Hot? Sweaty? Fly-Infested?

The last show we saw on our most recent Stratford jaunt was a piece called There Reigns Love “devised and performed” as the playbill has it, by Simon Callow. The show is a setting of about half of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, interspersed with and prefaced by commentary explaining the theory behind the show – the theory being that advanced by John Padel in his 1981 book.

The theory itself is easily stated. (By the way, I’m cribbing this explanation from the show; I haven’t read the book.) Padel believed that the Sonnets were an authentic record of Shakespeare’s relationships with two other people: William Herbert, heir to the Earl of Pembroke, and Shakespeare’s own (unnamed) mistress. Padel rearranged the poems into a new order whereby they tell a story: Shakespeare is introduced to this beautiful youth through a commission from his mother: write a series of sonnets for his 17th birthday to encourage him to marry. But Shakespeare falls in love with the youth (more agape than eros in his estimation), and writes him many more sonnets professing his love. Then the mother prevails upon him to do more to induce the young man to pursue marriage to one of the many eligible young women on offer, and Shakespeare decides to introduce young William to his own mistress, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, to be introducted into the carnal fraternity. Shakespeare withdraws, briefly, from London; the youth and the Dark Lady get it on; and Shakespeare returns consumed by an impotent jealousy (particularly impotent since the arrangement was his idea). His relationship with the Dark Lady recovers to whatever state it once was in, while his relationship with the youth deteriorates. The youth descends into decadence, then recovers into marriage and takes his rightful aristocratic place, collecting around him an artistic circle of whom Shakespeare is only one of many, a situation Shakespeare really can’t abide, and so their once intense and loving friendship peters out, the older poet abandoned by a youth who has moved beyond him socially and emotionally.

It’s a lovely theory. I have no idea if it has any merit as a historical matter. Many of Padel’s assumptions are contested, including very substantial ones such as: to whom were the Sonnets dedicated (the other major candidate is Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece); and when were they composed? As a critical matter, I’m highly suspicious of attempts to interpret the Sonnets that are premised on purported autobiographical content; Shakespeare was so adept at creating personae in his plays, and so careful not to expose himself, that it seems out of character for him to advertize to the world a detailed account of his love life by publishing the Sonnets. But be that as it may: the theory is interesting. And I certainly concur that, as ordered in the published text, the Sonnets do not build optimally in a narrative fashion, nor do they appear to be placed in the order of composition. It is enough, I think, to note that all 28 of the Sonnets addressed to the Dark Lady come at the end of the sequence to realize that the principles upon which the Sonnets were arranged for publication must have been formal ones not driven by narrative. That doesn’t prove that any such narrative is hidden behind this formal arrangement, but it does give some license to play around with the order to see what happens.

So: what happens?

What happens is: Simon Callow recites, sings, shouts, cries, bellows, whispers, intones, and delivers poem after poem, sometimes standing at a lectern, sometimes bounding about the stage, sometimes huddling under an umbrella to escape the storm, sometimes sitting glassy-eyed at a table. The performance of the poems is dramatic, intended to drive home the autobiographical interpretation that governs the piece. And it works very well. One perks up at the famous poems (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead”, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”, “A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted”, “Take all my loves, my love, yea take them all”, and so forth), while others that one had not taken note enough of before stand suddenly out in their new context (“Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?”, “So now I have confessed that he is thine”, “Since I left you, mine eye is in my mind”, and others). At times, the poems run into one another, and one forgets that one is hearing the Sonnets, and not a speech of Shakespeare’s; at other times, the poems are framed and mounted individually. It’s very difficult to pay close enough attention for the entirety of the performance, but when one wanders one can enjoy the wash of the language until one has recovered enough strength to swim again.

It’s a wondeful time, and it fully persuades of the dramatic (if not the historical) validity of the Padel thesis. The set is unobtrusive: a desk, a lectern, some books, a globe, a balcony festooned with roses, with a couch on the upper level and a couple of stools at the end of the thrust. Few props – an umbrella, mostly, and, if I recall correctly, a pipe at one point. And Callow’s voice I could listen to for hours. (As, in fact, I did: two of them.)

Does the piece unlock the secret of Shakespeare the man? That I doubt. We have no glimpse of his wife, Anne, or of his father, John, or of Burbage, or of Southampton, or of Marlowe, or of anyone else who must have mattered to Shakespeare the man. Apart from the existence of the Sonnets, what warrant do we have for believing that this moment was so crucial to him, psychologically, that this triangular affair was the central crisis of his life? James Joyce constructed a different arc for Shakespeare’s life, with Anne’s infidelity with Shakespeare’s brother as the crux; this was persuasive not so much as a reading of Shakespeare as it was a way of raising Poldy’s quotidian little life to the level of grand tragedy (or, better, tragicomic romance). Anthony Burgess followed in Joyce’s footsteps, and his portrait of the young Shakespeare and the awfulness of his marriage to Anne Hathaway is certainly engrossing, but one gets tired of Southampton and the Dark Lady is utterly unpersuasive, and, once again, there’s no real sense that we’ve learned what made Shakespeare Shakespeare.

There Reigns Love is the third production I’ve seen at Stratford of a work of art intended to reveal Shakespeare the man. The most recent prior to this was Shakespeare’s Will, a one-woman show about Anne Hathaway which I reviewed last year but, lamentably, cannot link to because the old posts are still lost in the aether. Suffice it to say that the portrait that emerged of Shakespeare from that show was thoroughly inadequate. And several years ago they debuted Tim Findley’s play, Elizabeth Rex, in which Queen Elizabeth passes the night with Shakespeare and his actors to distract her from the prospect of the Earl of Essex’s execution the following morning. That play was far more complicated and wide-ranging than Shakespeare’s Will, and it had very successful theatrical moments, but it was self-indulgent and, unfortunately, turned into something resembling a group therapy session as the evening wore on, which is never a good direction for a play to go. This most recent offering was the narrowest, and that is one reason why it is the most successful, but it can only be successful on the terms it sets: an explication of the Sonnets, not of Shakespeare.