The door to the biographical criticism of Shakespeare swings open in 1780 when, in the first critical edition of the Sonnets, the editor, Edmond Malone, determines that they are written in Shakespeare’s own person. In his notes he identifies the “I” of the Sonnets with Shakespeare’s name on the title page of the 1609 quarto, as well as with the “Will” so extravagantly punned-upon in sonnet 136. He also supposes that their gendered personal pronouns refer to two specific individuals, a male friend with the initials of the quarto’s dedicatee, Mr. W. H., and an anonymous mistress. Once the referents of the personal pronouns have been limited to a single “I”, “he” and “she”, the sonnets are set to be read autobiographically, as if offering direct access to Shakespeare. The editor then assumes a new function. In addition to elucidating obscure language and emending textual corruptions, he glosses what he takes to be allusions to Shakespeare’s experience: what he has done, felt and thought.
Malone’s findings are few and hardly revelatory. Indeed, they do little more than confirm what might be inferred from the little already known about Shakespeare. Yet one of his biographical footnotes does indeed astonish. In reduced print, it spans five pages, keyed by superscript to a mere first line and a half of sonnet 93: “So shall I live, supposing thou art true, / Like a deceivèd husband”. The lines require no gloss; nor does the sonnet itself. The problem lies elsewhere: in a note by the antiquarian William Oldys from the 1720s. Oldys had ventured, as Malone records, that sonnets 92 and 93 “seem to have been addressed by Shakspeare to his beautiful wife on some suspicion of her infidelity”. The editor summarily rejects the “misapprehension”. Oldys, he maintains, had failed to observe that none of the sonnets before sonnet 126 is addressed to a “female”. But why bother to reject an unpublished comment written half a century back in minuscule script in the crowded margins of a heavily annotated copy of Gerard Langbaine’s Account of the English Dramatick Poets (1691)? If not for Malone’s citation, Oldy’s supposition might well have fallen into obscurity.
Yet once having dismissed the supposition, the editor straightway defends it. He follows Oldys in taking literally sonnet 93’s opening simile: Shakespeare was not merely like a “deceivèd husband”; he was one. Oldys’s suspicion that Shakespeare was suspicious now becomes Malone’s own. And while acknowledging the conjectural nature of his enquiry he proceeds to substantiate it, compiling in good legal fashion “circumstances” of varying evidentiary status – an anecdotal report, four plays and, finally and most decisively, a legal instrument.
He references the “well-known” seventeenth-century anecdote of the Oxford vintner’s wife who was rumoured to have entertained Shakespeare on his stopovers between London and Stratford. Such was their intimacy, according to the anecdote, that Shakespeare was reputed to have fathered her son. Malone, who had already distinguished himself by invalidating the anecdotes attached to Shakespeare, allows himself to credit this one. More surprising is his misconstrual of it. He takes a story of Shakespeare’s infidelity as evidence of his wife’s infidelity. His adultery, he infers, presupposes hers: she must have provoked it.
Malone draws further corroboration from Shakespeare’s canon, observing not only the frequency of his writing on sexual jealousy, but the singular intensity of its expression. In four plays, he remarks, it forms the “principle hinge”. (He omits the simple truth that all four plays – Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline – unhinge by exposing the husband’s jealousy as delusional.) Malone is particularly struck by the passion in the speeches of the overwrought Othello. He suspects they were “written more immediately from the heart … than any other”. Indeed, he formulates a general theory from this example: the more heightened the expression of emotion, the more likely its origin in Shakespeare’s own experience. By this logic, Malone realizes, one might impute to Shakespeare Lear’s experience of filial ingratitude or Macbeth’s deadly depravity, were it not, he explains, that such speculations were “unsupported by any kind of evidence”. But because Shakespeare’s jealousy is supported by what he puts forth as evidence, the quality of Othello’s tortured expressions “might lead us to suspect that the author, at some period of his life, had himself been perplexed with doubts, though not perhaps in the extreme”.
