IN 1889, OSCAR WILDE spun a passing footnote in Edmond Malone’s 1780 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets into an enchanting fantasy. Malone observed that the first 126 of Shakespeare’s poems are addressed to a man (now known as the “Young Man” or “Fair Youth”). He associated this youth with the volume’s dedicatee, “Mr. W. H.” and, in the footnote that inspired Wilde, recorded a friend’s remark that puns in the sonnets suggest his name might be “Willie Hughes.” It is this possibility, never quite accepted in scholarly circles, that Wilde’s story “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” elaborates, imagining a “wonderful boy actor of great beauty, to whom [Shakespeare] intrusted the presentation of his noble heroines.” Wilde’s character Cyril Graham dispenses quickly the two leading theories of Mr. W. H.’s identity: that the sonnets honored Shakespeare’s friendship and dedication to either his patron Henry Wriothesley, the third Earl of Southampton, or William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke and dedicatee of the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s work. Rather, he proposes that “passionate adoration” of a “physical beauty” must have formed the “very corner-stone of Shakespeare’s art.”

By the end of the 19th century, the preponderance of dubious facts and wishful thinking needed to defend such theories was already becoming clear (to everyone but the theorists themselves, anyway). In an 1886 review of two editions of the Sonnets, the Irish scholar Edward Dowden resorts to parody, proposing one poem must have been written “in Dublin in the year 1885, shortly after the visit of the Prince of Wales to the Irish capital.” Scampering through spurious allusions, he finds reference to tenant boycotts and recent court cases, to the new national library and the Parnellite party, at last offering a novel hypothesis to explain Shakespeare’s deep knowledge of the baking business. Wilde, writing three years later, riffs on this kind of interpretive ingenuity, investing it with a genuine passion. Both argument and jest, Wilde’s “Portrait” refashions the quagmire of Shakespearean disputation into a mode for imagining a queer history that could not be written. He parodies, imitates, and pays tribute to the scholars of his day, scrambling through records and poems to cast the love plot that seems just obliquely visible in the Sonnets: the fair youth, the rival poet who competes for the youth’s affections, and the so-called “dark lady” who is mistress to both.

Wilde’s heady mixture of fancy and philology, close reading and conjecture, is actually not as far from traditional Shakespearean scholarship as it might seem. To piece together the plot of a sonnet sequence often feels like reading by the light of a thunderstorm: momentary flashes illumine and then vanish. A single poem opens with brilliant intimacy as we feel the quaver of emotions behind one piece of rhetoric which then vanishes into the next, with its new metaphors and new situation. Between the two lies what comics artists call the “gutter”: a blank space which allows our minds to invent movement. To move from reconstructed plot to history is to layer supposition on supposition, to grasp for certainty out of what Shakespeare “might have” or “could have” or “must have” done or known. Like the partisans of Pembroke and Southampton, Wilde’s fictional Cyril Graham pieces together a line here and a word there, yanked free from their context, while others are freely discarded.

But the critic’s urgent internal conviction will not suffice to convince others. In the gap between possibility and fact, frauds bloom. The portrait mentioned in Wilde’s title is a forgery, an image of an Elizabethan boy actor commissioned by Graham to prove his theories, for which there is otherwise no documentary evidence. The story’s narrator no sooner writes down his views than he realizes they are “a mere myth, an idle dream, the boyish fancy of a young man who, like most ardent spirits, was more anxious to convince others than to be himself convinced.”

By the appearance of the New Variorum edition of the Sonnets in the mid-1940s, the W. H. question was largely given over as unsolvable. Though articles and books regularly appear advancing some candidate or other — most recently, the publisher William Holmes — most scholars remain agnostic on the matter, at least in print. (When I once claimed, in graduate school, to have worked out who the Rival Poet was, a distinguished professor huffed, “Oh! For goodness sake, don’t tell me!”) So when a book claims to have identified the characters in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, we should read not only for the conclusion but for the texture of argument, the vigor of imagination, and the flashes of light.

Elaine Scarry’s new book, Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, is the latest attempt to illuminate this literary mystery. Scarry has made her name as a theorist, drawing together unconventional archives with the tools of literary criticism and philosophy to tackle questions of justice, beauty, and political action. In her first book, the chilling The Body In Pain (1985), she analyzes records of torture, personal injury lawsuits, and other accounts of violence in order to reckon with how and why literature expresses human suffering. Since then, she’s written on what cognitive science can teach us about the creative imagination, on the relation of beauty to justice, and on nuclear weapons’ implications for democracy. In all cases, her work alternates between scintillating attention to the particular detail of lived experience and a search for general principles.

Naming Thy Name brings both skills to work to propose a new candidate for the fair youth of the Sonnets: the poet turned Catholic exile Henry Constable. While there’s no documentary evidence that Shakespeare and Constable ever met, Scarry argues that a pattern of allusions in each poet’s work, combined with opportune blanks in the historical record, make it plausible that the two carried on a 20-to-30-year relationship beginning in the mid-to-late 1580s. Where Wilde’s narrator posits that Shakespeare loved Willie Hughes with the “sculptor’s love for some rare and exquisite material that suggests a new form of plastic beauty,” Scarry is equally sure of a different kind of attraction, an erudite partnership of mutual conversation:

Would Shakespeare have begun writing poetry if he hadn’t met and fallen in love with someone steeped in British, Continental, and classical poetry? Someone able to spark and speak metaphors in an instant? Someone able to talk and talk back? Someone able to hoot with the owls in Arden Forest, then slip off to the court of the Scottish king?

