Falstaff wandered into him.  Obviously, Bloom means that Hamlet came out from within Shakespeare and Falstaff went from outside into Shakespeare. So what? Does this not presuppose some biographical content? If Bloom is more or less right, Hamlet and Falstaff should be able to tell us something about Shakespeare. Yet...

"Paradoxical as this must sound, Hamlet 'lets be' Shakespeare's empirical self, while taking over the dramatist's ontological self. I do not think that this was Shakespeare's design, or his overt intention, but I suspect that Shakespeare, apprehending the process, let it be. Foregrounding Hamlet, as I will show, depends entirely on conclusions from the play itself, the life of the man Shakespeare gives us very few interpretative clues to help us apprehend Hamlet. But Hamlet, fully foregrounded, and Falstaff are clues to what, in a Shakespearean term, we could call the 'selfsame' in Shakespeare." (p. 739) One wonders what Bloom could have meant by the distinction between "empirical self" and "ontological self" (he does not specify it in the least). But after all it is perhaps just a somewhat writhing way of wriggling out of the difficulty more openly acknowledged in the second part of the passage: that no senseful relationship can be established between the empirical self of the Shakespeare Bloom is bearing in mind and the Hamlet of the play. Ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the fundamental, general categories of that what actually is. Does Bloom mean that Hamlet would be saying to William Shakespeare of Stratford: "Let it be, let it be, whoever you are, you cannot trouble me, I am ontological, you see"? This might open up a new perspective for interpreting "To be or not to be".


Sonnet 145 closes with the couplet:

                                   "I hate" from hate away she threw,
                                    And saved my life, saying "not you."

Helen Vendler (The Art of SHAKESPEARE'S SONNETS,  Cambridge, MA, 1999)  ) comments: "The conjecture by Andrew Gurr that hate away is a witty pun on 'Hathaway' (see Booth) is a convincing one." (p. 609). Vendler thinks that this must be one of the earliest sonnets. But sonnet XXXVIII in Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophel and Stella contains a similar thought:

I start, look, hark: but in what closed-up sense
Was held, in open'd sense it flies away,
Leaving me nought but wailing eloquence.

Sidney's sonnet cycle closes with eleven songs. The seventh and ninth stanza (the  last but one) of the ninth song (the song was reprinted in 1600 in England's Helicon) read:

Why (alas) doth she then sweare
That she loueth me so dearely,
Seeing me so long to beare
Coles of loue that burne so cleerly,
And yet leaue me helplesse meerely?


No, she hates me, well-away,
Feigning love, somewhat to please me:
For she knows, if she display
All her hate, death soon would seize me,
And of hideous torments ease me.

 "Now, she hate me, well-away" occurs within a very conventional setting. The "flint-hearted" mistress is found in nearly every sonnet cycle of the period. Shakespeare's sonnet 145 is not different, so that the question should be allowed whether Sir Philip Sidney was also punning on the name of Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway. But the phrase is "hate away", not "hath a way". Maybe that the pun is on "hath a way". It could then be a pun on her name, for we know "she hath her way", a family one, that is.

Sometimes the clues are purely concocted, as when one author awkwardly and deliberately, and awkwardly deliberately too, connects the pamphlet Kempes nine days wonder of the actor William Kempe (1600) against certain ballad makers, whom he calls "shake-rags", with his withdrawal from Shakespeare's company in 1599. Nothing is known about the circumstances of Kempe's dropping out from the company; "shake-rags" has nothing to do with "Shake-speare"; yet the author, in order to give some flesh and blood to William Shakespeare, overboldly and distortingly interprets Kempe's pamphlet as a backlash against Shakespeare. The first four lines of sonnet 27:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear respose for limbs with travel tired,
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body's work's expired.

are straight associated with a petition in Stratford for the repair of the highways; the list, dated 11 September 1611,  contains the name William Shackspere in the margin. The title of the book is 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London, 2005); the book was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize; the name of the author is James Shapiro, also the author of Contested Will, in which he is pouring harsh critique by the bucket on the deserving scholar Edmond Malone (1741-1812) for his biographical approach, which for Shapiro evolved from "approach" to "bias"; only fleetingly does he mention he was barking up the same tree now declared completely wrong five years ago, and with a much shriller sound than Malone ever did at that. For this U-turn he will probably be awarded the John Samuelson Prize (if that prize exist).


