Posted By Roger Stritmatter on April 11, 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.
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, seemingly modern confidence, dispensing the instructions of Sonnet 71? Who is this man who warns us against “rehearsing” his “poor name,” lest we be “mocked” by the “wise world” after his demise?
Is it the 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 <t>ell” his “name” (italics supplied)?
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 “lame” — 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?
In compensation, many Stratfordians make ready 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 imaginary sense of context and set of relationships.
Proponents of this theory over the decades have included many distinguished scholars, among them Sir Sidney Lee, Samuel Schoenbaum, and James Shapiro, for whom “The effect of the Sonnets depends in part on the fiction of their confessional nature.”
The theory is not only circular; it is suspiciously ad hoc, as if taken off the shelf of obsolete literary cliches and dusted off for an expedient book tour needed to distract the public from too much rethinking.
We might just as well argue that the Sonnets are the accidental 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 — not to mention the lived experiences behind them, which give them context, meaning, and humanity — 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 may offer 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.
As you can see, the annotator supplies the “I” missing from the printed text of Romans 7.20 in the STC 1427 copy of the de Vere Geneva Bible. Thought it is now four hundred and forty-one years since its publication, this misprint in the 1570 Geneva New Testament 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 timeworn page, is the stuff of intellectual revolution.
In the post-Looney, post-Ogburn world, it assumes a potent force and an imaginative life of its own. No mere proofreader’s correction, the act of writing here becomes what linguists call a performative: the word does what it says (like the oath “I do” in the wedding ceremony).
In supplying it, 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 might 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 when I first began my study of the de Vere Bible, but “sin” is among the most common nouns in the Shakespearean canon. It occurs with variation well over two hundred times. Since the Greek word for “sin” — hamartia — is the same word Aristotle uses in the Poetics — the most influential work of literary criticism ever written — to describe a hero’s “tragic flaw” this may come as small surprise to those with even a little Greek.
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 precept.
This is the point where Lt. Colombo stops, scratches his head, and looks dazed and confused: “Now sir, just one one more thing. I’m sure this is an impertinent question, but, you see, I was wondering.” He takes the cigar butt out of his mouth and waves it absent-mindedly, as if trying to remember where he left his hat (which he is still wearing). “Of all these many Shakespearean allusions to sin, I’m sure that none of them can be traced back to Romans 7.20, right?”
Nope. The idea of Romans 7.20 — that sin is an agency foreign to the will — 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 the corrected verse of the de Vere Bible is ubiquitous, occurring as many as eleven times in the canon, including prominently in the Sonnets, and being among a handful of verses to which the bard alludes, definitely or probably, more than ten times.
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), Morris Westhoven (1971), and Roy Battenhouse (Table One).
To the list of eight references to the verse recorded by these previous scholars, focused search has yielded two more, one to a very prominent and undeniable, Geneva-Bible only reference in the Sonnets (Stritmatter 1997).
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 passage corrected in the de Vere Geneva Bible 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 it appear in Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Othello, As You Like It, Alls Well that Ends Well, Twelfth Night, and 2 Henry IV.
In my book you will be asked to consider a startling transformational proposition.
Action is often the custodian of memory. Shakespeare’s own intimate connection with the marked idea is not surprising in view of his documentary biography. As we can now see with our own eyes he himself supplied a defect to the printed copy of the verse, writing his “I” into the book of books.
He remembered what he had written.
Please revisit for the next installment when we consider Romans 7.20 in relation to Hamlet 4.2 and Sonnet 151.
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.
There’s something in me that reproves my fault,/ But such a headstrong potent fault it is/That it but mocks reproof.
Isabella. There is a vice….
Hamlet. Give me your pardon sir, I have done you
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?
Noble (1935) and Shaheen (1993) add:
Milward (1987 p. 12):
His will is not his own
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 –
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
To which might be added:
Alas, our frailty is the cause,
Table One: Shakespeare allusions to, or echoes of, Romans. 7.20.