To build the case for this secret relationship, Scarry skips over much of the traditional evidence. The rival candidates — Pembroke, Southampton, Hughes, Holmes, or others — are scarcely mentioned; nor are the various moments in the Sonnets typically taken as revealing of the young man’s age, appearance, and family. Instead, she proposes to track an ongoing sub rosa conversation between Shakespeare and Constable, “present in the micro texture of the sonnets, in their overarching architecture, and in their deep fabric.” Over the course of six chapters, she offers close readings of both the Sonnets and Constable’s sonnet sequence Diana, along with a handful of Latin poems, proposing allusions and references that might be taken as signs of their love. Organized topically, each chapter focuses on a particular pattern or model of reference, from pet names to shared plot points.

Scarry’s book takes its title from the first chapter, which claims to have uncovered a secret set of anagrams in the Sonnets. In some 40-odd lines, the letters of Henry Constable’s name are hidden:

WHEN that chuRl death mY BoNEs with duST shALl COver,

The placement of these anagrams at certain key moments in the Sonnets, Scarry argues, reveals the name of the fair youth, allowing Shakespeare’s sequence to fulfill its promise of granting immortality to his beloved. “[A]t every second of day and night someone somewhere in the world recites the sonnets,” Scarry writes, “unknowingly carrying Henry Constable in their eyes and mouths. Humanity acts collectively as a dedicated relay team of rhapsodes, one person beginning to animate the beloved when the previous person drops off to sleep or dies.”

It is a beautiful idea, beautifully put. But it’s not an original one. There is in fact a long history of finding secret codes by rearranging Shakespeare’s characters or words, and like so many others, this one falls apart under pressure. Consider that the same line quoted above also contains the letters of Elaine Scarry’s name:

whEn that ChuRl deAth mY boNES wIth dust shALl coveR,

And, for that matter, my own:

WHEn THAt chuRl death My bONes wIth dust ShAll coveR,

In fact, each of our names show up in more than twice as many lines as “Henry Constable” does. So do those of some of the leading candidates for the Fair Youth: “Will Hughes” or “Southampton,” for instance. A 2009 article by H. R. Winnick (not cited by Scarry) makes a case for Henry “Wriothesley” on these same grounds. Indeed, “Wriothesley” lurks alongside “Elaine Scarry” and “Matthew Harrison” in the very line I quoted. Longer names and names with less frequently used characters appear less frequently, but even the phrase “The Third Earl of Southampton” occurs once.

Scarry plays a bit fast and loose here: she mentions that sonnet sequences by Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser each has a rate of accidental appearances of Constable’s name of 2.3–2.5 percent. But she does not note that both sequences feature the name more frequently than Shakespeare does, as do (for instance) the nearly 19,000 lines of Pope’s translation of the Iliad. Her buttress against random chance is a second requirement: that a nearby line also “announce that it contains the name.” In practice, this rule becomes wildly permissive, expanding to include any mention of poetry and more besides: the announcement in the case of the line above is Shakespeare’s allusion to his “poor rude lines.”

Shakespeareans have seen this story before: a theory that seems plausible in itself runs aground when put to the test. This is the great challenge of identifying the persons of the sonnets: with so little evidence, we strain to build narratives. But we must know that same evidence will strain just as easily in other directions. In her defense, Scarry knows she hasn’t proven her theory. “This book is written in the belief that what it describes is true,” the introduction disclaims. “But its author only believes it to be true; she does not know it to be true. That would require far more evidence than has been assembled.” Still, Naming Thy Name is not a book that entertains reasonable alternatives. Rather, it chooses to luxuriate in its own belief, letting it blossom into elaborate, and often ingenious, readings of particular poems. As with Wilde’s story, we need not believe to appreciate, for instance, this reading of a few lines from “If ever sorrow spoke…” from the 1594 text of Constable’s Diana:

Or like the eccho of a passing bell,
which sounding on the water, seems to howle:
so rings my hart a feareful heavie knell,
and keepes all night in consort with the Owle.

The reverberating call and recall pass from bell to knell, from howl to owl. Perhaps Constable is thinking here of the tawny owls (their quivering tremolo well matched to his lover’s name), residents of Arden Forest, where not only Shakespeare’s family but Constable’s mother’s family resided […] Constable has indeed created a visual cacophony, even if the full acoustical cacophony of call and response had to wait for William Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad “There was a boy.”

Licensed by finding anagrams of Shakespeare’s name a quatrain earlier, Scarry hears all the sonic potential of these lines. She does not mention that Constable’s editor, Joan Grundy, thinks this poem is by someone else.

