CLICK ON THE SNOWFLAKE TO OPEN THE DOOR!
HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM STEPHANIE COWELL
My novel THE PLAYERS: the love story of Shakespeare’s sonnets
Let us imagine the book sellers’ stalls in St. Paul’s churchyard London, four hundred years ago, 1609. A middle-age, balding man is browsing through books, and notices one he had not seen before. It is an unauthorized collection of the very private, very sensual sonnets he wrote over fifteen years before. Many are to a dark-skinned lady he has long ceased to see. Others are to a beautiful young man, possibly the only man he ever loved. They were never meant to be published by anyone.
The writer, Will Shakespeare, is likely horrified. Someone quickly suppresses the publication, for only 13 copies remain in the world today. Thus begins the story of the most sensual and mysterious sonnet sequence in the English language.
There are no poems in the world I love so much; they are as real as if he wrote them yesterday. I loved them so much I wrote a novel about them.
Some people claim Shakespeare never wrote anything autobiographic but there is little as self-revealing in poetry. And certainly, among scholars who interpret the sonnets, much blood has been spilled. Two large questions loom: who was the young man and who was the lady? And was Shakespeare writing on commission or a from his own love?
After extensive study of the sonnets, I am certain of both answers.
The young woman was the somewhat promiscuous Emilia Bassano, a musician. And the young man was the gorgeous, rich, enviable 19-year-old Earl of Southampton, a patron of the struggling Shakespeare. For Shakespeare was a rising playwright then (in other words, he hardly made enough to keep body and soul together) and a poor actor. He was a country boy; he came from a relatively small town to try to make it in London in the disreputable profession of theater. He left a wife and children. He was in his late twenties. And likely he had never seen anything like Southampton in his life.
He fell in love and if that did not confuse him enough, Emilia and the Earl began to be involved with each other.
“The master-mistress of my passion,” is what he calls the beautiful young man who thrusts him away and calls him back again. The sonnets reveal Shakespeare in pain and conflict. He feels unworthy; he claims his name will be soon forgotten but the world will never forget the young Earl. He was mistaken there; we know the Earl only because of the sonnets. And yet here and there Shakespeare writes hoping that his words will make his love immortal and that, centuries from now, “in black ink my love may still shine bright.”
Did Shakespeare ever fall in love with a man again? We don’t know. His plays are full of bawdy heterosexual humor. He was a private man. His marriage likely was not very good. On the other hand, he lived in a very cross-dressing theater world. The girls on the stage were all played by lovely young boys.
Yes, I fell in love with the sonnets as Shakespeare fell in love four centuries ago. I even went to Yale and spent a few hours studying one of the thirteen existing copies of that 1609 printing. Sparks from candles had burned a few tiny holes here and there. I knew I may have held the very same copy Shakespeare held four hundred years ago.
In Sonnet CX, the poet regrets his disreputable theatrical profession and his friendships with others ― rereading this sonnet, I wondered if those other friendships were strictly cerebral? In a sonnet, he writes to the young Earl that he is coming back to him and calling him “a god in love, to whom I am confin’d.”
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most, most loving breast.
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
Stephanie will be giving away one copy of her lovely novel “The Players” to a commenter on this post, so you’ve got to be in it to win it! Winner to be announced on Christmas Day.
THE PLAYERS: A NOVEL OF THE YOUNG SHAKESPEARE was published in 1997 by W.W. Norton; a number of the sonnets are included in the historical notes, explaining how I drew my story from them. You can find out more about it from my web site. And if you visit my house, you will find my copy of the sonnets on my night table where they will stay forever.
Stephanie can be reached on StephanieCowell@nyc.rr.com
Stephanie Cowell is the author of several published novels and the recipient of an American Book Award; her next one is CLAUDE & CAMILLE: A NOVEL OF MONET (Crown, April 2010). Does it have any same-sex love in it? Well…read and see!