Reassembling Shakespeare's Fair Friend

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets are the Cape Hatteras of poetry: beautiful, alluring, and a graveyard to a good many mariners. Will R.H. (Roy) Winnick be among them? He is the independent scholar who in 2009 ventured out where the warm Gulf Stream current of human interest in the romantic triangle charted in the 154 poems collides with the icy Labrador Current of critical disdain for amateur sleuthing and coded meanings. The seafloor in those parts is littered with wrecks. Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Winnick’s article, “Loe, here in one line is his name twice writ”:  Anagrams, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and the Identity of the Fair Friend, looks at the outset like it could be one of those fugues of self-deception that give rise to books like The Bible Codeor one of those historical fantasies run amuck such as The Da Vinci Code. Indeed, it could turn out that way, and the safe way to bet on “discoveries” of the sort that Winnick announced is simply to ignore them, or to express some world-weary tolerance of amateurish enthusiasms and move on. On the other hand, Winnick’s thesis arrived with an imprimatur that makes it a little harder to dismiss out of hand. The eminent critic Christopher Ricks played midwife. It was published in the Oxford University Press journal Literary Imagination. And a handful of other academic critics of high standing gave measured endorsements—and in one instance declared himself “persuaded.”

And then nothing. Did the H.M.S. Winnick go down?

Let’s back up. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are by most estimations one of the glories of English literature, but it is a troubled glory. Some of the sonnets number among the most thrilling poems in the language:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  (Sonnet 18)

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes (Sonnet 29)

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought (Sonnet 30)

What is your substance, whereof are you made (Sonnet 53)

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore (Sonnet 60)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116)

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame (Sonnet 129)

Others come close:

Full many a glorious morning have I seen (Sonnet 33)

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d (Sonnet 64)

That time of year thou mayst in me behold (Sonnet 73)

When in the chronicle of wasted time (Sonnet 106)

The collection, however, has an inner roughness. Sonnets that on first reading make prosaic sense can fall into perplexity on growing acquaintance. Some years ago I set myself the task of memorizing the lot. Some of the sonnets I can’t ever forget, but others I can never remember. They seem to dissolve into bland banalities (Let the reader who is up to the test try sonnets 134045, and 58, for example). In some sonnets the concluding couplet seems to deflate the poem or be hammered on as a spare thought, or sits like an ill-chosen hat. After a terrifying crescendo of the reasons for seeking a restful death in Sonnet 66, culminating in

And simple truth miscall’d simplicity

And captive good attending captain ill;

the sonnet wraps up,

Tir’d with all these, from these I would be gone,

Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

Which seems precious little.

Critics, of course, have varied widely on what to make of these qualities. Perhaps most famously John Crowe Ransom deplored the style of the Sonnets. In Robert Lowell’s paraphrase, “Ransom thought that Shakespeare was continually going off the rails into illogical incoherence.” (For a glimpse of Ransom complaining about the flow of images in Sonnet 73—“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”—see here.)  The opposite pole from Ransom is probably Stephen Booth’s annotated edition of the Sonnets, which amounts to an exhaustive compilation of alternative readings of individual words and lines from the perspective that every ambiguity and contradiction was fully intentional. Somewhere in between comes Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.Vendler judges the poems fully coherent but daringly experimental and thus often on the edge.

And Winnick, on his own account, was inspired by Vendler. Vendler, among other things, establishes that Shakespeare used anagrams in the sonnets. But for what exactly? Winnick’s point of departure is that the sonnets are universally recognized to be full of playful allusions to personal names, most notably punning self-references to “Will.” Moreover, several of the poems also seem to announce that the name of the young man (a.k.a. the “Fair Friend”) to whom most of the poems are addressed is about to be stated, as Sonnet 81, where the poet declares, “Your name from hence immortal life shall have.”

Winnick argues that Shakespeare has anagrammed the name of Henry Wriothesley (probably pronounced “RIS-lee”) into several—indeed, he now believes, many—of the Sonnets. Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, was Shakespeare’s patron and has long been the leading candidate for the Fair Friend. Winnick finds Wriothesley’s name ingeniously tucked into or peeping out of a variety of sonnets, almost always in the company of clues that something lies hidden there. This isn’t idle foraging on Winnick’s part. He begins his Literary Imagination piece with a detailed account of Elizabethan anagramming of names and printing conventions. When he gets to examples, we have to follow some intricate explanations. Sonnet 17 presents itself “as a tombe/Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts,” and concludes that, if the beloved had a child, “You should live twice in it, and in my rime.” Winnick sees this as a a clue pointing to the presence of a hidden name, and sure enough “Wriothesley” is seemingly anagrammed in the poem four times, twice each in two separate lines. They aren’t, however, perfect anagrams as might be spilled out by today’s anagram-generators. Winnick writes:

The first of the lines in which Wriothesley’s name may anagrammatically hide is, appropriately, 17.4, “Which hides your life, and ?hewes not halfe your parts,” a line that ?hewes not halfe your parts because all the parts of Wriothesley’s name are present, twi?e over—no halfe measures here! In the beginning of the line, the highlighted letters within the phrase “Which hides your life” comprise ten of the eleven needed, along with a nearby t, to form one of the line’s two Wriothe?leys. In the Conclusion, the highlighted letters in “?hewes not halfe your parts ” comprise ten of the eleven needed, along with a nearby i, to form the other. In the second of the poem’s two double-Wriothe?ley lines—17.9, “So ?hould my papers (yellowed with their age)”—seventeen of the twenty-two letters needed to form that line’s two Wriothe?leys occur in the conclusion, as highlighted, within the four-word phrase “yellowewith their age,” with the other five letters found elsewhere in the line.

