Shakespeare's Queer Sonnets and the Forgeries of William Henry Ireland
Michael Keevak, National Taiwan University
In 1795 a young man named William Henry Ireland, then about eighteen years of age, fabricated a series of Shakespearean forgeries that, for the space of few months at least, were enthusiastically believed by both the educated English public and some of the leading scholars and critics of the day. By the end of his meteoric career, Ireland's portfolio of impostures included legal deeds, promissory notes, receipts, letters both to and from Shakespeare, a portrait sketch, and even a "lost" tragedy, Vortigern, written in the bard's own hand. After his exposure Ireland tried to defend his actions first in a pamphlet, and then in an elaborated and rather "improved" version in his Confessions, and the story was reiterated many times until his death thirty years later.1 In each instance we are presented with a teenager driven mainly by a desire to please his unresponsive and greedy father, Samuel Ireland—anti-quarian, book publisher, fervent bardolator—who often reminded his son that he would gladly give away his entire collection in return for just one authentic example of Shakespeare's handwriting.2 The story becomes more and more incredible as it unfolds, and it becomes increasingly clear that Ireland's eventual aim, which failed disastrously, was to put himself forward as a new young bard. The few pieces of modern criticism devoted to him give us a fuller picture of the scandal, both of the moral and psychological character of the perpetrator(s), and of the cultural and literary climate in which so many men and women willingly believed in the impostures.3 In some sense the papers are interesting wish-fulfillments, late eighteenth-century versions of what the poet "should" have been like—not, in other words, the rather uncomplimentary legends that had already grown up around him: poacher, holder of horses, Stratford yokel, and so forth. Ireland thus furnishes a more Protestant Profession of Faith to counteract the disturbingly Catholic or "papist" one purportedly left by the poet's father; a gushing and proto-Romantic love letter to "Anna Hatherrewaye" (including an effusive poem and even a lock of his hair); Deeds of Gift which sound much more generous and intelligent than Shakespeare's actual will; and very informal letters from Southampton and even the Queen herself, which, in the words of one enthusiast, proved once and for all that Shakespeare was "the Garrick of his age."4
The documents make a certain kind of sense in the context of 1795, in other words, but as is often the case with such forgeries it seems surprising in hindsight that anybody could actually have been fooled. For the papers are ridiculously suspect on too many counts, with their dubious source in the house of an invented Mr. H., who freely gave them, one by one, to the worshipful young man (and who even began to correspond with the elder Ireland without the latter recognizing his son's own handwriting); their errors of diction and historical anachronism (a promissory note mentioning the Globe theater ten years before it was built); their laughably exaggerated "Elizabethan" spelling (in the words of Edmond Malone, "the orthography of no age whatsoever");5 and their often preposterous subject matter (a Deed of Gift in which the poet professes his undying gratitude to a contemporary William Henry Ireland who saved him from drowning in the Thames!). By the same token, however, the very speed with which the discoveries had been made—within the space of a couple of months only—was probably the most convincing proof for Ireland's contemporaries that the documents were real (or that they must be the work of more than one person). Actually, the praise which the papers received and the ease with which each new item had been accepted astonished even their maker—despite his own self-perception as a neglected poetic genius—particularly since he had produced them so quickly, and since in many cases one document often necessitated the composition of another in order to explain or correct it.
For instance, the Deed of Gift to Ireland's Elizabethan namesake included all the profits from several plays (an anachronism, since playwrights did not own their work in this way),6 including King Lear, a phony manuscript version of which had just been "discovered"—a ploy clearly designed both to authenticate the play itself and to provide a justification for the fact that Ireland should be able to publish or produce the treasure once it had been unearthed. An impossible coincidence, perhaps, but it was nonetheless believed, just as it was not necessarily too good to be true that this same sixteenth-century W. H. might be the same as the W. H. addressed in Thomas Thorpe's mysterious dedication of the Sonnets! Similarly, Ireland's climactic imposture, another Deed of Gift, conveniently referred to other unauthenticated finds, such as the love letter and Vortigern, the latter not coincidentally being in preparation for production at the Drury Lane theater. But evenmore audaciously, the rights to this play were (again anachronistically) granted to an unnamed and presumably illegitimate child of Shakespeare left in the care of John Heminge, fellow actor and coeditor of the First Folio, thus making a number of enticing insinuations about possible family ties between Heminge and Ireland's Mr. H., or a possible connection between this child, "of whome wee have spokenn butt who muste nott be named here," and Ireland's fictive namesake.7 In some way, in other words, the forger seems to be attempting to fashion himself as a true descendant of Shakespeare, both genealogically and artistically.
Such a plethora of lies, however, inevitably caught up with their prevaricator, and despite the care Ireland employed to use authentic paper from the period, an ink that looked old when the documents were held before a flame, and seals cleverly remade from Elizabethan ones, Malone had little trouble demonstrating the documents' many inconsistencies and inaccuracies in his scrupulously thorough Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers of 1796, one of the first examples of "professional" Shakespeare criticism and the chief force behind Ireland's exposure. As Malone concludes, those involved in the forgery "know nothing of the history of Shakespeare, nothing of the history of the Stage, or the history of the English Language."8 Within the space of a few days, Vortigern was laughed off the stage, and there was nothing left to do but for young William Henry to confess. The elder Ireland, however, stubbornly refused to believe that his son was capable of such acts, nor of such elevated artistic creations, and continued to insist on the papers' authenticity until his death four years later.9 William Henry went on to write many more books, sometimes pseudonymously, but he was never again to rise from obscurity.
