In 1964, the quatercentenary of Shakespeare's birth, two very different books appeared. Anthony Burgess's tribute to the poet, Nothing Like the Sun, was a boisterous biographical novel full of sugared sack and bawdry, with sombre undertones of decay. Taking literally the references in Shakespeare's sonnets to a mistress 'black as hell', Burgess made the Dark Lady of his story a voluptuous East Indian who, after seducing the dramatist, inspired the tragic plays of his maturity by giving him a dose of syphilis. A.L. Rowse, meanwhile, edited the sonnets themselves. Already the author of a large-scale life of the poet, and, as a historian, well-placed to deal with at least one aspect of the verse, Rowse produced a volume that was ultimately unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, his edition was recognisably a work of scholarship, displaying some of the prudence looked for in the form. Unlike Burgess, for instance, Rowse refused to identify or sketch a Dark Lady, because he thought the evidence insufficient. The last two decades have changed all that. While Burgess has pursued the spirit of Shakespeare through a film-script, a popular biography and, now, an Enderby novel - feigning, in the process, notable images of the poet - Dr Rowse has drifted into fantasy. Having discovered a Dark Lady in the Bodleian, and been seduced by her, he has ended up writing, in the latest version of Shakespeare's Sonnets, fiction disguised as scholarship.
LRB 21 June 1984 | PDF Download