If Shakespeare’s suspicion was not “in the extreme”, it certainly was persistent, at least in Malone’s mind. By his reckoning it would have lingered with him from his early years as a poet and dramatist in London to his dying day in Stratford, as also evidenced by his will, a legal instrument with more probative value than anecdotal hearsay or made-up dramas. Shakespeare had appointed his daughter rather than his wife as his executor and, more tellingly, had bequeathed to his wife only “an old piece of furniture” – and even that, Malone adds, in an interlinear afterthought. In a startling telepathic moment he describes what ran through Shakespeare’s head as he lay on his deathbed:
His wife had not wholly escaped his memory; he had forgot her,—he had recollected her,—but so recollected her, as more strongly to mark how little he esteemed her; he had already (as it is vulgarly expressed) cut her off, not indeed with a shilling, but with an old bed.
The sentence does more than describe how Shakespeare felt. Its syncopated breaks seem contrived to simulate jealousy’s rupturing psychic effect. Indeed, Malone edits Othello’s breakdown before his collapse into “a trance” with similarly heavy interpunction, including the sporadic combination of the em dash after another punctuation mark.
Lie with her! lie; on her!—We say, lie on her, when they belie her: Lie with her! that’s fulsome.—Handkerchief,—confessions,—handkerchief.—To confess, and be hanged for this labour. I tremble at it.
Malone, invoking Shakespeare as he lay dying, syntactically enacts the agitation he supposes him to have felt at the thought of his wife. His sentence culminates, as does Othello’s paroxysm, with the desire for revenge: he resolves to take, if not his wife’s life, as did Othello (“I will chop her into messes!”), then at least her livelihood (“cut her off, not indeed with a shilling”). Malone’s fired-up rhetoric, by his own theory, might suggest that he, like Shakespeare, “at some period of his life, had himself been perplexed”.
In an attempt to temper Malone’s excesses George Steevens, the general editor of The Plays of William Shakspeare (1778), the edition to which Malone’s 1780 Sonnets was added, intervenes. He sets strict limits on biographical inquiry.
[A]ll that is known with any degree of certainty concerning Shakspeare, is—that he was born at Stratford upon Avon,—married and had children there,—went to London, where he commenced actor, and wrote poems and plays,—returned to Stratford, made his will, died, and was buried.
Shakespeare, he objects, might have made provisions for his wife elsewhere; his interlineations were perhaps the result of illness; only in Othello is jealousy “the principal hinge”. Steevens particularly objects to Malone’s theory that powerful expressions of emotion signal Shakespeare’s own experience. “Are we to suppose”, he asks, that Shakespeare drew the “vindictive cruelty of Shylock … from a fiend-like original in his own bosom?”
Malone remains undeterred by these objections. He makes one concession, allowing that another motive may explain Shakespeare’s meagre bequest to his wife, but it neither dispels his resentment nor mitigates her offense: “he might not have loved her and perhaps she might not have deserved his affection”. Nor does it appear that Malone ever changed his mind. He reproduced the oversized 1780 footnote verbatim in both his 1790 and 1821 editions of The Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare, and cites it on three other occasions.
Malone’s fixation on the wife who is never mentioned in the sonnets is particularly odd in light of the scant attention he gives the male friend and mistress to whom, by his dictum, they are addressed. But the diversion may be quite purposeful. Having prepared the sonnets to be read autobiographically, he has to gloss over what they thereby ostensibly disclose: illicit liaisons with a man and a mistress. He quickly dismisses the erotic implications of the former by noting that in Shakespeare’s time it was conventional for men to address male friends as lovers. But adultery is also a criminal offence, as Malone, called to the bar in Dublin and London, surely was aware. Indeed, one wonders if he might not have intended his incrimination of Shakespeare’s wife to mitigate an apparent ethical and legal offense: Shakespeare is the injured rather than the injuring party. Better to be a “deceivèd husband” than a deceiving one. Or is it? In his determination to protect Shakespeare’s reputation Malone seems unaware that he has cast him in the notoriously derisory role of cuckold. Surely he does not intend to rank Shakespeare among the jealous husbands of the plays who feel horns hardening at their temples, “the forkèd plague”, convulsed to the point of insanity by what they imagine, and all because, as the abashed Leontes admits, “I have too much believed mine own suspicion”?
Later editions of the Sonnets quite sensibly drop the extraneous and overblown note, but not always the method of biographical enquiry it introduces. Nor is the method restricted to the Sonnets. The search that began in the Sonnets for points of entry into Shakespeare’s psychic life reaches into his other works, first and foremost in Malone’s subsequent editions of Shakespeare’s plays. In biography the note’s influence is even more striking. Its vilification of Shakespeare’s wife insinuates itself into the biographical tradition so readily that it has only recently been convincingly overturned.