The whole case remains, in a word, a fascinating and important piece of evidence relating to the history of Shakespeare-worship, which at this time was just beginning to take shape,10 as well as a family drama which ultimately becomes, in the words of Samuel Schoenbaum, "invested with an almost unendurable pathos."11 But it is rather more difficult to concur with Brian Vickers that the Ireland episode, other than the fact it managed to fool so many people for a time, "has no significance for the history of the interpretation of Shakespeare."12 I will argue that the Ireland forgeries indicate a great deal not only about the way that Shakespeare—actor, playwright, poet, cultural icon—was regarded by the late eighteenth century, but also about how more modern preoccupations have grown out of the very same debates. The center of our obsession, then as now, is the Shakespeare biography, or rather lack thereof. It is something of a cliché to be reminded that we know next to nothing about Shakespeare's life, that our knowledge is confined mainly to dry legal records or unsatisfying contemporary references, and that so little about him is "revealed" in his works. Readers are thus forced to find their own answers for understanding the national poet, and the Sonnets have predictably become a favorite site for those searching after more intimate details—since the poems are written in the first person and they tempt us to read in them a very provocative "story." In fact the sheer number of controversies which have grown up around the poems is itself no less than spectacular—to name a few, whether they were pirated; why so few copies remain; why contemporaries don't mention them; whether they were withdrawn from publication; what their correct order is; when they were written; whether they are autobiographical; who are Mr. W. H., the young man, the rival poet, and the dark lady; whether the poems are homosexual or adulterous; and, worst of all, whether "William Shakespeare" is merely a pseudonym for another author who wished to remain unknown.13
Each of these debates has inspired its own veritable industry of subsequent comment. A number of them are of course rather hollow and irrelevant, and it has often been lamented how many false questions and crackpot theories have grown up around the poems; as E. K. Chambers famously put it, "[m]ore folly has been written about the sonnets than about any other Shakespearean topic."14 But the extent to which these debates depend on conjectures about Shakespeare's "real life" is extraordinary, and it is no accident that the Sonnets stand in the center of this sort of biographical game. The problem hinges on the extent to which the poems can serve as "evidence" for the life of Shakespeare (or somebody else), and it is in precisely the same way that the Ireland forgeries—and the supposed letter from Queen Elizabeth in particular, which will be our focus here—relate to these discussions. For both the impetus and the result of the documents was their presumed ability to fill in some of the large gaps that existed in the Shakespeare biography, and indeed Ireland himself describes a similar motivation for his creations. We have already mentioned the Profession of Faith, the letter to Anne Hathaway, and the Deeds of Gift as representative of this sort of biographical fantasy, but it is the Queen's letter which had unwittingly produced the most telling "story"—and the most telling response from one former believer, George Chalmers.15 "Wee didde receive youre prettye Verses goode Masterre William through the hands off oure Lorde Chambelayne," Elizabeth is made to write, "ande wee doe Complemente thee onne theyre greate excellence." She continues:
Wee shalle departe fromme Londonne toe Hamptowne forre the holy-dayes where wee Shalle expecte thee withe thye beste Actorres thatte thou mayste playe before oureselfe toe amuse usse bee notte slowwe butte comme toe usse bye Tuesdaye nexte asse the lorde Leycesterre will bee withe usse.
The letter is also addressed: "For Master William Shakespeare atte the Globe bye Thames." Finally, on an attached piece of paper the poet was made to add, obviously to provide an explanation for the fact that the letter itself has survived:
Thys Letterre I dydde receyve fromme mye moste gracyouse Ladye Elyzabethe ande I doe requeste itte maye be kepte withe all care possyble.
William Henry's chaotic spelling and seeming disinterest in punctuation are just two of the more noticeable features in the forgeries, but here the chattiness of the Queen is positively astonishing. Malone had many other objections, however: would Elizabeth have misspelled Leicester's name in such a way (even if standard orthography did not yet exist), not to mention London or Hampton Court? Why should the letter have survived when so many other documents, not to mention the "prettye Verses" themselves, have not? Perhaps the reference to Leicester was designed to give the note an added air of authenticity, but since he had died in 1588 it would have to be written when Shakespeare was at most twenty-four years old, and (unluckily) in that year the Globe did not yet exist either.17 According to Ireland's subsequent account, the idea of a letter from the Queen was suggested to him by a legendary missive from James I, which (it was hoped) might turn up with the other papers; "[m]y principal object in the production of this letter was to make our bard appear of so much consequence in his own time as to be personally noticed by so great and politic a princess as our Elizabeth," but "[a]s to the verses alluded to in my gracious epistle, they certainly never had existence, to the best of my knowledge."18 But the letter had already worked its intended effect, to herald Shakespeare as "the Garrick of his age," and it was the chief piece of evidence which in 1797 led Chalmers to posit his own theory, in his Apology for the Believers in the Shakspeare-Papers, that the "prettye Verses" were none other than Shakespeare's Sonnets, and that all of them were in fact addressed to the Queen!19
To be fair, when Chalmers's hypothesis is placed beside the vast legion of fantastic, ridiculous, and lunatic theories in the long and varied history of Shakespeare criticism, and that of the Sonnets in particular, his conclusion might seem rather tame and perhaps even arguable.20 It certainly ranks higher than George Elliott Sweet's contention that Elizabeth was "Shakespeare,"21 but even Sweet's position could be said to grow out of the very same set of biographical problems that have plagued all readers. Chalmers simply offers another version of the "story" behind the poems' composition: essentially that Shakespeare was attempting to praise his monarch after the example of Spenser (who was quite successful in obtaining preferment in this way), and that one should read the first seventeen poems—the "pro-creation sonnets" which urge a young man to marry and reproduce—as in fact rhetorical proposals to the Virgin Queen. So far so good, perhaps, but Chalmers will have to perform a lot of verbal gymnastics in order to prove that all the poems are addressed to only one person, and that the rest of the sequence, especially the markedly denigrating poems in the "dark lady" group, are also designed to appeal to the Queen.22 As a matter of fact Chalmers has little to say about these final poems.