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The middle chapters of Naming Thy Name fit an account of the Constable-Shakespeare relationship into the plot hinted at by Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The rival poet, Scarry reveals, is King James VI of Scotland, soon to be King James I of England; the dark lady is none other than Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway. Given the paucity of evidence, the historical claims rest on a chain of subjunctives and suppositions, “may” and “might” and “would” and “could.” Scarry’s argument regularly slips from demonstrating that an event could be possible to treating it as probable or even proven. She writes, for instance, of an anonymous poem about Constable: “[This evidence] does not prove that Shakespeare wrote the poem; it only shows that there is no reason he could not have written the poem.” Shortly thereafter, and for the rest of the book, the poem is treated as clearly Shakespeare’s.

When I suspend my disbelief, Naming Thy Name is, like Wilde’s tale, enchanting: it describes a transcendent love in precisely observed language, transforming poems I thought I knew. But when I read more critically, taking into account not only the original poems but other scholarly sources, a pattern of inaccuracy and overstatement makes unmixed admiration more difficult. Without any acknowledgment, Scarry reads Constable’s own poems deeply against the grain, resisting their explicit meaning (and sometimes even their grammar) in favor of a buried subtext that fits with her Shakespearean theory. A poem expressly about the “disdain” of the beloved — her refusal to reciprocate his love — becomes evidence that “the woman initiated the flirtation”; an account of unjust abandonment, through added punctuation and emphasis, is transformed into an admission of his fault. A pious reference to the “grace” of “him … that rules above” metamorphoses into a sex act in which, we are told, Shakespeare was on top. So, too, in translations of Latin poetry, genders are regularly shifted, as are verb tenses and moods. All these readings disregard the corpus of early modern sonnets: tropes and metaphors that recur in sequence after sequence are here treated as if they must be literal accounts of a narrative that can be reconstructed.

The same liberties are taken with the handful of critics and scholars cited. Two examples will suffice. In a footnote, Scarry accuses Stephen Booth, the great editor of the Sonnets, of claiming that the early modern long-s (ſ) and f “look identical.” He doesn’t, and they don’t. A game of scholarly telephone converts similarity to identity. Another moment has more serious consequences for the larger argument. When Grundy explains that the sonnets attributed to “other honorable and learned personages” on the title page of the 1594 edition of Constable’s sequence Diana are not by him, she writes:

[Constable’s] talent was at best a modest one, but at least it would be better for him to be damned with the faint praise that he deserves, rather than censured, as he has been, for vices not his own.

Over the next two pages, Grundy enumerates the vices she has in mind: the sonnets lack “the formal qualities of Constable’s recognized work — balance, logic, control” and are “incoherent in both thought and imagery.” Quoting the phrase “censured […] for vices not his own” out of context, Scarry claims that Grundy means that the poems are “homoerotic.” Already a misreading, this soon slides into a claim that the poems are “directly,” or “clearly,” addressed to a male beloved. Again, they are not: some are gender-neutral, some devoted to a “Mistress,” “Queene,” or “Goddess” or gendered only by the feminine pronoun, but not a single one of these poems is “directly” addressed to a man. As in so many Renaissance texts — Shakespeare’s plays among them — desire is slippery and unpredictable: these poems play around endlessly with gender, imagining the beauties of Adam and Narcissus alongside female paragons. To claim that the poems are “clearly” addressed to a male beloved is to sidestep these nuances as well as the fascinating question of how male-male desire was represented in the Renaissance. Indeed, Scarry cites none of the voluminous literature on queer desire and gender in early modern England, one of the field’s most vibrant areas of study since Alan Bray’s 1982 Homosexuality in Renaissance England, and leans on an unpublished 1953 dissertation for her account of gender-bending in the religious poems. More generally, the citations in Naming Thy Name refer almost exclusively to biographies, dictionaries, and editions; hardly any literary scholarship is cited from articles or monographs.

Shakespeareans will be perplexed by the utter disregard for scholarly procedures here and elsewhere: the misleading translations, the presentation of contentious and unlikely claims as if they were all-but-settled fact, and the complete unwillingness to subject plausible narratives to counterevidence. But to insist on such scruples seems almost beside the point in a book that, like Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” offers something more than a dubious literary conjecture. At its best, Naming Thy Name is exhilarating, as when Scarry describes the faint echo of “Hal” in every instance of “shall” in the Sonnets (“shall […] overturn,” “shall burn,” and so forth). “Beautifully understated, the unstressed auxiliary is more important than the verbs it sustains,” Scarry writes: “it is less the shining, the overturning, the burning than the abiding fact of being — and still being, and being once more — in all futures that Shakespeare means to, and does, accomplish.”

It seems unlikely that, after more than two centuries of argument, simply reading the Sonnets ever more closely will reveal the secrets that have puzzled us for so long. To attempt to “solve” the sonnets may always be to subject yourself to the sheer power of Shakespearean thinking, with its ability to enchant the world into pattern, to distort what we know into what we want to be true. Yet as we see in Wilde and Scarry alike, the attempt may re-enchant the poems, making familiar lines once more seem strange and new.

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Matthew Harrison lives and teaches in New York, where he spends most of his time watching a troublesome small dog.