“It is Not I”: Sin, Authorship, and Will in Shakespeare and St. Paul

Posted By on April 4, 2011

O if (I say) you look upon this verse,
When I (perhaps) compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay.
Least the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
(Sonnet 71)

From one point of view, the Shakespeare authorship question is a debate — and a mystery — about a pronoun.

Who is the “I” who speaks to us with such direct confidence, dispensing the instructions of Sonnet 71. Who is this “I” who  warns us against “rehearsing” his “poor name,”  lest we be “mocked” by the “wise world” after his demise?

Is this same “I” who, in Sonnet 110, has  gone “here and there” and made himself  “a motley to the view”?  Is it the “I”  who, in Sonnet 37, has been “made lame by fortune’s dearest spite”?  Is he the “I”  who, in Sonnet 76, writes “still all one, ever the same/and keep[s] invention in a noted weed,/that every word doth almost tell” his “name”?

Orthodox critics, naturally, are perplexed by these statements from the Sonnet author.  They do  not readily match the preferred biography. How had he made himself a “motley to the view”?  Where is the evidence for his being “lamed” — literally or metaphorically?  Above all,why the reiterated emphasis on the mystery of his own name — a quality requiring concealment in Sonnet 71 but linguistically irrepressible in Sonnet 76?

To compensate for this incomprehension, Stratfordians have comfortable recourse to the idea that the Sonnets — the only surviving texts in which Shakespeare writes about himself in the first person — are constructed from the point of view of a literary persona. Just as the author has created Shylock, or Hamlet, or Olivia,  they suggest, he has constructed a persona — not to be identified with his own ego or experience — which has written the Sonnets from what is essentially an imagined sense of context and set of relationships.

The theory  is not only circular but suspiciously ad hoc.

We might just as well argue that the Sonnets were  the haphazard consequence of a billion monkeys all pounding away on keyboards in alternate universes until one of them hit the jackpot. Anything will do as long as we can be saved from the fate of having to think that the words themselves are real.

In fact there is no evidence to support the persona theory.  But it does  supply a convenient pretext to explain why the primary datum of the literary experience deposited in the Sonnets does not correspond in any credible way — and in fact contradicts in many evident ways — the secondary datum of the assumed biography.

This mystery of  “I, Shakespeare,” is mirrored by the problem of ascertaining the identity of the annotator of  the de Vere Geneva Bible. Who was he? Some identify him with Homer’s Outis — Nobody.  We shall take up this question in some detail as our investigation proceeds.  But for now we offer at least one definitive observation: whoever the annotator was, he read the volume with an exacting attention to detail.

There is no better illustration of this fact than the handwritten annotation found in Romans  7.20 (Figure One).   Please read the verse carefully.

Figure One: Romans 7.20 in de Vere 1570 Geneva Bible. Image Courtesy the Folger Shakespeare Library.

As you can see, the annotator supplies the “I” missing in printed text of  Romans 7.20 in the STC 1427 copy of the de Vere Geneva Bible.  Four hundred and forty-one years later, this misprint in the 1570 Geneva Bible has  not been recorded by Bible historians or bibliographers.  But our annotator not only saw it — he corrected it.

This little “I,” a tiny speck of ink on a weathered page, is the stuff of intellectual revolution.

It assumes potent force and an imaginative life of its own.  No mere prooreader’s correction,  the act of writing here becomes what linguists call a performative: the word does what it says (as oaths like “I do” in the wedding ceremony).   In supplying the word, the annotator inscribes himself in the volume,  quite literally becoming the Pauline “I.”  If unwilled, he did not do it —  instead the sin that dwelled in him did it — whatever it may have been. A  more elegant and potent merger of author, message, and reader is difficult to imagine.

You may be wondering how this concerns Shakespeare.

I did not know it at when I first began my study of the de Vere Bible, but “sin” is among the most common nouns in the Shakespearean canon. I occurs  with variation well over two hundred times.  In view of the fact that the Greek word for “sin” — hamartia — is the same word Aristotle uses in the Poetics to describe a hero’s “tragic flaw” this may not come as a surprise. For the bard,   “sin” is a  concept mediating between the religious and the literary. As such it becomes one of the great overarching themes of the Shakespearean oeuvre, especially in the  tragedies, and this theme is reflected in numerous Biblical allusions, from the Old Testament, the apocrypha, and the New Testament,  revealing the author’s close and sustained attention to theological principle and Biblical language. How many prominent loci of the concept of “sin”?