A coincidence? The accidental conjunction of common letters? Perhaps. But consider this: the only other instance among Q’s 154 sonnets in which all the letters needed to form Wriothe?ley twice occur in a single line is sonnet 126, with which, on a bittersweet note evoking the happier days (and echoing the diction) of sonnet 20 (“A Womans face with natures owne hand painted”), the poems focusing on the Fair Friend come to an end.

Winnick is perfectly clear that he hasn’t produced a definitive “proof” of anything, but just a case of “cumulative plausibility” that anagramming was a device that Shakespeare used in these compositions and that Wriothesley was the name hidden away in the text. Why would Shakespeare hide it?  Winnick says, “given the social chasm separating the player-poet from the great lord who was his early patron and perhaps his lover—in either the Elizabethan or modern senses of that word—Shakespeare would have had ample grounds to make any reference to Wriothesley in Q [the 1609 quarto in which the sonnets were first published] difficult to detect and, if necessary, easy plausibly to deny.” Difficult to detect by outsiders, that is. The game was to make the anagrams more or less transparent to those in the know.

I had dinner with Winnick recently. He is a recently (2008) retired partner at a leading, Manhattan-based public-relations firm and one-time professional editor but one who earned a Ph.D. in English from Princeton in 1976 before taking up his commercial pursuits. He has previously published scholarly work on Chaucer (in the Chaucer Review) and on Melville (in Nineteenth-Century Literature) as well as on Shakespeare; co-authored the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost; on a Guggenheim Fellowship, researched an authorized biography of Archibald MacLeish (later written and published by Scott Donaldson) and produced an annotated edition of MacLeish’s letters (both published by Houghton Mifflin). So he doesn’t quite fit the bill of an amateur with a quirky obsession. But he definitely believes he is on to something significant and he is now at work on a book-length account, detailing scores of previously unreported anagrammatic wit in the Sonnets—many based on proper names, more not.

I asked Winnick about how his 2009 article in Literary Imagination had been received. For the most part, it seems, the academic world has shrugged. Short of a private letter by Shakespeare laying out his compositional technique, we cannot know for a certainty whether he planted Wriothesley’s or anybody else’s names (the Dark Lady?) in his poems. This could be a tale of serial coincidence.

Winnick tested for that by running the letters of Wriothesley’s name through 532 other Elizabethan sonnets. The answer: the combination happened  often, but not with the same degree of orthographic compression, not in ways that repeatedly work syntactically, semantically, and metrically, and not, time after time, with narrative-level hints that seemingly point to its presence. Then Winnick tried “double-Wriothesleys” like those he found in Sonnet 17 in a sample of 378 sonnets by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. He found eight matches in 5,292 lines. When it came to the quadruple-Wriothesleys of Sonnet 17, however, he found no contemporary parallels. Perhaps someone will devise a statistical test that would tell us the odds of Shakespeare using this particular suite of letters over and over, but even that wouldn’t entirely settle the matter.

Winnick’s thesis faces its biggest challenge in its being simply out of critical fashion to think of the Sonnets as having a dimension of private meaning walled off from the interpretive techniques of our time. If Winnick were right, would it matter? Our inclination today is probably to take the Sonnets’ real aesthetic significance to lie in what is open to us, though the poems in their original form were entirely private. Winnick thinks his discovery, if credited, would only add to our admiration of Shakespeare’s virtuosity, while opening up dimensions of meaning  not only previously uncharted but previously unsuspected.

Shakespeare’s life and work have been so long the subject of intense scholarly investigation that adding even the most incidental fact to the record must rate as a rare achievement. Nailing the Earl of Southampton as Shakespeare’s “Fair Friend” would be a lot more than that. And demonstrating the use of anagrams as integral to Shakespeare’s compositional practices would be an astonishing addition to our critical understanding of his poetry.

It would also, not so incidentally, explain some of the duller sonnets. Winnick believes that at least some of them actually started with anagrams and that Shakespeare posed the challenge for himself of building the poem around the word play. But we will have to wait for his book—on which he reports that he has been working intensively over the past few months, with a nearly complete first draft already in hand—to see his argument for that.

In his essay in Literary Imagination, Winnick made a strong enough case for cumulative plausibility that I would have expected some of the legions of academic Shakespeare specialists at least to have taken the time to assess it on its merits. That hasn’t happened. Mostly it has been the blowing of the wind and the crashing of the waves out there beyond Cape Hatteras. People are busy. There are too many kooky theories around for serious scholars to attend to them all. From that perspective, anagrammatic Wriothesley looks like a poor prospect.

Part of my interest in the case is watching how the academic establishment treats novel ideas and dissonant voices. A few weeks ago one of my colleagues at the National Association of Scholars published an interview on the NAS website with a physicist who is skeptical about manmade global warming. One NAS member was so certain of the scientific facts—he is a law professor as it happens—that he promptly resigned in protest. Others remonstrated and proponents of climate change orthodoxy from around the world e-mailed us. I hasten to add, NAS doesn’t take a position on anthropogenic global warming, just as it doesn’t take a position on whether Henry Wriothesley’s name is lurking in Sonnet 17. We just favor open and robust discussion of ideas that are advanced with good will and due attention to careful argument and evidence.

And I am still innocent enough to be a little dismayed when the prevailing response in the academy to a cogent challenge to conventional wisdom is to look the other way, and if that doesn’t work, to mutter imprecations at the offender for interrupting the important work at hand. We ought to be welcoming the brave few who try something different even if their hypotheses prove wrong. One lesson here is that outright assaults on “academic freedom” are not the only way or even the most common way to enforce dull conformity on campus. The comforts of don’t-bother-me routine are far more deadening.

Dismayed, but I’ll get over it. As Dr. Woe Poet says, I now cry ink.  

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