The Women of Shakespeare

A review by Alphonso Gerald Newcomer (originally published in 1913)

Several years ago Mr. Frank Harris, the London editor and dramatic critic, published a work on the "Man Shakespeare," in which he professed to read the inner history of Shakespeare from youth to decline by finding him thinly disguised in his dramas under a recurrent type-character, now, for example, as Orsino1, now as Hamlet2 , and now as Antony3 . Mr. Harris's new volume of studies, reprinted from "The English Review," are in effect a continuation of the same theme. By the "Women of Shakespeare" are meant primarily the four actual women4, who had most to do with the shaping of Shakespeare's life and sentiments: his mother, wife, mistress, and daughter. These women, like Shakespeare himself, Mr. Harris finds portrayed more or less faithfully in successive characters in the dramas, and he freely employs such phrases as Cleopatra-Fitton,5 and Judith-Marina6 to convey his meaning. Naturally, the chief emphasis is upon the mistress, Mary Fitton, Queen Elizabeth's maid-of-honor. It was she, Mr. Harris believes, who is to be credited with the development of Shakespeare's tragic power, working in his soul and art a transformation paralleled(shall we say?)only in such histories as those of Dante7 and Petrarch8 .

The matter of the volume is not entirely new. We have long been familiar , for instance, with the attempt to identify " the whitely wanton with a velvet brow"9 of "Love's Labor's Lost" with the dark lady of the sonnets, and this latter with Mary Fitton. But Mr. Harris goes far beyond these slight conjectures, and attempts to extract from the plays not only, as already stated, a spiritual history, but even definite biographical details. For example, a scene in "Coriolanus" makes him "feel that Shakespeare's mother on her death-bed had probably begged something of Shakespeare which he had granted very reluctantly, "that she had, in fact, "made him promise to be reconciled to his wife." A declaration so bold as this excites one's curiosity to know by what process of deduction the author arrives at his conclusions. Example will be more satisfactory than description. Speaking of "Coriolanus," he says: "The wife plays hardly any part in the drama; the whole interest is concentrated on the mother and son. ...The speech of Coriolanus when he is on the point of yielding to his mother's pleading is impossible in the mouth of a Roman general, but is all the more characteristic of Shakespeare at this time:

                Like a dull actor now
I have forgot my part, and I am out ,
Even to a full disgrace....
                     ...You gods! I prate,
And the most noble mother of the world
Leave unsaluted: sink my knee, i' the earth
Of thy deep duty more impression show
Than that of common sons....10

Surely in the last lines of this self-revealing speech we catch an echo of Shakespeare's pride in himself and his intense admiration of his mother. Why should Coriolanus praise his mother to us?" It seems to us rather more pertinent to ask, Why should Shakespeare praise his mother to a London audience? But if that is not convincing, perhaps the following may be - this time with reference to "Antony and Cleopatra": "Shakespeare had been in love with Mary Fitton for years. She had got into his blood, and he could not but paint her for us in act after act, in a dozen differing moods. Even Shakespeare's intellectual conscience Enobarbus11 cannot control himself when he speaks of her:

I saw her once
Hop forty paces through the public street:
And having lost her breath, she spoke, and panted
That she did make defect perfection
And, breathless, power breathe forth.12

This incident seems to me a veritable performance of Mary Fitton reported by Shakespeare. It must have made a deathless impression on him. Not only does it throw Enobarbus off his perfect balance: But it is in itself too particular to be imagined and is beside not all in keeping with the character of the sensual queen. It reminds us too directly of the bold sonnet-heroine. That insistence upon 'power' strikes the same note as in Sonnet 150:

      "O from what power hast thou this powerful might?"13

In the chapter on "All's Well that Ends Well, " Mr. Harris makes out a strong case for the identification of Bertram's14 character with that of Lord Herbert, and the plausibility of this portion bespeaks serious consideration for his entire argument. But, unfortunately, nowhere else does assent follow so readily, and very often one feels compelled to enter an emphatic denial. That Hamlet, unbraiding his mother and beseeching15 her to abandon the King should be really Shakespeare reproaching Mary Fitton and begging her to cast off Lord Herbert, appears little short of ridiculous. And when, a little later, we are told that the unnatural cruelty of Hamlet in speaking with such contempt of the slain Polonius16 :

        "I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room"17

is only to be explained by the fact that "Shakespeare is here again thinking of Herbert, the real object of his hate, whom often in imagination he had killed with one quick thrust," one feels bound to protest that if this indeed be so, the creator of Hamlet was insane. If Mr. Harris were not so serious and so evidently convinced by his own reasoning, we should be disposed to think it all a deliberate hoax, perpetrated possibly with the object of showing the Baconians18 how, with persistence enough, one can read anything he pleases into the text of Shakespeare.

Not the least strange part of it all is the author's fancy that his discovery somehow glorifies Shakespeare, even while he calls him a snob and a sensualist. He appears to think that now, for the first time, in the light of this new truth, is Shakespeare revealed in all his essential humanity, and his character clothed with flesh and blood. But surely, this is just what all men have always seen in Shakespeare. Life, we grant, -- indeed, we insist,--he must have known to the core. What we refuse to believe, even granting the Herbert-Fitton episode, which is by no means established, is that he should have kept so narrowly within the pale of his personal experience and hugged so closely his private wrongs that he merely transcribed them, school-boy like, into his plays, instead of transmuting them into that wonderful pageant of universal human passions that spectators and readers alike have taken them to be. Mr. Harris exclaims, in a moment which to a mere " mandarin -professor" looks like the very ebullition19 of hysteria, "What a pity it is that Shakespeare and Mary Fitton do not sleep together in the great Abbey!" But if we were once convinced of what he asserts so exultantly, that many of the plays, including all the greatest ones, actually "reek of" Mary Fitton, we should feel with immeasurable sadness that our idol was dethroned and should close our Shakespeares forever. Happily, not many of us are likely to be convinced.

1Twelfth Night, (I.i)
2 Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Hamlet, (I.ii)
3 Probably referring to Antony and Cleopatra, (I.i). Could also be in reference to Antony in Julius Caesar, (I.ii)
4 The "four actual women" probably refers to Shakespeare's mother Mary Arden, his wife Anne Hathaway, his daughter Judith, and his mistress Mary Fitton.
5 Probably in reference to Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra, and Mary Fitton the mistress of Shakespeare. Indicates that the character of Cleopatra was comparable to Mary Fitton.
6 Probably in reference to Marina from Shakespeare's play Pericles, and Judith his daughter. Indicates that the character of Marina was comparable to Judith.
7 Probably a reference to Italian poet Durante (Dante) Alighieri, (1265), famous for writing Dante's Inferno.
8 Probably a reference to poet Francis Petrarch (1304-1374).
9Love's Labor's Lost (III, i. line 196)
10Coriolanus (V, iii. line 40)
11Antony and Cleopatra (I, i)
12Antony and Cleopatra (II, ii)
13Sonnet 150, line 1
14All's Well That Ends Well (I, i)
15 beseeching- Oxford English Dictionary: An earnest request, entreaty, prayer.
16Hamlet (I, i)
17Hamlet, (III, iv. line 212)
18 Probably in reference to individuals who believe that Francis Bacon, a famous English historical figure and writer, wrote Shakespeare's works.
19ebullition: Definition- n. A sudden outward display of feeling; as of anger.