But it is vital to understand that Chalmers does not claim that the Ireland forgeries are authentic; rather, he offers an "Apology for the Believers" in the documents, which is to say an attempt to explain why he and others had been fooled, and why the documents had made sense as new evidence relating to the life of the bard. Chalmers's real target is not the forger at all but Malone's recently published Inquiry, which in Chalmers's view was too sarcastic and snobbish in its demonstrations. "If Mr. Malone had written, instead of his Inquiry, a pamphlet in plain prose," writes Chalmers in his preface, "stating his objections without irony, and submitting his documents without scoffs; .. . no one would have answered what few would have read; since a cheat exploded is a cheat no more" (A iii). Chalmers endeavors to show just how many times this (as he felt) self-proclaimed authority was misleading or mistaken. Perhaps he does manage to correct Malone on a few occasions, but there is also an overwhelming pointlessness to most of Chalmers's 628 pages, since, although he begins by admitting his own gullibility, he has to spend so much time proving how it might have been possible, and the tedious legalistic paragraphs which open the book concerning the distinctions between possibility and probability are hardly enlivened by the bitter attack on "the public accuser" that follows. What is really the difference if Malone's detection has turned out to be "right by chance" rather than "convincing by argument" (A 123)?23
Let us recall that the monarch's letter is actually rather modest when compared with some of Ireland's more reckless creations to come. Moreover Chalmers's treatment fills only the first ninety or so pages of his book, and his theory regarding the Sonnets soon gives way to other considerations. But this does not lessen the importance of that theory for the history of Shakespeare criticism, despite the fact that ridicule was both immediate and potent. For Chalmers continued to assert that the poems were addressed to the Queen even after he admits that her letter itself is spurious. In some sense, then, his reading of the Sonnets must have existed before the letter was even forged. At first glance this might seem far-fetched or illogical, since is it really likely that Chalmers could have "guessed" beforehand that Elizabeth is the poems' true addressee? Isn't it clear, in other words, that the forged letter produced the theory rather than the other way around? Perhaps his reading had not been fully or even explicitly formulated before the letter actually appeared, but there were undoubtedly certain "problems" regarding the meaning of the poems that had been bothering readers ever since the 1609 text was restored (also by Malone) in 1780. Ireland's letter, that is, merely served as a convenient means (or an excuse or a justification) to explain or unravel a particular mystery already in place, and we have begun to see that many of the forgeries themselves represent similar kinds of "solutions." Chalmers's theory, in a word, is really a response to something other than the debate over Elizabeth's letter; the main issue, then as now, is the (apparently undeniable) fact that most of the 154 poems are addressed to a man. This has always been the Sphinx's riddle of Sonnet criticism. Was Shakespeare really a sodomite, the term regularly used before the invention of "homosexual" identities in the nineteenth century?24 On these grounds George Steevens had refused to publish the Sonnets at all, stating that "the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service."25
When other early authorities broached the subject of the poems' sexuality it was only in order to render it somehow innocent—which is to say normative, "heterosexual" (this term did not exist yet either): for the Sonnets, we are told, describe not a love affair between men but only an idealized friendship (Coleridge), their praise of a young man merely represents a tradition and is not really sexual (Malone), and they are not autobiographical poems anyway (John Boswell, Jr.). Peter Stallybrass has acutely noted how in all of these comments the possibility, or reality, of sodomy is always central but never explicitly named,26 and Chalmers's theory is clearly one more attempt to circumvent this same unnamed danger—that the bard is guilty of sodomy—simply by showing that the addressee is really a woman. If the poems are addressed to someone of the opposite sex, in other words, then all their problems can be made to disappear, just as one would have nothing more to worry about if Shakespeare "himself were really a woman in disguise. Chalmers is also neither the first nor the last to change the gender of the addressee to suit contemporary tastes; Coleridge succumbed to the same tendency,27 and it had also occurred in what is arguably the first "reading" of the Sonnets we possess, John Benson's bowdlerized edition of 1640, which, in addition to combining and rearranging the poems and giving them titles, actually alters some masculine references to make them more "properly" feminine. Hardly a marginal phenomenon or an isolated publication, however, Benson's edition was the basis for all new versions of the Sonnets for nearly a century and a half—until, that is, Malone.28
Chalmers's book is thus responding not only to Malone's Inquiry but also to prevailing tastes and contemporary judgments regarding Shakespeare's poems. In his Inquiry Malone announced that a definitive Life of Shakespeare was forthcoming, and his recent edition of the poems had included a biographical sketch which was probably the first to plumb the depths of the Sonnets for biographical evidence.29 But utilizing the Sonnets in this way also carried with it certain anxieties—namely, about sodomy—and it is in this very area that Malone disagreed most violently with Steevens. The infamous sonnet 20 was the main source of contention even then, for while here the poet seems to say that his "passion" for the male "Master Mistress" is purely platonic (since the speaker relinquishes the "pricked . . . out" friend to the "use" or sexual pleasure of women only), this rhetorical act is achieved via the most titillating and suggestive sexual language of the entire sequence.30 Steevens had grumbled that "[i]t is impossible to read this fulsome panegyrick, addressed to a male object, without an equal mixture of disgust and indignation," and Malone replied with the now familiar defense that "such addresses to men, however indelicate, were customary in our author's time, and neither imported criminality nor were esteemed indecorous."31 Implicitly, then, Chalmers is arguing not merely that the great Shakespeareans had not found the correct "solution" to the Sonnets, but also that the poems could be rescued from "fulsome," "disgusting," "indignant," "indelicate," "indecorous," or indeed "criminal" readings. For if the addressee of all the poems is really the Queen, Chalmers says, would it not be appropriate for Shakespeare to refer to her as his "Master Mistress," since she was both his "love" and his sovereign, both a woman and a prince (A 51-52, 58)? Malone, he says, faulted the poems for "professing too much love .. . to a man," but when readers realize the truth "they will be happy to find that the poet was incapable of such grossness." "Ought we to wonder," he concludes, "that in performing this great operation [of praise], he should confound the sexes?" (A 60-61).32
This seems at best a rather thick-headed reading, but at the same time Chalmers is fantasizing a biography for Shakespeare built up around the poems' newly understood "story" (A 51):
The fact is that Shakespeare had not leisure to write one hundred and twenty such sonnets to any man; being wholly occupied in providing for the day, which was passing over him; that the poet had no love, but a teeming wife to whom he was strongly attached by early ties; and for whom he could hardly provide by any means: Add to these circumstances that in another sonnet, Shakspeare maintains the unity of his object by saying to his idol, Elizabeth:
For to no other pass my verses tend,
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
And more, much more than in my verse can sit,
Your own glass shows you, when you look in it.
