The Future of History

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Rival Poet

I've blogged recently about the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's peculiar determination to insist that the so-called Cobbe Portrait is of William Shakespeare when it seems so much more likely to have been Sir Walter Raleigh.

If it is Raleigh, then Stratford really is adding insult to injury.  Not only is the Trust's favourite portrait not of Shakespeare: it's of a man he considered a rival!

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (published in 1609) present us with three shadowy, elusive persons - the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet.  The first of these was almost certainly Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, who was Shakespeare's youthful and attractive patron in the early 1590s.

The Dark Lady was most likely Jane Davenant, nee Sheppard, with whom both 'W.S.' and 'H.W.' appear to have had a fling at the time (Will would rekindle his affair with the vivacious Jane in about 1605: she gave birth to a son, baptised William, in February 1606).

Which leaves the Rival Poet.  He lurks in the background of Sonnets 78-86, and he certainly made Shakespeare feel uncomfortably jealous.

Sonnet 80 hints at his identity:

O How I faint when I of you do write,
Knowing a better spirit doth use your name,
And in the praise thereof spends all his might,
To make me tongue-tide speaking of your fame.
But since your worth (wide as the Ocean is)
The humble as the proudest sail doth bear,
My saucy barque (inferior far to his)
On your broad main doth wilfully appear.
Your shallowest help will hold me up afloat,
Whilst he upon your soundless deep doth ride,
Or (being wracked) I am a worthless boat,
He of tall building, and of goodly pride.
     Then If he thrive and I be cast away,
     The worst was this, my love was my decay.

Sir Walter Raleigh had built his reputation on his naval prowess and eagerness to exploit the New World (in 1585, for example, he had organised an expedition to Virginia which resulted in a number of colonists being left - 'cast away' - at Roanoke; I argue in Who Killed William Shakespeare? that young Will himself might have taken part in that epoch-making expedition).  But his position at court had been secured by his willingness to flatter Queen Elizabeth I.  He wrote her fawning poems, in which she was his Cynthia and he was her Ocean (his name sounded like 'Water').

Raleigh fell from grace when he married one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth - 'Bess' - Throckmorton, who was in fact related to Shakespeare by marriage.  Few monarchs were as vain as Queen Elizabeth I, who expected her courtiers only to have eyes for her, and for marrying without her permission, Sir Walter and Bess Raleigh were both imprisoned.

Sir Walter settled on his Sherborne Estate in Dorset, where he set about rebuilding the lodge (making it four storeys high) and gathered around him a group of free-thinking poets and intellectuals - the infamous 'School of Night'.  These are hinted at in Shakespeare's 86th Sonnet:

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of (all too precious) you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write,
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished ...

The maritime imagery gives the game away - as do the references to the Rival Poet's pride (Raleigh was described by his contemporaries as 'damnable proud'), to his 'compeers by night', his 'tall building' and his pseudonym 'Ocean'.

The Rival Poet of the Sonnets was Sir Walter Raleigh.  And now, the custodians of Shakespeare's memory in Stratford-upon-Avon are trying to pass off a portrait of Shakespeare's rival poet as if it were the Bard himself!  He must be turning in his grave (the parts of him which are actually in his grave, that is).

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