IN SEARCH OF THE DARK LADY

 

Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, Das Geheimnis um Shakespeares “Dark Lady”: Dokumentation einer Enthüllung (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 1999). ISBN 3-89678-141-3.

                                                        

        Review

 

In biographies of Shakespeare's life, it is usually assumed that the Bard has no surviving descendants. His only son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11 in 1596; the female line, through his daughters Susanna and Judith, came to an end with the death of his granddaughter Elizabeth Hall, in 1670. Thus, fittingly, the Man of the (second) Millennium lives on only in his works, not in his genetic material. But what if Shakespeare's affair with the Dark Lady had in fact resulted in a pregnancy? And what if, moreover, that Dark Lady had been Elizabeth Vernon, the wife of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, one of the more plausible candidates for the Fair Friend of the Sonnets? Elizabeth Vernon's daughter Penelope happens to be one of the ancestors of Lady Diana Spencer, which means that, in this scenario, also her son William, the future King of Great Britain, would have some of Shakespeare's blood in his veins.

        All this may seem like a mere exercise in wishful thinking, arising from a desire to provide the National Poet with an impeccable pedigree, if only retroactively; a modern-day equivalent of the fantasies about a love affair between Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth that earlier ages used to indulge in. In fact, this theory about the descent of Lady Di is the outcome of a scholarly study by Hildegard Ham­mer­­schmidt-Hum­mel of the Univer­si­ty of Mainz. In recent years, Hammerschmidt-Hummel has become known for her spectacular findings, ob­tained with un­ortho­dox, ultra-modern interdisciplinary methods. By a com­bina­tion of literary scholarship, icono­logy, forensic science, botanical and medical expertise, this scholar claims to have reconstructed information about Shake­­speare's life that had seemed irretrievably lost.

        Hammerschmidt-Hummel's previous project, which also made the in­ter­national press, entailed a comparison of various portraits of Shake­speare, including the so-called Chandos and Flower portraits, the Droes­hout en­graving, and the Darmstadt death mask.[1] For this undertaking, Hammer­schmidt­-Hummel like a veritable sleuth consulted experts from the Bundes­kriminal­amt (BKA), which is mainly known for its suc­cesses in tracking down terrorists. Over the years, this German equivalent of the FBI has developed reliable scientific methods of identifying suspects on the basis of even vague photo­graphs, in spite of aging or disguises. Presented with photo­graphs of the various images of Shakespeare, the crime fighters came to the conclusion that, with a high degree of probability, all of them depicted the same person. Those points on which there was some re­main­ing doubt Hammerschmidt-Hummel accounted for as arising from damage or modi­fica­tions to the portraits, or from the subject's aging. Another related issue was the discovery that Shakespeare suffered from an ever-worsening tumour on the left eye­lid, identified by medical experts as probably a “disorder in the area of the lacrimal glands” known as “the Mikulicz Syn­drome.” As this physical detail was absent from the famous Droeshout en­graving, but present in the Flower portrait, which is so similar in com­posi­tion that the two portraits must be related, Hammerschmidt-Hummel ar­gued, quite plausibly, that the Flower portrait must have been the original, painted from the life, the engraving a simplified copy. The upshot, there­fore, is that all the portraits she examined really are authentic portrayals, and that, moreover, Shakespeare suffered from an ever worsen­ing illness of his left eye. In so far as these findings are accepted by the scholarly community, and they do seem convincing, Hammerschmidt-Hummel has indeed contributed to our knowledge of Shakespeare's biography.

In her latest publication, Das Geheimnis um Shakespeares “Dark Lady,” Hammerschmidt-Hummel uses a similar interdisciplinary approach to shed light on the historical events underlying the Sonnets. Her starting point is a portrait of an unidentified Elizabethan lady dressed in an outlandish costume, general­ly known as The Persian Lady. The portrait also features a stag, a tree, and most importantly, a motto and a sonnet. The text of the latter runs as follows:


            The restles swallow fits my restles minde,

          In still revivinge still renewing wronges;

          her Just complaintes of cruelty vnkinde,

          are all the Musique, that my life prolonges.

 

          With pensive thoughtes my weepinge Stagg I crowne

          whose Melancholy teares my cares Expresse;

          hes Teares in sylence, and my sighes vnknowne

          are all the physicke that my harmes redresse.

 

          My onely hope was in this goodly tree,

          which I did plant in love bringe vp in care;

          but all in vaine, for now to[o] late I see

          the shales be mine, the kernels others are.