The only thing remarkable about this (remarkably bad) reading is that it is arguably the first of its kind, the first fully autobiographical reading of the Sonnets in the history of Shakespeare criticism—despite the fact that Malone had already initiated the trend in his 1780 and 1790 editions.33 Moreover, Chalmers can now make any of the poems contribute to this same "story," which, circularly, the poems are said to describe. In this sense he is also setting a precedent that will (unfortunately) be followed by so many other critics, both scholarly and otherwise. Only eleven years later the Sonnets were already being described as "paint[ing] most unequivocally the actual situation and sentiments of the poet," and by 1838 there was no turning back after the appearance of a volume titled Shakespeare's Autobiographical Poems.34
But the debate between Chalmers and Malone did not end here, even though Malone, probably wisely, declined to respond. For Chalmers refused to let matters stand as they were. Rather than simply allowing the fuss over the Ireland case to run its due course and be forgotten, in the way that many such controversies soon die away, two years later Chalmers produced another volume, A Supplemental Apology for the Believers in the Shakspeare-Papers, also more than six hundred pages, which is surely one of the oddest things about this whole rather odd affair. For the title page tells us that the volume was written in "reply to Mr. Malone's answer, which was early announced, but never published."35 If the first Apology was more about Malone than about the Ireland forgeries themselves, even though they were the book's ostensible subject, the second volume does not even need a response from Malone to keep the debate alive. Chalmers now has only "newspaper paragraphs, magazine essays, and monthly criticisms" to contend with (SA vi), but it hardly seems to make any difference. Moreover, having had two years to work out his initial theory in more detail, Chalmers now needs the space for his "supplemental" proofs: that since, as he now argues, Spenser's Amoretti were addressed to Queen Elizabeth as well (an equally surprising claim), and since Shakespeare was influenced by Spenser (as was also argued in the first Apology), one must reread Shakespeare's poems in the light of Spenser's, which were both Shakespeare's chief model and the best evidence that Shakespeare's were also addressed to the Queen (SA 21). There is more than just a little circularity in this reasoning, for the main proof that Shakespeare addresses the Queen is the fact that Spenser does so as well, and the main evidence that Spenser does so is his similarity to Shakespeare—not to mention the fact that the female addressee of the Amoretti is also idealized. As in Chalmers's first book we are rhetorically asked to consider who else but Elizabeth could possibly fit the kind of exaggerated description found in Spenser's poems. Like Shakespeare, "[i]t is . . . extremely improbable that Spenser, living with his Wife and family at Kilcolman . . . should have addressed such a body of Amatory Sonnets to a private Woman, whom to address in such encomiastic strains would have been dangerous in him and unsafe in her" (SA 31). The shadow of sex between men may be absent here but the biographical reading techniques are unchanged.
And yet this is not all, for once Chalmers attempts to flesh out his theory by actually examining individual poems, it is evident that such a demonstration is by no means easy to accomplish. It is all well and good to claim that the poems' many references to "he" or "him" could also refer to Elizabeth as a prince (even if this already seems a bit far-fetched), but what about the poems' many erotic or bawdy details, which would seem to lose much of their rhetorical force if they were not really directed toward another man? In sonnet 20 how could the Queen be "pricked . . . out for women's pleasure" even if it were possible that she qualified as "the Master Mistress" of the speaker's "passion" (unless of course the poems are lesbian, a possibility which Chalmers certainly does not entertain either)? Or when sonnet 16 suggests to the addressee that "many maiden gardens yet unset, / With virtuous wish would bear your living flowers," how would this apply to a proposed marriage for the Queen? Or in another vein, in sonnet 69 how could Shakespeare have gotten away with claiming that Elizabeth's "fair flower" had been given "the rank smell of weeds," and that she therefore "dost common grow"? We could extend these questions indefinitely, but these three poems are actually used by Chalmers to prove his point (SA 58-59, 70, 77). This struggle against sodomy becomes panicky and even hysterical, and Chalmers is forced to resort to ever more remote interpretive claims to make his theory work.
But the real meat and substance of the argument concerns the definition of "normal" gender designations, and a rather complicated problem of what we could call gender crossing. For a great many of the Sonnets refer to the addressee—and sometimes the speaker himself—"as" a woman. For instance the friend has a woman's face, heart, and eye in sonnet 20, he is compared to both Adonis and Helen in 53, and to Eve in 93 (where the speaker is also "a deceived husband"). The speaker likens himself to an unwed mother in 36, to a widowed one in 97, to Philomela in 102, and to "a careful housewife" in 143. But more generally, in terms of the whole genre of the Petrarchan sonnet sequence, one of the most interesting and unusual things about Shakespeare's poems is precisely the fact that the speaker's "mistress" is really (or at the same time) a "master," and that this male addressee is an object of beauty and indeed "passion."36 But this is also what bothers readers like Chalmers so much, and what seems to compel him to prove that all the "feminine" references to the male beloved are in fact references to a woman—or rather the Queen. This last distinction is important, for if the poems already cross gender lines by associating the male addressee with a mistress, Chalmers's reading takes the addressee's "feminine" position literally by (as it were) crossing back to make the poems refer not only to a real woman, but also to someone who is "more than a woman." If the "Master Mistress" is the Queen, we have crossed class lines as well as those of gender. A related idea is read back onto the addressee of the Amoretti as well, since both poets, "in their situations as married men and in their circumstances as to wealth," certainly would not have "addressed such Sonnets to ordinary Women (and much more to ordinary Men)" (SA 51). The proof (in Shakespeare) is that one cannot "apply to [a] man the feminine epithet 'tender churl,' and the womanish epithets 'unthriftyloveliness' and 'beauteous niggard'" (SA 53n). Indeed it is neither fit nor proper "to apply such sentiments . . . to a man, or indeed to any woman, except Elizabeth" (SA 54n). In which gender category, then, is the Queen said to reside?
