“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” [Sonnet 18] “Full many a glorious morning have I seen.” [Sonnet 33] These and other iconic lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets may transport us back to tedious high school English classes, the chore of college papers; but they still have the power to transform the reader, and to be transformed themselves by vigorous new readings.
Harvard professor Elaine Scarry accomplishes this seemingly impossible feat with a fresh, enthralling argument: The bulk of Shakespeare’s sonnets are a paean to his muse, poet Henry Constable, who in turn acknowledged mutual feelings in his own work. “Naming Thy Name,” then, is a model of literary criticism, scholarly yet rendered with flair, a beautiful portrayal of secretive, enduring love.
Composed early in Shakespeare’s career, the sequence comprises 154 sonnets, with all but 28 addressed to a handsome young man. Although critics have long acknowledged the charged emotions here, puzzling over the young man’s identity for centuries, few have embraced as homoerotic an approach as Scarry.
In her introduction she sprinkles some pixie dust of her own, identifying the young man as Henry Constable, “England’s sweet nightingale,” whose own Diana is one of the first sonnet cycles in the language. She can’t offer definitive proof, but “believes it to be true.”
“Naming Thy Name” builds its case with meticulous line-by-line analyses of poems by both men, crafting an ardent dialogue between lovers that swells in intensity. Scarry plucks out Shakespeare’s coded references to Constable again and again, revealing myriad lines that contain all the letters of his beloved’s name and the statistical improbability of that happening by coincidence.
Devoutly Catholic, Constable wrote about the concept of grace; Shakespeare echoed back his trope in Sonnet 78. Early in the sequence the relationship seems platonic, with Shakespeare attempting to persuade his beloved that he should seek a wife and children; in the later poems it flames into open ardor, both men yearning for each other’s bed.
As Scarry notes, “How many extended and explicit — undisguised, allegorical — love poems from a man to a man were written before the sixteenth century? … With no ground behind him and no ground before him, Shakespeare stood his ground, made naked his love, bore it out, even to the edge of doom.”
Shakespeare puns on Constable’s name: In various forms the figure of a constable haunts the sonnets. More important, Shakespeare links his lover to constancy, a theme that would arch, dome-like, over his plays. Constable returns the favor with allusions to the thunder and lightning of their coupling, associated with Neptune’s shake of a trident or spear: “Shakespeare enables us to hear Constable’s voice — his ingenious metaphors, his reverence for his beloved … his physical desire, his trueness.” Scarry even hazards guesses — all in good fun — about the identities of the Dark Lady (with whom the young man betrays Shakespeare) and the Rival Poet, two characters prominent in the sonnets’ drama.
Occasionally, “Naming Thy Name” lapses into a lecturer’s tone — Scarry assumes her reader knows the sequence intimately — but this is a minor caveat to an otherwise absorbing and moving read, an elegant, original addition to Shakespeare studies.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.
Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare's Sonnets
By: Elaine Scarry.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 291 pages, $27.