Reading Shakespeare's Mind
Manchester: University Press, 2017
Hardcover. i-xii +212 p. ISBN 978-1526113276. £70
Reviewed by Sean Benson
University of Dubuque (Iowa)
Steve Sohmer argues that several of Shakespeare’s works are as rife with topical, personal references as, say, Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, and we ought to read them as “mice-eyed decipherers” to see what a small coterie of Shakespeare’s contemporaries recognized but we now miss. To his credit, Sohmer’s prose is eminently readable and free of academic cant; he employs adept, frequently ingenious, close readings of the works. The book is composed of short chapters where Sohmer refreshingly gets down to business with little ado, but the results are, alas, uneven.
In an early chapter, “Marlowe’s ghost in As You Like It,” he acknowledges that critics have for some time now recognized the homage Shakespeare pays to Marlowe with a couple of allusions to the man and his plays. Not content with this, Sohmer suggests that the play is “an emphatic (if discreet) memorial for Marlowe . . .” . He makes much ado about the play’s being allegedly written seven years after Marlowe’s death; not only is the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays a problem here, but Sohmer goes to great lengths to argue that seven years postmortem is the biblically and culturally appointed time to honor the deceased, but if so one wonders why we do not see an homage to Hamnet Shakespeare in 1603 (Hamlet, if it is in some way an homage to his dead son, was written less than seven years after Hamnet’s death in 1596), or why Shakespeare felt himself bound by the seven-year rule.
Moreover, Sohmer claims that “Shakespeare created the character of Jaques in the image of Marlowe” . He then proceeds to list fifteen additional (previously unnoticed) connections between Marlowe and Jaques. Sohmer uses a scattershot approach: name everything that one can possibly (even impossibly) connect to Marlowe, and see how many of them hit their target. He claims, for instance, that Jaques not only thinks like a playwright, but is, like Marlowe, a poet in his own right. But the poetry Sohmer cites from the play (2.5.45-50) is precisely the kind of doggerel verse against which Marlowe inveighed when he wrote Tamburlaine. One would think that if he were paying tribute to Marlowe, Shakespeare would have given Jaques better verse.
Sohmer claims on equally slender grounds that Jaques was both homosexual and an atheist, notwithstanding the unsettled nature of both claims concerning Marlowe. Jaques is also said to be a “spy” because he eavesdrops on others while in the forest, but he was not the kind of professional spy Marlowe was alleged to be. Marlowe may have been involved in espionage, but Jaques was not. Some of Sohmer’s claims are more reasonable, but it does not help his argument to adduce dubious connections.
In the same chapter, he claims that Shakespeare represents himself through his namesake in the play: “No commentator has offered a persuasive explanation for the presence in the play of Audrey’s would-be wooer, the bumpkin William of 5.1” . Sohmer might be correct that Shakespeare is poking self-deprecating fun at his own bucolic origins, but it is also at least as plausible to see William as a simple country youth who fittingly inhabits the pastoral world of the play.
Occasionally, too, the reasoning is not what it should be. Sohmer claims that the play’s “most seditious theme” is the question as to whether flesh is merely a garment. This is fair enough given the play’s crossdressing, but Sohmer backs his assertion with a quotation from Job: “ ‘Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, and joined me together with bones and sinews’ (10:11). That is to say, the ‘me’, the self, exists apart from flesh and bone” . He then concludes, “If a person is not flesh and bone but the soul, what possible difference can the gender of one’s lover make?” . But his is a big “if,” and his reading of Job is unpersuasive since the passage simply does not address whether the skin and flesh are separable from the soul. Sohmer is raising too quickly and without sufficient argumentation the mind-body issue. The traditional Christian understanding is that human beings are a mind-body composite; to believe otherwise would make Shakespeare a gnostic heretic, which is not what Sohmer claims of him elsewhere.
In his chapter on the sonnets, and following A.L. Rowse, whose work he acknowledges, Sohmer tries to strengthen the claim that Emilia Lanier (1569-1645) was the Dark Lady, and while he does make a number of tantalizing points, I remain persuaded that the sonnets are more an exercise in form than an autobiographical sequence. But Sohmer correctly reminds us that no writer writes in a vacuum, and that the personal connections of necessity inform the work. Sohmer simply pushes that argument further than most are willing to do, claiming that As You Like It and the sonnets function as personal memoirs.
Sohmer gives his most sustained attention to Twelfth Night, and it is here that he is on firmest ground. He argues, quite compellingly in fact, that a careful reading of the historical shift from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar reveals that the play was indeed performed on “Sunday 6 January Gregorian” . Two chapters later he connects Illyria to Paul’s wandering in the area of Illyricum and his writing of the book of Corinthians. He suggests that Illyria and Corinthians are as significant to Twelfth Night as Ephesus and its eponymous epistle are to The Comedy of Errors. I was not entirely persuaded by his argument, but I was partially convinced, and there is no doubt that Sohmer is a clever reader.
Sohmer rightly makes much of J.J.M. Tobin’s argument that Shakespeare used Gabriel Harvey as a model for Malvolio, yet he also claims that Feste is modeled on both Harvey’s nemesis, Thomas Nashe, and on the apostle Paul. As for Paul, Sohmer notes that Paul was a “professional wanderer” , which is fair enough, but he then asserts that Feste’s merely going between Olivia’s and Orsino’s households renders him a wanderer, too. The men’s wandering (if one can even apply the term to Feste) is not equivalent in any sense, and thus straining his argument here as elsewhere interferes with the ingenuity one finds in several of his interpretations. Sohmer also suggests that Shakespeare was for some reason obsessed with representing Nashe in Love’s Labor’s Lost, As You Like It, and, as noted, Twelfth Night. Surely Shakespeare knew Nashe’s work and unconsciously or consciously echoed it in places, but it again is going a bit far to suggest that Nashe inhabits the plays.
Sohmer is interested in a number of puzzles that have long eluded critics, not least of which is the M. O. A. I. of Maria’s letter. He asserts that the anagram, about which Elizabethans were indeed enamored, emerges from two Latin phrases (Manus Osculatione and Vultum Itali) in a “letter” to the queen that Harvey published in 1578. Shakespeare then allegedly “translated” the Englished version of the latter phrase he found in Harvey’s Saffron-Walden, “lookt like an Italian,” as Aspectu Itali, giving us the until-now cryptic M. O. A. I. . It seems more likely, as numerous critics have suggested, that the anagram tantalizes Malvolio with its near-approximation of his name, forcing him to “crush [it] a little” so as to force it to resemble his name better than it actually does.
Sohmer’s final chapter on Twelfth Night offers a compelling case for switching the order of 1.1. and 1.2 so as to make the play more comprehensible to audiences. It might indeed have this effect, but then one would miss the opening overture, “If music be the food of love...” Throughout the book, Sohmer claims that Shakespeare’s works are “bubbling with topicality” , and he concludes with a chapter that cogently argues, inter alia, that King John’s Faulconbridge is a cipher for Henry Carey. It is one of the tantalizing gems in a work that contains several concatenated arguments; if each of the possible links he makes is true, then the fabric holds together; take out one slender thread, and that particular tapestry begins to unravel. Some of the arguments work, others simply do not.
I would, however, recommend the book. Not only does Sohmer get to the point, but he also makes enough of them to keep the reader continually interested, even if one disagrees with some of his conclusions. In a blurb on the book’s jacket, Sir Stanley Wells notes that “Sohmer’s well-stocked mind can be relied upon to produce intriguingly fresh perspectives on Shakespeare’s plays.” Sohmer’s perspectives are not always persuasive, but they are indeed fresh and stimulating takes on the work.
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