Who was the “young man” William Shakespeare addressed in his sonnets?
That’s the never-ending mystery wide-ranging literary scholar Scarry (Aesthetics and General Theory of Value/Harvard Univ.; Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom, 2014, etc.) sets out to resolve in her latest book. The list of contenders is already long, but Scarry comes up with a new one: Shakespeare’s contemporary Henry Constable. The author theorizes that the sonnets are, actually, only part of a conversation between the poets, who left cryptic mash notes to each other in their work. Her proof mostly amounts to highly imaginative, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, code-breaking—such as her discovery that lines of the sonnets have the letters of Constable’s name scattered within them (not sequentially, mind you, just there). Also, a nickname for Henry is Hal, and the sonnets use words like “shall” and “halt”—and sometimes “will” is close by. Also, there’s that last name, and Shakespeare often uses “constancy” or “constant.” Constable’s own poems likewise seem to Scarry to both directly answer his genius friend and leave behind similar anagrams. Beyond the textual argument, there’s the historical possibility that their paths crossed as Elizabethan England was undergoing endless religious conflict; maybe Shakespeare even provided cover to the Catholic Constable, who returned the favor by nursing his beloved through his final illness. As a novel, like Anthony Burgess’ Nothing Like the Sun, or a movie, like Shakespeare in Love, the story has possibilities; as speculative literary detective work, it feels forced. Almost from the beginning, Scarry seems less like the redoubtable polymath of legend—whose past subjects have ranged from torture to critical care to plane crashes—and more like a mad scholar whose delusional literary criticism takes on a life of its own.
Close readers of Shakespeare will respect Scarry’s arduous homework but likely won’t be convinced by her conclusions.