Chalmers's reading of sonnet 20, however, is predictably the most revealing. A number of critics have remarked how often this poem, the bawdiest and (apparently) most sodomitical of the entire sequence, has ironically become the center of interpretations in precisely the opposite direction: most commonly, that the speaker and his addressee are "just friends."37 But if the addressee is a woman, and indeed the Queen herself, the problems intensify. "Master Mistress" only means "chiefest" mistress, Chalmers says; this is perhaps fair enough. "A man in hue" may also refer to Elizabeth's "masculine" quality of "lofty pride," but how likely is it that the obviously bawdy phrase "pricked thee out" merely means "marked" (SA 59n)? In this reading Elizabeth is merely "marked" as a woman, and therefore she is "pricked . . . out for women's pleasure" in the sense that she is "marked" with "the pleasure which belongs to woman" (SA 60n; my emphasis). The "love" which the speaker gets is supposedly only that of virtue,38 but why would the "use" of the Queen in this sense be appropriate for other women? Chalmers says that "thy love's use" is the "treasure" of other women in the sense that "chastity is the appropriate treasure of women." If this already seems a bit hard to follow, we will wonder what the Queen is "pricked out" with. "It will after all be asked, what additional circumstance was it which nature, in her doting, superadded, and which defeated the poet from possessing his master-mistress. I will not shrink from the question. . . . Elizabeth was sprung of heavenly race" (and he cites Spenser to prove it). The "one thing" added by nature is her "divine origin, or high birth"; this was "the additional circumstance that dashed all his hopes: For she was only a man in hue; and she was more than a woman, by addition" (SA 60-61n). Although this reading, he claims, has the advantage of "clearing obscurities by the context" (SA 61), such a tortuous theory has understandably won little support. For all of the poem's dynamic eroticism—and especially the "one thing" with which the friend is "pricked . . . out for women's pleasure"—has been deflated or distilled into simplistic praise of the Virgin Queen. Like the friend she may also be "more than a woman," but his/her "love's use" has been primly de-eroticized, and the bawdy jest in which the friend's "one thing" is called a "nothing"—an unmistakable sexual pun—is quietly expurgated.
It is only in this way that Shakespeare can be saved from the charge which had already been leveled against him by one of Chalmers's contemporaries: that he was "a miscreant, who could address amatory Verses to a man, 'with a romantic platonism of affection'" (cited in SA 73). But now, having been "freed . . . from this stain," "darkness brightens into light, order springs out of confusion, and contradiction settles into sense" (SA 73-74). Never mind that pronouns are changed from his to her and back again (e.g., SA 68-69), or that Chalmers's only proof is a list of "feminine" labels which "cannot be properly applied to a man": "unthrifty loveliness," "beauteous niggard," "dear my love," "outward fair," "grace of person," "beauty of eye," and so on (SA 72n, 76n, 78n, 79). And how, he blindly asks, could a man possibly "be exhibited as an object for the eyes of men" in sonnet 16 (SA 78)? Shakespeare must be saved at any cost from "the odious imputation of platonism" (SA 89n), much as the fictive William Henry Ireland had been made to rescue him from the Thames. And as for the twelve-line sonnet 126, with its seemingly irrefutable male invocation ("thou, my lovely boy"), Chalmers remarks that since the poem lacks its final two lines "the printer had before him a very imperfect Manuscript" (SA 86). This is no doubt a last resort, and from this point on the argument abruptly dies away, if it ever had any life to begin with, by apologizing for the fact that it is not possible to treat every poem in the sequence with the same level of attentiveness (SA 81). This is hardly surprising, since the break occurs just when we come to the "dark lady" poems, even though it might seem necessary to "rescue" the poet from them (and her) as well.
One may wonder why we should even bother with Chalmers's theories after two hundred years. Do they reside merely in "the by-ways of eighteenth-century letters,"39 or is it possible to argue that these big books are more than just an effect of an antique milieu in which bardolatrous forgeries were so readily accepted? Although the Ireland case has received its share of analysis, far too little attention has been paid to Chalmers's involvement in the controversy, and to the manner in which his books have much to teach us about larger critical questions—and about the effects of sodomy in particular. In this sense we must orient our understanding of Chalmers's response to contemporary queer studies debates, which not accidentally have as one of their main points of focus the early modern period. One reason for this is that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries the term "sodomy" could be used to refer not only to sexual acts between men or between women, but also to any nonnormative form of sexual behavior (extramarital intercourse, non-vaginal sex, masturbation, bestiality, rape, and so on), and many contemporary queer theorists have adopted a similar designation for "queer" in order to make it more inclusive, or less exclusionary, than a term like "gay and lesbian studies."40 In this sense the Sonnets are unquestionably queer or sodomitical poems, either in terms of their (supposed) relationship with the young man or the dark lady, but clearly it is much more urgent for Chalmers to free Shakespeare from the possibility of same-sex desire than from an adulterous affair. Just as the forged letter from Elizabeth may simply have given Chalmers an opportunity to relieve Shakespeare from the graver charge of "platonism," the whole theory about a female addressee is a belated rescue operation whose "solution" stems from a cultural anxiety about sodomy just as much as from the letter itself. Even in the first Apology the forgeries had already moved into the background. But Chalmers also looks "backward" in the way in which he endeavors to define a normatively sexual Shakespeare which will counteract an anxiety about sodomy already being felt. As Stallybrass writes, "[t]he justification of Shakespeare is always ' subsequent to the charge of deviation—just as the concept of the 'heterosexual' is a belated response to the prior concept of the 'homosexual.'"41 This is one reason why the Ireland affair is such a valuable and instructive piece of evidence for queer studies. But let us also recall that Chalmers's reading is also the first predominantly autobiographical one of Shakespeare's poems, and we should pause to ask why the initial foray into this sort of criticism should have taken this particular form rather than any other. Is it important, in other words, that the first autobiographical reading should have the avoidance of sodomy at its center?
