Shakespeare's bootlegger, Dylan's biographer, Nabokov, and me.

Shakespeare's bootlegger, Dylan's biographer, Nabokov, and me.

Shakespeare's bootlegger, Dylan's biographer, Nabokov, and me.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 23 2008 5:02 PM

Shakespeare's Bootlegger, Dylan's Biographer, Nabokov, and Me

When should an unauthorized version be authorized?

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This is, of course, a rat's nest of ambiguities. What is an "onlie begetter," who is Mr. W.H., and what did he "beget"? Is the dedication from Shakespeare to a patron, who may or may not appear in the poems? Or is it from the printer to a patron?

Bate believes he's found another candidate for the sonnets' mysterious dedicatee "Master W.H." One longtime candidate for "Master W.H." is William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke. Relying on the fact that an earl is not addressed as "master"—the address used for a lesser "gentleman"—Bate points us to a previously unheralded "William Herbert," this one from Wales, who is distantly related to the earl of that name but who is only a gentleman and fits other characteristics of "Master W.H.," including potential contact with Shakespeare. Two W.H.s! Which is the bootleg dedicatee? Bate's argument seems convincing, but in the last line of his essay, he says something true about most Shakespearean biographical controversies:

The instant someone says: Yes, it is plausible that Master William Herbert of Glamorgan might really have been the Master W.H. of the dedication to the sonnets—that will be the moment when the idea will cease to be of interest.


And so Bate's conjecture might excite the biographically inclined, but to those of us who feel that the meaning and resonance of the language in the sonnets is the heart of the matter, the "bootleg question," which Heylin raises, is more important. I'd never met Heylin, but his massive, well-respected biography, Dylan: Behind the Shades (Revisited)contains a generous mention of my long-ago Dylan interview—the one in which he defined his "thin wild mercury sound." I was intrigued when I got an e-mail from Heylin saying he was coming to New York and wanted to discuss not Dylan but Shakespeare. (He'd read my book The Shakespeare Wars and wanted my opinion on his sonnet theory.) Although I was a little leery, because there are so many nutty books about the sonnets, I was looking forward to talking to him since I admired his biography and I was doing a brief Dylan book for Yale University Press. (As it turns out, Heylin is publishing another massive Dylan opus as well as his sonnet book. Next year, he's coming out with the first of a two-volume study of some 600 Dylan songs, establishing what he believes to be the order in which they were written—although not necessarily recorded or performed—an absolute prolegomena to any future study of Dylan's evolution as an artist.)

In any event, I was curious about Heylin's take on the sonnets and my curiosity grew greater over a lunch at the downtown Cafe Spice as Heylin—a native Mancunian who got his degree with a thesis on Irish revolutionary poetry and seemed well-versed in Shakespearean lore—began to outline his theory.

If his theory settles the authorization controversy—and I say "if" since few Shakespearean controversies ever seem to be resolved—we may finally be freed of the fictional love story arcs so many want to impose on the sonnets. At lunch, Heylin and I spoke of the number of women who thought certain Dylan love songs were written especially for them, implying he'd told them so. One wonders whether Shakespeare played that game, too. More power to them, but we don't have to play along.

Last Sunday in the New York Times'Week in Review section, A.O. Scott reminded us of the late, lamented David Foster Wallace's complaint about biographical criticism of another great artist, Jorge Luis Borges—whose stories, Wallace once wrote, "so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant." Yes!

When it comes to the sonnets, as my exegetical hero Stephen Booth, editor of the Yale University Press' edition of the sonnetsput it: "William Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. The sonnets provide no evidence on that matter."

In other words, the sonnets should be read as poems, not diary entries. And to cram them into some crusty, procrustean biographical bed is to read the life out of them by trying to read the life into them.

Why is there doubt Shakespeare authorized the sonnets? It's complicated. For one, the pamphlet's title is "Shakespeare's Sonnets," rather than "Sonnets," by William Shakespeare. There's the fact that the 1609 edition was never reprinted (suggesting an intervention by the author). And then there's the mystery of its dedicatee, the "onlie begetter." (Is the "onlie begetter" a sly way of saying the one who begot them by bootlegging them?)

I won't oversimplify Heylin's complex and apparently carefully researched solution, which depends on several kinds of evidence, but when he used the "bootleg" comparison his inclination made sense. As editor of a leading Dylan fanzine, he spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the burgeoning bootleg culture of the '60s and '70s.

Bootlegging is, of course, a long artistic tradition. It's one Shakespeare himself alludes to in The Winter's Tale, written shortly after the 1609 sonnet book, in the character of the con man Autolycus, who sells stolen ballads as his own: English lit's first bootlegger.

For me, though the strongest evidence that the 1609 volume was unauthorized is its inclusion of "A Lover's Complaint," which just doesn't sound like Shakespeare to me. It sounds like a bad, false bootleg. There's bad Shakespeare—I'm no bardolator—but even bad Shakespeare is not this bad. The "Complaint" is wretched. I can't imagine a Shakespeare who would want an atrocious poem (see excerpts in my column on the subject) that (I believe) he did not write to be attributed to him.

And if Shakespeare didn't want "Complaint" included, then the edition must be unauthorized. He wouldn't have told a printer to tack a hideous travesty of poetry onto a collection of his most exquisitely wrought gems. But even if the 1609 edition was bootlegged, that doesn't, of course, mean the order couldn't be his. It just renders it conjectural.

Poor Shakespeare, his most exquisite lyric poems, the sonnets, shackled for centuries to an atrocious fake. Oddly enough, in the aftermath of my talk with Heylin, I began to think: Poor Vladimir Nabokov.

Readers may recall I wrote two columns earlier this year about Dmitri Nabokov, Vlad's son, and the decision he faced about whether to publish his father's last unfinished work—even after his father had, on his deathbed, asked his family to destroy it. The work, known informally as The Original of Laura, exists only on some hundred or so early-draft index cards, long held in a Swiss safe-deposit box by Dmitri, who couldn't bring himself to decide what to do.