 

          My Musique may be plaintes, my physique teares

          If this be all the fruite my love tree beares. (7)

 

The textual ingredients, Hammerschmidt-Hummel convincingly argues, suggest that the picture should be “read” in an emblematic fashion. She goes on to argue that the sonnet must have been written by Shakespeare, and makes a proper conclusion to the series addressed to the Dark Lady, in which the speaker, identified as Shakespeare, admits the merits of her side of the issue and laments her loss. The woman in the picture, of course, must be the Dark Lady. Besides, adducing medical testimony, Hammer­schmidt­-Hum­mel argues that the “Persian” lady is pregnant: together with the cryptic line about “shales” and “kernels,” and the fact that the tree (according to a botanical expert) looks like a laurel tree, yet bears olives, this leads her to believe that the portrait contains hidden clues that the father of the unborn child is not the ostensible one, the lady's husband, but someone else — the author of the sonnet, William Shakespeare.

        This leaves open the question of the identity of the Dark Lady. Ham­mer­schmidt­-Hummel has dug up another portrait, which shows Elizabeth Ver­­non at her toilet. Though the two women look rather different, Ham­mer­schmidt­-Hummel adduces the by now expected testimonies of forensic ex­perts to show that the two women are in fact one and the same; the later portrait showing Elizabeth Vernon after her pregnancy and beginning to put on weight, which also affects the contours of her face. The reader is then treated to a historical scandal: the premarital pregnancy of Elizabeth Vernon, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting; her belated marriage with the Earl of Southampton; the Queen's ire, resulting in the imprisonment of the husband as well as the young mother; and finally, the husband's seeming cold­ness towards the new-born child, Penelope, as well as some vague rumours concerning the mother's reputation. Hammerschmidt-Hummel then juxtaposes a third portrait, that of Penelope, with images of Southampton, her supposed father, and of Shakespeare, who she claims was the girl's real father; and indeed, the girl looks more like the Bard than like Henry Wriothes­ley.

        All this is no more than a rough summary of the arguments that Ham­mer­schmidt-Hummel adduces, and the reader who wishes to do full justice to her book must take the trouble to read it as a whole. Yet her line of argumentation is not without its problems. The weak spot of her theory is the authorship of the sonnet in the Persian Lady portrait. Her arguments for reading this as Shakespeare's are far from convincing. She begins by in­ves­tigating the form, a Shakespearean sonnet, which is, indeed, “typical of Shakespeare”; as it is of dozens of other sonneteers in the period, the reader might well reflect. Arguments of lexical frequency are perhaps a little more reliable, but does the anonymous sonnet's use of a term like “Melancholy” really signify anything? How about the fact that the word “restles” can also be found in Shakespeare's work, as well as “wronges,” “cruelty,” “Musique,” and “physicke”? And are terms like “shales” [for “shells”] and “kernels” really such rare words as Hammerschmidt-Hummel asserts? Without a quantitative investigation into the frequency of these words in the 1590s, which goes beyond a haphazard consultation of two or three concordances, such stylistic arguments come across as wholly arbit­rary. The fact that the anonymous sonnet, like Shakespeare's, uses a great deal of nature imagery is equally meaningless without statistical informa­tion about the scarcity of such imagery in contemporaries — if any such evi­dence should be available.

        There is, in fact, a fairly reliable, “scientific” way of determining authorship through the analysis of vocabulary, which the reader might have ex­pected Hammerschmidt-Hummel to turn to, especially in view of her in­te­rest in forensic science. The American scholar Don Foster has developed a computer data­base called Shaxicon, which works on the basis of statisti­cal­ly rare words in the lexicon of an author. Apparently, an individual's vocabulary is as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint; on that basis, given a large enough sample, the authorship of a text can be established by comparison with texts known to have been written by a certain person. Foster has not only demonstrated his method with respect to the works of Shakespeare and con­temporaries, where results will always remain hard to verify inde­pen­d­ent­ly, but also in two notable cases of recent memory. The Una­bomber, a terrorist who wrote anonymous letters to the press defending his actions, was nailed by a com­parison of the vocabulary of these letters with that in writings by the suspect as well as a control group. In a similar way, Foster revealed the authorship of an anonymous and scandalous roman à clef about the Clintons' presidential campaign, Primary Colors — cor­rect­ly, as it turned out. Foster's Shaxicon, therefore, embodies precisely the sort of forensic methodology that Hammerschmidt-Hummel applies else­where in her work. Yet there is no evidence that she ever sub­mitted her evidence to Foster; his name occurs only once, in a dis­mis­sive footnote, and his Shaxicon-programme is not even men­tioned. It is unfortunate that Ham­mer­schmidt-Hummel has not availed herself of this tool; for if her sty­listic analysis intended to prove Shakespeare's authorship of the sonnet on the portrait does not carry conviction, the basis for most of the remaining argument has evaporated.