In the second book of the Arcadia (written about 1583)  Philip Sidney describes a jousting in which he (Philisides) took part together with the Queen's champion Sir Henry Lee (Lelius):

"The shepherds attending upon PHILISIDES went among the, & sang an eclogue; one of them answering another, while the other shepherds pulling out recorders (which possesed the place of pipes) accorded their musik to the others' voice. The Eclogue had great praise: I onely remember six verses, while having questioned one with the other, of their fellow-shepherds sudden growing a man of armes, and the cause of his so doing, they thus said.
ME thought some staves he missed: if so, not much amiss:
For where he most would hit, he ever yet did miss.
One said he brake acrose; full well it so might be:
For never was there man more crossly crost than he.
But most cried, O well broke: O fool full gaily blessed;
Where failing is a shame, and breaking is his best.

    Thus I haue digressed, because his manner liked me well: But when he began to run against Lelius, it had near grown (though great love had ever been betwixt them) to a quarrell. For Philisides breaking his staves with great commendation, Lelius (who was knowne to be second to none in the perfection of that Art)  ran euer over his head, but so finely to the skilful eyes, that one might well see, he showed more knowledge in missing, then others did in hitting." (Sidney, Philip, Sir, The Countesse of Pembroke's Arcadia , ed. Albert Feuillerat, Cambridge, 1912,  p. 101ff.)

The particulars of this description do not matter. What matters is that it relates to an Ascension Day tilt (tilts organized on 17 November, the day Elizabeth I. Succeeded to the English throne). What Sidney describes at length is an actual tilt in the year 1584 (see Strong, Roy, The Cult of Elizabeth , London, 1977,  p. 149).  Not only is our pleasant author completely ignorant of the many factual gaffes in Shapiro's Contested Will, but hark now how he, totally ignorant of historical context but wise enough to stay anonymous, self-assured enough to qualify anti-Stratfordians as "a motley and growing assortment of intellectuals, fringe academics, and devoted dilettants", would like to castigate those who insist that Sidney is referrring to his own life: "As Shapiro makes clear, such readings of Shakespeare are all based on a singularly modern (and mistaken) way of interpreting the works, one which assumes that all writing is, on some level, autobiographical." On some level, both Sidney's Arcadia and his sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella are partly autobiographical. 

The very truth is that six years ago Shapiro himself started a wild goose chase after biographical evidence, an attempt only fruitful inasfar as it earned him an award but no results. And after his carousal of unsubstantiated biographic evidence, the hungover preacher now advocates teetotalism.


Daniel's sonnet cycle was published in 1592 and dedicated to Mary Herbert, née Sidney, Countess of Pembroke. From 1592 Wilton House, the countess' residence bordering the river Avon (in Wiltshire, not in Warwickshire), not London, was the center of his literary activity, a fact to which he alludes in his sonnet  XLVIII:

No no my verse respects nor Thames nor Theaters,
Nor seekes it to be knowne vnto the Great:
But Avon rich in fame, though poore in waters,
Shall have my song, where Delia hath her seate.
      Avon shall be my Thames, and she my Song;
      I'll sound her name the Ryuer all along.

Daniel's sonnets reflect autobiographical matter in other places. The whole cycle, though, should not be interpreted as autobiography. But it contains some autobiographical references.