In terms of queer studies I am reminded of the opening of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, where we are told that "an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition."42 This statement seems to apply equally well to Chalmers's own form of definitional crisis, for we cannot understand what is really at stake in the eighteenth-century imaginary of (a "normal") Shakespeare without also understanding the sodomy that bardolatry had to work against even as it was being fashioned. Moreover, one of the consequences of the lack of biographical information relating to the poet was the amount that one had to rely on the works for an understanding of the author "himself," and of course a group of first-person poems like the Sonnets were inevitably the most alluring treasure trove of all. But this also meant that one had to account for (or deny) what the poems appeared to say—namely, that the speaker had addressed "amatory verses" to another man. It was only in the eighteenth century that this process was beginning to take shape, the main reason being that Thorpe's text had only just been restored. But once the sodomitical Shakespearean text had been rediscovered, it also had to be integrated into the bard's official biography. Thus the issue of bardolatry itself, and the question of biographical criticism in general, cannot be entirely separated from the (newly formed) definition of an explicitly "heterosexual" Shakespeare. The homo/hetero definition was also at work in 1795—even if the terms themselves had not yet been invented—in the ostensibly desexualized terrains of bardolatry and autobiography.
Yet what of our own readings? Can we really be said to fare any better? One of the most enlightening things about Chalmers's theory, in fact, is just how representative it is as a moral vindication of Shakespeare based on his sexual "orientation," and many (if not most) readers have also concentrated on the homo/hetero distinction (especially Joel Fineman) despite the fact that the poems can be read or divided in other ways, and indeed that the real "scandal" of the Sonnets might lie more in their description of the dark lady's "promiscuous womb" than in some form of pederasty.43 Joseph Pequigney has provided the most detailed review of the way in which the sexuality in the Sonnets has been consistently whitewashed throughout their modern critical history—up to and including Stephen Booth's currently standard edition.44 Such bowdlerization can even be accomplished under the aegis of historical or cultural difference, since if one misreads or oversimplifies Alan Bray's arguments (especially), that male "friendship" took on particular and to us surprising forms in Renaissance society,45 or that an individual sodomite would not have conceived of him/herself in a way that would correspond to a modern "gay" (or even queer) identity,46 wouldn't it be possible to say that the Sonnets are not "gay poems" at all but something which we no longer understand or recognize? This is part of the message of Pequigney's book, for critics' longstanding refusal to read what is "really there" in the poems blinds them to a narrative which is not only homoerotic but "sexual in both orientation and practice"—even if Pequigney's version comes close to reducing the poems merely to another, alternative story.47 Or is it, in Chalmers's words, "for impure minds only to be continually finding something obscene in objects that convey nothing obscene, or offensive, to the chastest hearts" (SA 63)? Put another way, at what point do our own "dirty minds" pursue sexual puns or innuendoes which are no longer appropriate for a Renaissance poem, as if at some point such readings had crossed over into distinctly modern (not to mention Elizabethan) sexual slang? The terms of the problem are well encapsulated in the subtitle of Jonathan Goldberg's Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, for how are these two categories to be connected?
We have already examined the speaker's preoccupation with the "one thing" (or "nothing") which the male "Master Mistress" is "pricked . . . out" with in sonnet 20, but this is by no means our only example. The male body is also provocatively described as a "sweet up-locked treasure" in sonnet 52, its value being continually renewed by the "unfolding" of phallic "pride":
So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe doth hide
To make some special instant special blest,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.
Or sonnet 56, which is an expression of the fulfillment and reawakening of sexual desire, seems (contextually speaking, at least) to refer only to male bodies:
Sweet love renew thy force, be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite,
Which but today by feeding is allayed,
Tomorrow sharp'ned in his former might.
Or the bawdy language of sonnet 80 (one of the "rival poet" group) likewise seems to be an all-male affair:
My saucy bark, inferior far to his,
On your broad main doth wilfully appear,
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride;
Or, being wracked, I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building and of goodly pride.
Lastly, Pequigney points out that a number of words in sonnet 33 suggest references to fellatio,48 even though the opening of the poem is also a rather conventional periphrasis of the dawn:
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heav'nly alchemy,
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face[.]
But can we really account for this sort of erotic playfulness merely by saying that these are examples of premodern male "friendship," or that praise of a young man is merely a well-worn tradition? Does it matter if a paradigmatic marriage poem like sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments") is in context not only addressed to another man, but has rhetorical force only when its homoeroticism is set against the less idealized sexuality of the "dark lady" poems? Or is it merely our modern "impure minds" that lead us astray into the dangerous and heretical world of sodomy? Where shall we stop reading?
