Sunday, August 6, 2017

Shakespeare's wife and the limits of language

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Anne Hathaway, the wife of William Shakespeare died on this day in 1623, at the age of 67. Not much is known about Hathaway aside from mentions in legal documents, but we do know she was 26 and pregnant with an 18-year-old Shakespeare's child when they married. She gave birth to their daughter six months after the wedding, and fraternal twins two years after that.

Shakespeare spent much of his remaining life apart from Hathaway, living in London and touring the country while she stayed behind in Stratford-upon-Avon. His will left most of his estate to their eldest daughter, with instructions that it be passed on to her first-born son. To Hathaway, he bequeathed only "my second-best bed." Scholars argue over the significance and meaning of this legacy; some say it's an obvious snub, but others suggest it was a final romantic gesture, referring to their marital bed. Whatever the case, Hathaway was buried in a plot next to her husband seven years later.

There is also no agreement on whether Shakespeare's sonnet 145 was in fact written by him, but the final couplet suggests it may have been one of his first poems, written about his wife. These lines contain possible puns - a Shakespearian favorite - that could identify the subject as his wife: "hate away" for "Hathaway" and "And saved my life" for "Anne saved my life."
Those lips that Love's own hand did make
Breathed forth the sound that said 'I hate'
To me that languish'd for her sake;
But when she saw my woeful state
Straight in her heart did mercy come,
Chiding that tongue that ever sweet
Was used in giving gentle doom,
And taught it thus anew to greet:
'I hate' she alter'd with an end,
That follow'd it as gentle day
Doth follow night, who like a fiend
From heaven to hell is flown away;
'I hate' from hate away she threw,
And saved my life, saying 'not you.'

And there is this personal postscript:

I suppose I understand how someone could see the wife being mentioned in the sonnet, but that kind of seeing reminds me a bit of the conversation between Hamlet and Polonius about seeing different images in clouds. In other words, sometimes different people see things in different ways because language can be full of obvious and not so obvious meanings. However, there are limits. And, even though Shakespeare is the universal "poet unlimited," to my mind, seeing the wife in this sonnet might exceed those limits. What do you think?


  1. i think so, also... it seems, imo, to be a general reference to any domestic situation, rife with strife... doesn't necessarily have to be something personal... love and all it's infinite variations was a favorite topic of Elizabethan poets and this sonnet is just an example of that, it seems to me...

    1. Mudpuddle, though the sonnets are sometimes personal, according to scholars, some scholars I think go overboard in their biographical explications. I try to keep my focus on the universal aspects in the sonnets and plays, but that might be error on my part.

  2. It's certainly possible, Tim, that Shakespeare sneaked a few lines about his wife into his poetry. It wouldn't be unheard-of, and he did enjoy word play. But honestly, I agree with you that that pushes it a bit far for me.

    1. Margot, as my students noted but overstated, Shakespeare writes in a language often different from ours, so 21st century readers often face challenges; however, some readers are too creative in their responses to those challengers and their explications.

  3. R.T.--As Harold Bloom points out, it is almost impossible to determine anything personal about Shakespeare from his dramas and his poetry. He presents the conflicts and attitudes of humanity at large, but we can't say with any certainty which side he's on.

    All I can say is that those interpretations "could be," but that it also could be over-reading, a crime I'm too often guilty of, I fear.

    1. Fred, isn't it amazing that so many people have written so many words about Shakespeare's words? It all goes to underscore either the ambiguities of language or the genius of Shakespeare -- or both. BTW, anyone who invokes Harold Bloom gets my attention. He is the critic that both fascinates and infuriates me. I'm not sure if Shakespeare ever had a more passionate critic than Bloom.

    2. R.T.--I had the same reaction to Bloom with both books that I read--fascinated and furious. In
      Bloom's eyes, Shakespeare stands alone. No peers.

    3. And, Fred, he may be right about Shakespeare, but Bloom has a writing style that sometimes hurts my head. Moreover, he's a real show off who is quite full of himself.

    4. R.T.--yes, he does have a rather high opinion of himself. He was a bit critical of Dante because Dante believes he has the Truth--a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black. Dante relies, however, on revealed truth from God for his attitude, if it really exists, whereas Bloom doesn't need God to support him.