This is the point where Lt. Columbo stops, scratches his head, and looks confused: “Now sir, this may be impertinent question, but you see, I was wondering, of  all these many Shakespearean allusions to sin, can any of them be traced back to Romans 7.20?”

The answer is that the idea of Romans 7.20 is arguably the single most prominent of all Shakespearean ideas about sin.

Such commonplaces as the sins of Cain or Adam and Eve may be more readily apparent,  but the concept found in Romans 7 — that sin is an agency foreign to the will —  is  ubiquitous, occurring as many as eleven times in the canon and prominently in the Sonnets.

Shakespeare’s affinity for this idea has been documented for well over a century, since Thomas Carter first drew attention to its importance in 1905, and confirmed  over the years by Richmond Noble (1935), Naseeb Shaheen (1987 etc.), Peter Milward (1984), Westhoven (date), and Roy Battenhouse (Table One).

According to Battenhouse, Angelo, the misguided Puritan in Measure for Measure,is a psychological type created from sustained meditation on the implications of the marked verse. He is  “a man self-divided by a law within his members” and  “at war with the law of the spirit” (174).

But who is the reader who supplied this correction to the de Vere copy of the 1570 Geneva Bible?

An entire industry of scholars, representing what Ron Rosenbaum has termed the “Shakespeare industrial complex”  and backed by such powerful insiders as Columbia Professor James Shapiro, would have us believe that the answer to this question is not only unknown but unknowable.

But whether this proposition is tenable or not, we can be sure of one thing: the  corrected passage left an indelible mark on Shakespeare’s imagination,  emerging over many years, as if by spontaneous recall, in many varied permutations throughout his work (Table One). References to the verse appear in Hamlet, Measure for Measure, As You Like It, Alls Well that Ends WellTwelfth Night, and 2 Henry IV.

In my book you will be asked consider a startling transformational proposition.

Shakespeare’s own intimate and well-documented connection with the marked idea is not surprising in view of the fact that – we can now see with our own eyes –he himself supplied a defect in the printed copy, writing his “I” into the book of books.

****************************************************
Please revisit for the next installment when we consider Romans 7.20 in relation to Hamlet 4.2 and Sonnet 151.

Carter (1905):

Celia. Was’t you that did so oft contrive to kill him?

Oliver.Twas I, but ‘tis not I.  I do not shame
To tell you what I was, since my conversion
So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am.
(As You Like It 4.2.136-9)

There’s something in me that reproves my fault,
But such a headstrong potent fault it is
That it but mocks reproof.
(Twelfth Night 3.4.202)

Isabella.  There is a vice….
1st Lord.  Now, God delay our rebellion; as we are ourselves, how weake we are.
2nd Lord. Merely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons, we still see them reveal themselves, till they attain their abhorred ends: so he,  that in this action contrives against his own nobility in his proper stream o’erflows himself.
(All’s Well….4.3.18)[1]

Hamlet.  Give me your pardon sir, I have done you
wrong…
………………………………………..
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet!
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then? His madness.  If’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction which is wronged.
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
(Hamlet 4.2.226-39)

For which I would not plead, but that I must;

For which I must not plead, but that I am

At war ‘twixt will and not will.
(Measure 2.2.29-93)

Doll. What says your Grace?

Falstaff. His Grace says that which his flesh rebels against. (2 Henry IV 2.4.357)[2]

Noble (1935) and Shaheen (1993) add:
When once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right – we would, and we would not
(Measure for Measure 4.4.33-34)

Milward (1987 p.  12):

His will is not his own
(Hamlet 1.3.17)[3]

Your words and your performances are no kin together (Othello 4.2.184)

Westhoven (p.  33) also cites:

Our wills and fates do so contrary run,
That our devices still are all overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own
(Hamlet 3.2.210-212)

Battenhouse finds Roman 7.20 the primary pretext for the character of Angelo in Measure for Measure; like the Pharisee Saul, Angelo is “a man self-divided by a law within his members at war with the law of the spirit” (p.  174).

Stritmatter (1997) demonstrates the dependence of Sonnet 151 on the conjunction of Romans 7.18-20 and the Genevan marginal note which accompanies it:

For thou betraying me, I do betray
My nobler part to my gross bodies treason….
(151.5-6)

To which might be added:

Alas, our frailty is the cause,
Not we…. (Twelfth Night 2.2.31)


Table One: Shakespeare allusions to, or echoes of, Romans. 7.20.


[1] Carter (233) cites Romans 7.15.

[2] Carter also cites Galatians 5.17.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

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