It is also remarkable how many of the controversies that surround the Sonnets are inextricably bound up with the issue of sodomy. Again, why should this be so? Arguably, any of the points of debate outlined above is affected by the question of the poems' queerness, precisely because of the scandalous "story"—whatever its specifics—that the speaker appears to tell. Are we not tempted to say that the Sonnets were unauthorized largely because of the sodomitical relationships which they appear to trace, and therefore that the poems must not have been intended for publication? Similar fantasies seem to lie behind our claims that they might have been suppressed soon after their publication. Or to what extent is the search for the identity of the young man, Mr. W. H., the rival poet, or the dark lady really more interested in the fact that any or all of them could have been the speaker's sexual partner(s)?49 The point is that we too are titillated or disturbed—culturally speaking—by the poems' queer suggestiveness, and in this sense our own "apologetic" theories, although they may be couched in very different-sounding terms, really take their cue from Chalmers.
Hardly an issue for the Sonnets only, critics have begun to examine similar blind spots relating to other sodomitical moments in the Shakespeare canon.50 Even more, queer theorists have taught us that the question of sodomy is startlingly central to English Renaissance culture as a whole, since in addition to the traditional and familiar ways in which the period was both patriarchal and homosocial with regard to women, there is also ample contemporary evidence of (for example) a fashionable homoeroticism in Elizabethan and Jacobean court life; "homosexual" literary models revived from the ancients and perpetuated as the western tradition; institutionalized pederasty in Renaissance humanism, higher education, church practices, and master/servant relations; cross-dressing and gender masquerade in the popular theater; the discovery and colonization of the "sodomites" of the New World; and such documented sodomites as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and King James I. In some sense, then, the culture of the English Renaissance is a queer culture, and from this perspective the idea of a "gay Shakespeare" may indeed be a kind of tautology.51
Whether or not the period could be said to have had any sort of self-identified sodomitical (sub)culture,52 or whether or not Shakespeare "himself was (or should have been) "gay," the Sonnets are nonetheless queer, and perhaps a lot queerer than most critics have been willing to allow. But more importantly, the poems have served as a particular kind of cultural pretext for our own readings as well. For we too do not escape the need—perhaps even the necessity—to define what is "heterosexual," since even though it may be "normal" it is strangely not a given, and the only way we can determine its normality is by circumscribing what seem to be its "opposites": in this case, same-sex "amatory verses." The point is that it really makes little difference if the Sonnets "really are" "gay" poems, since our culture also regularly responds to them—or apologizes for them—as if they were. The poems present us with a certain burden or a challenge that must be answered or defended, forcing us once again to define them as "normal" in spite of the possibility or the fear that they might be the contrary. And the fact that their author is the great and immortal Shakespeare only partly explains this sort of preoccupation. Perhaps the poems tell us less about any Renaissance "homosexual" identity than about what has come to be defined as normative and heterosexual in our own time. It is the roots of this kind of production of heterosexual normality that queer theory seeks to analyze; it represents a challenge to not only the sexual subject (in both senses) of Shakespeare's Sonnets, but to normative sexuality as well, and one hopes that such analysis, much like other forms of cultural study, is capable of producing—at the very least—a less exclusionary mode of criticism.
1 William Henry Ireland, An Authentic Account of the Shakspearian Mss. (London, 1796); Ireland, Confessions (London, 1805); Ireland, Vortigern (London, 1832).
2 Ireland, Confessions, 45.
3 The basic works on the Ireland case are Derk Bodde, Shakespere and the Ireland Forgeries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1930); John Mair, The Fourth Forger: William Ireland and the Shakespeare Papers (London: Cobden-Sanderson, 1938); Bernard Grebanier, The Great Shakespeare Forgery: A New Look at the Career of William Henry Ireland (London: Heinemann, 1966); and S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, 135-68). These are supplemented by Sidney Lee, "Samuel Ireland," Dictionary of National Biography, 1921 ed., 10:468-73; Philip W. Sergeant, "Young Ireland: An Unappreciated Jester," in Liars and Fakers (London: Hutchinson, 1925), 237-93; Zoltán Haraszti, "Ireland's Shakespeare Forgeries," in More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library 9 (1934): 333-50; Schoenbaum, "The Ireland Forgeries: An Unpublished Contemporary Account," in Shakespeare and Others (Washington: Folger, 1985), 144-53; and Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: Records and Images (London: Scolar Press, 1981), 117-36.
4 Cited in Ireland, Confessions, 280.
5 Malone, An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments (London, 1796; rep. New York: Kelley, 1970), 33.
6 Even Malone brings up this objection (234, 290-91). See also Arthur F. Marotti, "Shakespeare's Sonnets as Literary Property," in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 143-73.
7 Cited in Grebanier, 170.
8 Malone, 352-53.
9 See Samuel Ireland, Mr. Ireland's Vindication of His Conduct Respecting the Publication of the Supposed Shakespeare Mss. (London, 1796; rep. New York: Kelley, 1970); and Grebanier, 273-84.
10 See for instance Arthur Sherbo, The Birth of Shakespeare Studies: Commentators from Rowe (1709) to Boswell-Malone (1821) (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1986).
11Shakespeare's Lives, 165.
12Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 6 vols. (London: Routledge, 1974-81), 6:65.
13 The most valuable source for reviews of these (and other) debates remains the monumental edition of the Sonnets by Hyder E. Rollins, Variorum ed., 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1944). Useful summaries can also be found in Robert Giroux, The Book Known as Q: A Consideration of Shakespeare's Sonnets (New York: Atheneum, 1982); and the editions of W. G. Ingram and Theodore Redpath (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), and John Kerrigan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985).
14William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 1:561.
15 For a short account of Chalmers, "almost the last of the extinct race of authors who were antiquarians rather than historians," and his "indefatigable industry . . . during the last fifty years of his long life," see Aeneas James George Mackay, "George Chalmers," Dictionary of National Biography, 1921 ed., 3:1354-55.
16 Reprinted in Malone, 25-26.
17 Malone, 70-73, 83-84, 88-95, 97-98.
19 (London, 1797; rep. New York: Kelley, 1971). Further citations, abbreviated A, will appear in the text. When citing Chalmers I have occasionally repunctuated and removed italics for the sake of clarity.