        Also Hammerschmidt-Hummel's tacit assumption that the speaker of the sonnet in the portrait is identical with that of Shakespeare's cycle — a man who feels hurt and betrayed by a woman — is highly debatable. Does it not make more sense to assume that the speaker of this sonnet should be identi­fied with the lady portrayed? If the sonnet says, “With pensive thoughtes my weepinge Stagg I crowne / whose Melancholy teares my cares Expresse,” and we see the “Persian” lady in the act of crowning a stag with a garland of flowers, is it not obvious that the speaker is the lady herself, explaining the emblematic meaning of her actions? Perhaps there are good reasons to think otherwise, but Hammerschmidt-Hummel does not mention them. And so one might go on. We are told that Shake­speare's Dark Lady must have been aristocratic and given to lavishness in dressing, for does the lyrical speaker not tell her to concentrate on spiritual mat­ters: “Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth, / Painting thy out­ward walls so costly gay?” (sonnet 146; Hammerschmidt-Hummel 54, 103). What Hammerschmidt-Hummel fails to tell the reader is that this sonnet begins with an apostrophe to the speaker's own “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth.” Shakespeare's frustration at having been robbed of his fatherhood is thought to have led to his frequent ruminations, in the plays, about cruelty to children, from Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and King John to Macbeth and The Winter's Tale (118-22). The reader is not in­­formed, however, that at least half of these plays were written, according to the commonly ac­cepted chronology, before 1598, the year of Elizabeth Vernon's preg­nan­cy and Shakespeare's putative disappointment of the fruit of his amatory labours. Hammer­schmidt-Hummel's tendency to sweep un­wel­­come evidence, challenging counter-examples, and alternative readings under the carpet does not make her theory more persuasive; indeed, it under­mines such appearance of scientific rigour as her argument still possesses.

        In a good detective story, the solution to the mystery is only satis­fac­tory if it is not just in line with all the expert testimonies, but also psychological­ly plausible. Also in this respect Hammerschmidt-Hummel's theory cannot really unlock the secret of the Dark Lady. Would Shake­speare really have written an extra sonnet for her, after all that had happened, as part of a project in which he cooperated with the painter to produce this portrait? Would it have been in the Dark Lady's own interest to allow her former lover to hide all sorts of innuendoes in her portrait (and her wedding portrait at that, according to Hammerschmidt-Hummel), while her reputation was apparently already in question? Would she have allowed another portrait to be painted, some years later, in which (as Hammerschmidt-Hummel claims) the folds of her right sleeve form a face resembling Shakespeare's? What would her already jealous husband have made of all this? Before we can be persuaded to accept all this, more solid evidence would have to be produced; until such time, Hammerschmidt-Hum­mel's theory about the portrait of The Persian Lady deserves a place next to Oscar Wilde's story The Picture of Mr. W.H., as an attractive idea that should be judged on its artistic merit rather than on its historical veracity.

Paul Franssen



[1] A comprehensive survey of this project (in English) can be found in Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, “What did Shakespeare Look Like? Authentic Portraits and the Death Mask: Methods and Results of the Tests of Authenticity,” Symbolism 1 (1999): 41-79. Since the writing of this review, a new development has undermined Hammerschmidt-Hummel's theory with regard to the primacy of the Flower portrait. In early 2005, research carried out at the National Portrait Gallery showed that the Flower-portrait dates from the early nineteenth century, probably between 1817 and 1840. The forger had used a type of paint that was not invented until 1817. Hammerschmidt-Hummel, however, maintains that her findings are correct, and accused the National Portrait Gallery of mixing up a copy with the original portrait, which, she claims, has gone missing since approximately 1999. See her book (in German) Und das Flower Porträt is doch echt, or its summary at http://www.damals.de/de/8/Neueste-Ergebnisse-auf-dem-Gebiet-der-Shakespeare-Forschung.html?aid=190145&cp=2&action=showDetails

 

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