Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Written by Elaine Scarry
Review by Kristen McDermott

Elaine Scarry, a celebrated literary scholar known for her interdisciplinary approaches to the study of poetry, culture, philosophy, and art, has joined Oscar Wilde, A. L. Rowse, and many others in attempting to unmask the mysterious subject of Shakespeare’s immortal love sonnets. Her meticulous analysis of Shakespeare’s love sonnets has yielded, she argues, the long-sought-after identity of the beloved young man who is the subject of many of the poems, embedded anagrammatically into individual lines.

Even though her literary-critical detective work does not succeed in altering our understanding of Shakespeare’s biographical record, Scarry has inadvertently created an enchanting piece of historical fiction in the passionate love affair she has imagined between William Shakespeare and the Elizabethan poet-courtier Henry Constable. Shakespearean scholars, most of whom agree that it is fruitless to read the sonnets biographically, have dismissed her detective work, pointing out the ways in which Scarry, like poor wishful Malvolio, “crushes” historical facts to fit the alphabetical clues she finds in the sonnets. However, readers of historical fiction will find a treasure-trove of details about Elizabethan art, poetry, herbology, printing, architecture, court gossip, etc. and Scarry’s conclusion, tantalizingly identifying Constable with Shakespeare’s mysterious London boarder, may inspire many new romantic novels about the Bard’s love life.