It may come as a surprise that the author of this ill-begotten footnote of evasions, displacements, projections, repressions and blind spots is also the editor largely credited with introducing modern editorial standards and practices to Shakespeare’s works. How could a scholar distinguished for his assiduous respect for documents, facts, dates and primary materials have allowed himself such liberties? It is tempting to look for the answer in Malone’s own early biography. In his letters he describes “an unhappy love affair” that after thirteen years “ended most unhappily”. He does not say and no one has discovered with whom or why. According to his nineteenth-century biographer, the mysterious break-up had an enduring effect: Malone “allowed it to influence and colour the whole tenor of his future life. Scarcely anything could expunge the fair object of it from recollection”. Indeed, it may have influenced his decision to leave the law for Shakespeare, to move from Dublin to London, where he lived alone, in the company of his vast archive of early modern texts and documents, the largest any individual has ever collected.
But his compulsive footnote to sonnet 93 may be less a departure from his scholarly imperatives than an indication of a shared impetus. At the inception of his career as a Shakespearean scholar Malone accompanied his mentor and then friend Steevens to the Prerogative Office of the Doctors’ Commons, where Shakespeare’s original will had been filed, to take the first facsimile of what was then the only writing in Shakespeare’s hand. Malone documents the occasion: “In the year 1776 Mr. Steevens, in my presence, traced with the utmost accuracy the three signatures affixed by the poet to his Will”. Malone must have looked on intently as Steevens placed a translucent sheet of paper over each of the three signatures that Shakespeare had written on the parchment just weeks before his death, and faithfully traced every tremor of Shakespeare’s palsied hand. The tracings were then given to an engraver to incise on a metal plate, from which they were reproduced in print for the first time in the same edition of Shakespeare’s plays to which the 1780 Sonnets were appended. At that point the signatures – traced, engraved, printed – were three times removed from Shakespeare’s hand. But during the 1776 encounter only a see-through sheet of paper stood between Steevens’s hand and Shakespeare’s.
In all of his projects Malone sought proximity to Shakespeare. No one searched harder for primary materials or held on as zealously to those he recovered. No one was so incensed at the generations between himself and Shakespeare who neglected to collect and preserve those materials: the manuscripts and papers that had since gone missing. (He reproaches scores of the remiss by name.) No one worked so assiduously to invalidate what intervening generations had accepted: the received texts mediated and corrupted by a succession of editors and the traditional anecdotes based on unverifiable report. Malone’s two main and lifelong Shakespeare projects are the result: an edition of Shakespeare based on the playtexts deemed closest to what he had penned, and a biography based on documents from his time. Both projects are faute de mieux. Without autograph manuscripts, the early Quartos and Folio are the next best thing. Without personal papers (letters, memoranda and diaries), the nearest alternative is documents in the hands of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, even if official, in the Stationers’ Register, on mortgage deeds, in the Master of the Revels’ office book.
In addition to autograph playtexts and personal papers, works in the first person were also lacking. The narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were in the voice of an impersonal narrator; the plays consisted of speeches assigned to characters. Only the Sonnets could be taken as written in Shakespeare’s own voice. But as Malone’s footnote to sonnet 93 amply demonstrates, finding it there could be quite a strain.
Ironically, in the end Malone’s most probing biographical discovery proves quite banal. He brings forth a final reason to read jealousy into Shakespeare’s life and works, lifted from the preceding note by his dissenting general editor: “It is a passion which it is said ‘most men who ever loved have in some degree experienced’”. On this one generalization the two men can agree: among all men who have loved, jealousy is so common an affliction that it can quite reasonably be assumed that Shakespeare experienced it. The first deep probe into Shakespeare’s private life reveals nothing distinctive or individuating about him after all. He is no different from his two editors, from the jealous husbands of his plays and from most “who have loved”, including readers of the Sonnets – if, of course, they are male and not loveless.
Margreta de Grazia is Emerita Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author most recently of Four Shakespearean Period Pieces (2021) and Shakespeare without a Life, to be published in May
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