Thomas Nashe's picaresque novel The Unfortunate Traveller (in the second volume of The Works of THOMAS NASHE, edited by Ronald B. McKerrow with additional notes by F.P. Wilson, 4 vol., Oxford, 1958) is certainly a work of fiction, but as certainly it contains some autobiographical matter. On pages 246-7 Nashe describes an orator in Wittenberg with a "pickerdevant" (a small pointed beard), who steals piecemeal from "Tully" (Cicero) and finishes his sentences with "esse posse videatur" ("it could seem"); the pedantic orator's name is "Vanderhulk". All of the italicized terms are repeated two years later in Have With You to Saffron Walden, Nashe's second pamphlet against the Cambridge orator Gabriel Harvey. Hence, in The Unfortunate Traveller Nashe has inserted a passage allowing him another quip at his archfoe Gabriel Harvey.

Here lies the difference which the author in "Revolving Word" would like to obfuscate by an overall generalization and the usual cascade of affirmative adjectives. Sidney's, Daniel's, and Nashe's work do contain autobiographical allusions. And it is likely that Shakespeare's works too contain such autobiographical allusions. Only is there no biography to draw upon if one assumes that William Shakespeare of Stratford were indeed the author.


This work was published posthumously, a few months after Greene's death. It contains an account of Greene's life: "The life and death of Robert Greene." Apparently the account was written by Greene himself. The authenticity of the text is not beyond doubt, but the fact remains that it is styled as a ten-page autobiography. Certain facts, such as Greene's birth city Norwich, are correct.

BEN JONSON (1572?-1637) : POETASTER (1601)

In the last quarter of the year 1601 ist staged Ben Jonson's comedy Poetaster. The play had been preceded by some animadversions between Ben Jonson, on the one hand, and the playwrights John Marston and Thomas Dekker on the other hand. In Poetaster Marston and Dekker are represented by the characters Crispinus and Demetrius Fannius. Ben Jonson himself is embodied in the Roman poet Horace. Crispinus/Marston and Demetrius/Dekker are represented as detractors of Horace.  Toward the end of the play Horace is avenged. Crispinus is administered a pill which makes him vomit a number of words: "incubus," "poetise," "snotteries," etc., many of them words that had been used by Marston in his satires and plays.  Thomas Dekker retaliates with his play Satiromastix in which it is Jonson's turn to be arraigned and punished. Jonson is presented as Horace.

Further details need not interest us here. It is one thing to hold that a play cannot be read in its entirety as autobiographical, it is quite a different thing to say that autobiographical elements are virtually absent from Elizabethan and Jacobean plays or other literary works.


A fairly clear allusion is contained in the name Reynaldo in Hamlet.  Reynaldo, a servant of Polonius, is an unusual name, either of Spanish, or more probably, of Italian origin. He has only one appearance in the play, in act II, scene 1. Polonius gives him instructions to observe or to spy on the conduct of his son Laertes in Paris. Polonius again has been seen by many a commentator as having some traits in common with the real Lord Burghley. With respect to the instructions given to his son Robert Cecil the historian Joel Hurstfield remarks: "It is the authentic voice of Polonius." (Hurstfield, Joel, The Queen's Wards. Marriage and Wardship under Elizabeth I, London, 1959, p. 257). E.K. Chambers thinks that Laertes is more like Lord Burghley's elder son Thomas than Robert (William Shakespeare - A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vol., Oxford, 1930, vol. I., p. 418)

However, a still closer match is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Burghley's son-in-law. In his letter of 17 March 1575 from Paris to his father-in-law, Oxford writes: "I thank your Lordship I have receiued farther bills of credit, and letters of great courtesy from Mr Benedict Spinola. I am also beholding here unto Mr Reymondo, that hath helped me greatly with a number of favours whom I shall desire your Lordship when you have leisure and occasion to give him thanks, for I know the greatest part of his friendship towards me hath been in respect of your Lordship." The ironical overtone is unmistakable. Courtly but firmly Oxford tells Burghley that he considers Reymondo to be Burghley's watchdog. The name Reymondo is conspicuously close to the Reynaldo in the play.

We here have a glimpse of Hamlet's "empirical self" which Harold Bloom was vainly looking for in "his" William Shakespeare of Stratford.

And Falstaff?

