Amelia Lanyer, A. L. Rowse, and Shakespeare's "Dark Lady": A Critical querelle of the 20th Century


        Lucie Camp's 2012 midterm paper chose to compare Spenser's sonnet #75 and Shakespeare's #60 on the basis of their similar beginnings in a seaside setting and similar themes, moving from Time's destructive power to the potentially immortalizing strength of verse.  She noted in her conclusion that Spenser actually names "Elizabeth" as his Beloved and includes the "Epithalamion" with the sonnets to celebrate the successful and very public marriage that concluded the sonnet-courtship.  Shakespeare, by contrast, appears never to have yielded enough clues to identify either the young man or the "Dark Lady."  That led me to suspect that Shakespeare's decision to keep the Beloved anonymous might relate to the aristocrats’ abhorrence of seeing their names in print.  Perhaps he participates more, mentally, in that noble-author tradition than Spenser did.  “Epithalamion” certainly suggests Spenser has more in common with Catullus than with Wyatt or Sidney.  If Shakespeare thought of himself as sort of an aristo-artist, it might not be the aristo status of the young man or even the “Dark Lady” that caused him to avoid revealing their identities to later readers.  Shakespeare seems never to have encountered a poetic tradition he could not break if he could do so with artistry.  Still, he doesn’t even code the Beloved’s name in the work, as Lucie points out that Spenser did with the “three Elizabeths” sonnet, and as Sidney did with A&S #37 (“Rich she is”).  Shakespeare throws “Will” around as Sidney did “Astrophil,” and both Wyatt and Surrey had their autobiographical moments, but the sweet/sour “he” and “she” of the sonnets have never been teased out by hundreds of years of tenacious critical burrowing in the poems and historical records.  That kind of thing in generations before the New Critics may have been a major motivator for their declaration of the “intentional fallacy” (e.g., A.L. Rouse “identifying” the “Dark Lady” as Amelia Lanyer instead of giving us better interpretations of the poems as poems).  I had never thought about all this before, and I thank Lucie again for bringing me to the point where I could see its possibility.  Here’s a link to Stanley Well’s somewhat catty memoir article about the quarrel with Rowse:

(I do hope this speculation does not make me a "third-rater," but then again, would that matter in a world where decoding an obscure Shakespeare joke counts as a major achievement?)

Below is the catalogue record for the Goucher Library's copy of the book in which Rowse made the claim.  Note that it is not published by a scholarly publisher and did not pass peer review, though the editor, Cass Canfield, was a famous publisher:

Author Rowse, A. L. (Alfred Leslie), 1903-
Title Shakespeare the man [by] A. L. Rowse
Publication Info. New York, Harper & Row [1973]
Edition [1st U.S. ed.]
 Main Collection  826.31 Sr726.1    AVAILABLE
Description xi, 284 p. illus. 22 cm
Series A Cass Canfield book
Subject Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616
ISBN 006013691X