Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Southampton Yes, Shakespeare No

A review of Shakespeare the Elizabethan by A.L. Rowse (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977)

Despite the short length of his essay – 121 pages, filled with 60 black and white illustrations and 8 pages of colour, many taking up full pages – A.L. Rowse manages to convey, imaginatively and concisely, a wealth of information, both old and new, about England's foremost playwright. Even those to whom the story is familiar will still find here bits and pieces that they hadn't known before, or hadn't seen in quite the same way Rowse sees them. It's in fact quite an impressive popular biography, and Rowse does indeed succeed in placing Shakespeare firmly in his historical milieu.

Rowse's approach is essentially that of the historian rather than the literary critic or literary historian. Although he warmly appreciates the aesthetic beauties of the plays and poetry, he uses them primarily as biographical documents. At times this is unfortunate, for although the topical allusions to contemporary events are very plausible,much less convincing is the use of scattered lines from plays to prove Shakespeare's familiarity with certain of the nobility or his kinowledge of certain crafts. For example, the claim that Shakespeare reveals part of himself in the character Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost seems unlikely, and words from the mouths of characters cannot always represent his own view of things. Extracting biography from many-faceted plays is even more dubious than extracting it from novels or poetry, and Rowse displays little understanding of literary tradition and how rhetorical set-pieces are filled in from reading rather than from personal experience.

The emphasis is upon Shakespeare the Gentleman, a prudent buyer of property, a merchant concerned with respectability, and withal a rather right-wing personality (part of which is inevitably stuffed out with Rowse's own prejudices against such things as democracy). But that Shakespeare was the kind of man to buy a coat of arms rather than rebel against the monarchy is beyond dispute.

What amazes me is Rowse's insistence that Shakespeare was a highly sexed heterosexual – yet his equally strong insistence that the Sonnets were written to Southampton as his patron, and his admission that Southampton was gay – having had affairs with Sir Henry Danvers, perhaps the Earl of Rutland, and Captain Piers Edmonds, with whom he was wont to "play wantonly" in his tent during the Irish campaign. Shakespeare's "normality" is beyond doubt as far as Rowse is concerned – but that is an old story not worth pursuing here. To give credit where credit is due, A.L. Rowse reveals more about the homosexuality of Shakespeare's contemporaries than many another biographer.

(This review was originally published in London's Gay News, 1977, No. 124, p. 28. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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