A. L. Rowse - Life and Politics - Elizabethan and Shakespearean Scholarship

Elizabethan and Shakespearean Scholarship

Rowse's early works focus on 16th-century England and his first full-length historical monograph, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (1937), was a biography of a 16th-century sailor. His next was Tudor Cornwall (1941), a lively detailed account of Cornish society in the 16th century. He consolidated his reputation with a one-volume general history of England, The Spirit of English History (1943), but his most important work was the historical trilogy The Elizabethan Age: The England of Elizabeth (1950), The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955), and The Elizabethan Renaissance (1971–72), respectively examine the society, overseas exploration, and culture of late 16th-century England.

In 1963 Rowse began to concentrate on Shakespeare, starting with a biography in which he claimed to have dated all the sonnets, identified Christopher Marlowe as the suitor's rival and solved all but one of the other problems posed by the sonnets. His failure to acknowledge his reliance upon the work of other scholars alienated some of his peers, but he won popular acclaim. In 1973 he published Shakespeare the Man, in which he claimed to have solved the final problem – the identity of the 'Dark Lady': from a close reading of the sonnets and the diaries of Simon Forman, he asserted that she must have been Emilia Lanier, whose poems he would later collect. He suggested that Shakespeare had been influenced by the feud between the Danvers and Long families in Wiltshire, when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The Danverses were friends of the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Rowse's "discoveries" about Shakespeare's sonnets amount to the following:

  • 1. The Fair Youth was the 19-year-old Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, extremely handsome and bisexual.
  • 2. The sonnets were written 1592-1594/5.
  • 3. The "rival poet" was the famously homosexual Christopher Marlowe.
  • 4. The "Dark Lady" was Emilia Lanier. His use of the diaries of Simon Forman, which contained material about her, influenced other scholars.
  • 5. Christopher Marlowe's death is recorded in the sonnets.
  • 6. Shakespeare was a heterosexual man, who was faced with an unusual situation when the handsome, young, bisexual Earl of Southampton fell in love with him.

Rowse was dismissive of those who rejected his views, but he did not make such assertions without supplying reasons. In the case of Shakespeare, he emphasised heterosexual inclinations by noting that Shakespeare had managed to get an older woman pregnant by the time he was 18, and was consequently obliged to marry her. Moreover, he had saddled himself with three children by the time he was 21. In the sonnets, Shakespeare's explicit erotic interest lies with the Dark Lady; he obsesses about her. Shakespeare was still married and therefore carrying on an extramarital affair.

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