Reading Update: ‘Nothing Like the Sun’: 1592-1599: Chapters I-II

Henry Wriothesely, 3rd Earl of Southampton, luxuriates his way onto the stage in this section of the novel

Burgess decides to pass over the most historically ambiguous time in Shakespeare’s life (between his leaving Stratford and his early fame as a mediocre playwright for Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, the Rose; i.e., 1587-1592), and he instead commences the novel’s second section a full five years after WS’s decision to take his “pseudo-Plautus” (an early draft of The Comedy of Errors) to the Queen’s Players and try his skill in drama-craft.

Chapter I of this new section is rife with delightful depictions of various facets of life in Elizabethan England. Not only do we get splendid caricatures of Elizabethans famously connected to Shakespeare, such as Will Kemp, Ned Alleyn, and of course Henslowe, but we also get a clear vision of day-to-day life: a riot breaks out, a “riot for riot’s sake” (81), suspiciously reminiscent of the street brawl at the start of Romeo & Juliet, and it is viciously beaten down by the brutal Marshal’s Men and ended by the Lord Mayor, a fitting image of Verona’s Prince Escalus); Henslowe anticipates the closure of the playhouses due to a combination of the civil insanity of the Midsummer season and the infectiousness of the plague-season; and then there’s this gem:

The city baked in its corruption; flies crawled over the sleeping lips of a child; the rats twitched their whiskers at an old dead woman (shrunk to five stone) that lay among lice in a heap of rancid rags; the bells tolled all day for the plague-stricken; cold ale tasted as warm as a posset; the flesher shooed flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef; heaps of shit festered and heaved in the heat; tattered villains broke into houses where man, woman, child lay panting and calling feebly for water and, mocking their distress, stole what they had a mind to; the city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the rat-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited foul living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus. (85-86)

So impressive is this description of plague-stricken Elizabethan England that I have a mind to share this with my students from now on as we start our Shakespeare unit. How can one not dry-heave  at this rank illustration and yet dazzle at the breathtaking language?

***

But Burgess does not abandon the story for these impressive historical anecdotes. We also see WS beginning to write Richard III alongside his long poem, Venus and Adonis. Particularly splendid is the moment in which we see WS writing the dedication for the latter piece, a scene that juxtaposes the words in the writer’s head with the sights and sounds of the Elizabethan world around him:

“I know not how I shall offend…” Spring waking in London, crude crosses still on the doors, but the wind blowing in the smell of grass and the ram-bell’s tinkle. Piemen and flower-sellers cried. “…in dedicating my lines, no, my unpolished lines, to your lordship…” From a barber-shop came the tuning of a lute and then the aching sweetness of treble song. “…nor how the world will rebuke, no, censure me for choosing so strong a prop…” There were manacled corpses in the Thames, that three tides had washed. “…to support so weak a burden…” A kite overhead dropped a gobbet of human flesh. “…only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised…” In a smoky tavern a bawdy catch was flung at the foul air. “…and vow to take advantage of all idle hours…” Pickpurses strolled among the gawping country cousins. “…till I have honoured you with some grave labour…” A limping child with a pig’s head leered out from an alleyway. “…But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed…” A couple of Paul’s men swaggered by, going haw haw haw. “…I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather…” Stale herrings smelled to heaven in a fishman’s basket. “…and never after ear so barren a land…” A cart lurched, rounding a corner; wood splintered against stone. “…for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest…”The sun, in sudden great glory, illumined white towers. “…I leave it to your honourable survey…” A thin girl in rags begged, whining. “…and your honour to your heart’s content…” An old soldier with one eye munched bread in a dark passage. “…which I wish may always answer your own wish…” Skulls on Temple Bar. “…and the world’s hopeful expectation.” A distant consort of brass — cornets and sackbuts. “Your honour’s in all duty…” A drayhorse farted. “…WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.” (97-98)

This inside-outside view of WS’s thinking and perception registers as my favorite section of the text so far. It seems at first that the depictions of Elizabethan England will be more of the same from earlier — merchants sellings their wares, birds dropping bits of human flesh, corpses floating in the river, dirty and dangerous London in general — but then we have the brilliant close, where we hear a flourish of trumpets as WS concludes the dedication, edging towards his name; and when  at last he writes it, a horse farts. A magnificent marriage of complex literary technique and low-brow humor. WS would certainly approve.

Venus and Adonis is brought to the forefront because the playhouses have inevitably closed down due to the plague; as WS says to a temporarily jobless Ned Alleyn, “Richard can wait” (99). Enter Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Introduced to WS by the rather libertine Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, “Master HW, or, putting his family first as he is told he must, Master WH” (91) immediately catches the eye of young poet with his “dark excitement”:

He was young, hardly older than the two bobbed pages who, unawed, played a game of treading on each other’s toes and giggling. Eighteen? Nineteen? He had a red pouting mouth and very white skin; his golden beard was sparse. There was something in his eyes that WS did not like — a slyness, an unwillingness to look boldly. But he was beautiful enough, there was no doubt of his beauty. (91)

Before this first meeting concludes, WS, “suddenly dilirious with an idea [as he looks]  down bashfully on this young nobleman who sprawled so carelessly, bored, pouting” (93), petitions WH to accept the dedication to him of Venus and Adonis. Florio, the young Earl’s Italian confidant and apparent bodyguard, does not object, and WH accepts. But WS’s mind has drifted from the poem into the regions of his long-suppressed, if occasionally troublesome, dark excitement:

[He] looked down bitterly on this Adonis, so languid, so satiated of all his world give. He saw himself taking him and stripping him of his silk and jewels and then beating him till he cried. I will raise great weals on thy tender delicate skin, puppy. (94)

This time, at least, the object that incites his dark excitement is of-age.

 ***

Chapter II finds WS completing Venus and Adonis, including the dedication, whose inception is described in the brilliant passage above, and discovering that WH is “altogether ravished by it” (103). Florio, young Southampton’s “gatekeeper,” as it were, is a bit more suspicious: he says to WS quite unabashedly, “I saw in your eyes that day of our first meeting what you might do” (102). So, rather than allow WS to become a short-lived toy for WH, Florio suggests something a bit more useful and socially acceptable: that the poet compose a series of verses — what will culminate in the “Fair Youth” sonnets — on the theme of marriage. “It can be made a commission,” Florio declares; “His mother would be glad to throw gold at you” (103). Marriage, the Italian feels, would protect HW from the “corruptive forces at court” who would “lay themselves on [HW’s] beauty.”

But this talk of marriage cannot exorcise homosexual thoughts from WS’s mind — for indeed, we must not forget that he, too, is married at this time. He enters the great Southampton home and finds something he did not expect: the real-life incarnation of his golden goddess’s bedchamber:

He remembered his boyhood’s vision, the gold goddess, the arms that implored. But here was no goddess; that premonition had been false. In a bed of gold that seemed to float like a ship on a carpet that was all tritons and nerids, Master WH lay on satin  cusions. (103-104).

Though this fertile period of Shakespeare’s love-life will undoubtedly yield the first of the sonnets, it will also be the period in which WS explores his sexuality and, without a doubt, designates Master WH as the end-point to this expedition.

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