20 See by way of comparison the theories discussed in Rollins's edition; Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives; and Frank W. Wadsworth, The Poacher from Stratford: A Partial Account of the Controversy over the Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958).
21Shake-Speare: The Mystery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1956).
22 Cf. a contemporary remark from the Monthly Review cited in Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives: "When a writer has once determined that all Shakespeare's Sonnets must relate to the same subject, and must be addressed to the same person, he will violate every rule of language in order to maintain his position" (168).
23 According to Schoenbaum, when Malone's volume appeared Chalmers had already been planning a book arguing for the authenticity of the papers, and he was "understandably reluctant to lose the fruits of his industry. . . . [and] salvaged his demonstration by converting it into a defense of his credulity and an onslaught against the scholar who had embarrassed him" (Shakespeare's Lives, 167).
24 The standard source for an analysis of the invention of a "homosexual species" is Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, 3 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 1978-1986), vol. 1. For further elaborations of the construction of "homosexual" identity see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989); David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Jonathan Ned Katz, "The Invention of Heterosexuality," Socialist Review 20 (1990): 7-34; and Celia Kitzinger, The Social Construction of Lesbianism (London: Sage, 1987).
25 Cited in Peter Stallybrass, "Editing as Cultural Formation: The Sexing of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Modern Language Quarterly 54 (1993): 95.
26 Ibid., 94-95.
27 Ibid., 99.
28 There was one edition in 1711 which used Thorpe's text, but its title page identifies the poems as "One Hundred and Fifty Four Sonnets, all of them in Praise of his Mistress" (cited in Ingram and Redpath, xxi). Margreta de Grazia points out, in "The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets," Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 35-36, that Benson did not change every reference to another man, as is sometimes implied in the criticism. The notorious sonnet 20 for example remains intact, with the exception of a new title: "The Exchange."
29 Malone, 3-4; de Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 152-62.
30 Quotations from the Sonnets are taken from Stephen Booth's edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), with occasional modifications.
31 Cited in Joseph Pequigney, Such Is My Love: A Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 30.
32 Cf. Coleridge's remark that Shakespeare's gender confusion (particularly in sonnet 20) must have been "a purposed blind" (cited in Stallybrass, 99), and Sweet's idea that the "dark lady" poems were written "as part of his [i.e., Elizabeth's] disguise" (62).
33 See Rollins, 2:248; Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 168; and de Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim, 173.
34 Cited in Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 182, 186.
35 (London, 1799; rep. New York: Kelley, 1971). Further citations, abbreviated SA, will appear in the text. According to Mackay, Chalmers returned to the controversy yet once more in 1800 with an Appendix to the "Supplemental Apology, " which judging by its full title no longer has any connection with the Ireland forgeries at all.
36 Cf. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 28-48.
37 See Rollins, 2:239; Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 168; and Pequigney, who comments: "This poem seems a curiously inappropriate one for annotators and critics to single out as the principal prop of their contention that the friendship treated in the Sonnets is innocent of erotic content. But. . . [the poem] confronts so openly the question of eroticism in the relations between the friends that until, or unless, it can somehow be rendered innocuous, their efforts are doomed to failure" (40).
38 At this point (SA 60n) Chalmers inexplicably quotes 3 Henry 6 3.2.63—"That love which virtue begs and virtue grants"—in order to prove that sonnet 20 describes only an innocent love for the friend (who in this reading is the Queen anyway).
39 Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: Records and Images, 136.
40 On Renaissance sodomy see Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men's Press, 1982); Gregory W. Bredbeck, Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992); and Goldberg, ed., Queering the Renaissance (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994). On "queer" and its problematic designations see Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ``Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993); Donald Morton, "The Politics of Queer Theory in the (Post)Modern Moment," Genders 17 (1993): 121-50; Sheila Jeffreys, "The Queer Disappearance of Lesbians: Sexuality in the Academy," Women's Studies International Forum 17 (1994): 459-72; and Biddy Martin, "Sexualities without Genders and Other Queer Utopias," Diacritics 24 (1994): 104-21.
41 Stallybrass, 102.
42 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1.
43 Fineman, Shakespeare's Perjured Eve: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); de Grazia, "The Scandal of Shakespeare's Sonnets," 47. Cf. Stephen Orgel, "Nobody's Perfect: Or Why Did the English Stage Take Boys for Women?" in Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture, ed. Ronald R. Butters, et al. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1989), 26: "Homosexuality in this culture appears to have been less threatening than heterosexuality, and only in part because it had fewer consequences and was easier to desexualize." See also Orgel's updated discussion in Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare's England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,. 1996).
44 Despite the undeniably great value of Booth's edition he disappointingly concludes that "William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on the matter" (548)—as if in the end the poems had nothing to offer for the question of sexuality, or even the question of the question.
45 Bray, "Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England," in Goldberg, ed., Queering the Renaissance, 40-61.
46 Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 58-80.
47 Pequigney, 1.
48 Ibid., 104-8.
49 I would not however subscribe to Rollins's contention that "[t]he subject of homosexuality would never have been discussed in the first place if Shakespeare's readers had not been so eager to prove the friend a real man" (2:239).
50 For instance 1 Henry 4 (Goldberg, Sodometries, 145-75); Romeo and Juliet (Goldberg, ed., Queering the Renaissance, 218-35); Troilus and Cressida (Bredbeck, 33-48); The Merchant of Venice (Michael Shapiro, Gender in Play on the Shakespearean Stage: Boy Heroines and Female Pages [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994], 93-117); As You Like it and Twelfth Night (Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama [London: Routledge, 1992], 117-44).
51 See Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 52.
52 See Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, 81-114; Joseph Cady, "'Masculine Love,' Renaissance Writing, and the 'New Invention' of Homosexuality," Journal of Homosexuality 23 (1992): 9-40.
Source: "Shakespeare's Queer Sonnets and the Forgeries of William Henry Ireland," in Criticism, Vol. XL, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 167-89.