Consider this account rendered by Charles Arundel of Oxford's rodomontade about his "exploits" in the Low Countries: "And in this journey he passed many straits and divers bridges kept by the enemy, which he let them from with the loss of many a man's life. But still he forced them to retire, till at the last he approached the place that he went to besiege; and using no delay the cannon was planted and the battery continued the space of ten days, by which time he had made such a breach as by a general consent of all his captains he gave an assault, and to encourage his soldiers this valiant prince led them thereto, and through the force of his murdering arm many were sore wounded, but more killed. Notwithstanding being not well followed by the reiters and others, he was repulsed, but determining to give a fresh and general assault the next day Master Beningefeld [Bedingfield], as the devil would have it [our emphais, came in upon his swift post-horse, and called him from this service by Her Majesty's letters, being the greatest disgrace that any such general received."

And now the question is whether this noble general were more troubled with his calling home, or Beningefeld more moved with pity and compassion to behold this slaughter, or his horse more afeared when he passed the bridges at the sight of the dead bodies - whereat he started and flung in such sort as Beningefeld could hardly keep his back." (B.M. Ward, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford- 1550-1604, London, 1928, pp. 99-100).

Instead of rodomontade we should rather speak of "Falstaffiade". Let us listen to Sir John Falstaff's account of the failed hold-up near Rochester in 1, Henry IV, II.iv: "But, as the devil would have it, three misbegotten knaves in Kendal green came at my back and let drive at me; for it was so  dark, Hal, that thou couldst not see thy hand."

The last sentence of the passage quoted from Charles Arundel's account should arrest the attention as a very frequent turn of phrase in euphuistic literature. But before returning to it, some examples should be quoted. Three are taken from John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit and Euphues and His England (edited by Morris William Croll and Harry Clemons, New York, 1964).

Example 1: "And thus it standeth, that it is not yet determined whether in love Ulysses more prevailed with his wit, or Paris with his personage, or Achilles with his prowess." (p. 258)

Example 2: "If it were your chance to travel to Siena and to see as much there as I have told you here, whether would you choose for your wife the fair fool, the witty wanton, or the crooked Saint."(p. 264)

Example 3: "But were the truth knownI am sure, Gentlewomen, it would be a hard question among Ladies, whether Philautus were a better wooer, or a husband, whether Euphues were a better lover, or a scholar."(p. 462)

The last example is drawn from Robert Greene's Euphues His Censure to Philautus (  "as it was a question whether the lineaments of his face or the proportion of his wisdom held the greater supremacy."

Oxford's sentence has the same structure. "And now the question is whether this noble general were more troubled with his calling home, or Beningefeld more moved with pity and compassion to behold this slaughter, or his horse more afeared when he passed the bridges at the sight of the dead bodies - whereat he started and flung in such sort as Beningefeld could hardly keep his back." But with the horse as third alternative a satirizing bathos is imported.

Falstaff too borrows a simile from Euphuism and introduces a bathos. The model phrase is "... though the Cammocke the more it is bowed the better it serveth, yet the bow the more it is bent and occupied, the weaker it waxeth, tough the Camomil, the more it is trodden and pressed down, the more it spreadeth, yet the violet the oftner it is handled and touched, the sooner it withereth and decayeth." (John Lyly, "Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit" in The Descent of Euphues, edited with an introduction by James Winny, Cambridge, 1957, p. 13).

paraphrases: "For though the camomile, the more it is trodden on, the faster it grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted, the sooner it wears." (1, Henry IV, II.iv).  The bathos in this case operated by changing the standard euphuistic construction, which would have demanded "yet youth, the more it waxeth, the sooner it wears" and by setting off against each other inadequate genera, in Oxford's case two human beings (the "general" Oxford and Bedingfield) and a horse, in Falstaff's case a plant and a human group (euphuistic symmetry called for another plant).

This having been shown, we conclude that something of both Hamlet and Falstaff was present in the 17th Earl of Oxford, the two figures into which, according to Harold Bloom, Shakespeare has put most of his own personality. And we can end by addressing our pleasant author as he started addressing us, only slightly modified:

«I Can Tell You, but You Won't Understand».

© Robert Detobel 2011