In Shakespeare’s Face (2002), a book about the Sanders Shakespeare portrait, Jonathan Bate addresses the relatively modern phenomenon of doubting Shakespeare’s authorship in a chapter titled, “Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist.” He outlines a compelling case with plenty of evidence that the Stratford man, William Shakespeare, was the London actor and theater company shareholder Shakespeare: his name appears on the title pages of printed editions of the plays, contemporaries mention him as the author of those same plays, the First Folio unequivocably assigns authorship to Shakespeare of Stratford, and Ben Jonson and others reinforce the claims on the title page. These are all strong points in Shakespeare’s favour. But in his zeal, in one instance at least, Bate has reached too far.
Bate reports he is convinced only a poet born and bred in Stratford could have written “The Rape of Lucrece," a 1594 poem attributed to Shakespeare and dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. Bate proceeds to roll out what he suggests is incontrovertible evidence to that effect. It has to do with a specific metaphor the poet uses of the turbulent movement of water through the arch of a stone bridge. The poet describes powerful eddies which send the water doubling back on itself, re-entering the arch it has just passed through.
Bate suggests to the reader that the only place where an Elizabethan poet could have observed this phenomenon was in Stratford-upon-Avon. He bases this argument on an observation made by Robert Nye in his 1998 novel The Late Mr. Shakespeare. During his research Nye travelled to Stratford and noticed something extraordinary when he paused on the centuries-old Clopton Bridge to watch the floodwaters pass underneath. Bate explains:
Sometimes it takes a creative eye to identify the fingerprint [of Shakespeare’s background]. Thus the novelist Robert Nye in The Late Mr. Shakespeare, a biographical “faction” of 1998, draws attention to a particularly watery detail:Bate then implies that Nye’s comparison is "proof" that only a Stratford-bred poet could have witnessed the phenomenon described in “The Rape of Lucrece.” Bate concludes with this challenge:
If you stand on the eighteenth arch of Clopton Bridge (the one nearest the point where the road goes to London), and if you watch the River Avon below when it is in flood, you will see a curious thing that Shakespeare saw.
The force of the current under the adjoining arches, coupled with the curve there is at that strait in the riverbank, produces a very queer and swirling eddy.
What happens is that the bounding water is forced back through the arch in an exactly contrary direction.
I have seen sticks and straws, which I have just watched swirling downstream through the arch, brought back again as swiftly against the flood.
The boy Will saw this too. Here’s how he describes it:
As through an arch the violent roaring tide
Outruns the eye that doth behold his haste,
Yet in the eddy boundeth in his pride
Back to the strait that forc’d him on so fast,
In rage sent out, recall’d in rage, being past:
Even so his sighs, his sorrows, make a saw,
To push grief on and back the same grief draw.
That’s from The Rape of Lucrece, lines 1667-73. How many times must he have watched it, perhaps with tears in his bright eyes? 1
Next time you meet members of the anti-Will brigade, ask them on how many occasions their candidate stood on the eighteenth arch of Clopton Bridge in Stratford-upon-Avon and watched the eddying movement of the water. 2I wondered if there were places other than Clopton Bridge where a young Elizabethan poet might have seen the eddying phenomenon described in “The Rape of Lucrece." A second glance at the passage reveals a key descriptor – the poet speaks of a "tide" which is responsible for the eddy effect. Granted, “tide” could have referred to a flood of the Stratford river – at the time “tide” was more generally applied to any strong current – but perhaps the poet meant it in its more specific sense.
Among rivers, the Thames in London is remarkable for being affected by dramatic tides – up to five meters high – creating strong currents upstream and down. Today a system of dams and modern bridges has mostly tamed the violent effects of the tides, so Mr. Nye could not have seen the same Thames that 16th century Londoners saw. If he had, he would have walked across the most famous landmark of Elizabethan London, Old London Bridge, with its tightly spaced stone arches.
I wondered what effect the untamed tidal currents had as they passed under Old London Bridge. A quick internet search led me to Thamesfestival.org, which provided the following description:
Work began on the first stone London Bridge in 1176 under the direction of Peter of Colechurch. The bridge opened in 1199 and survived for over six hundred years. It was a wonder of the medieval world and an icon for the city. Almost three hundred metres long, it had nineteen arches of widths varying from five to ten metres. Its piers sat on boat-shaped platforms (called starlings) that were exposed at low tide. As such, the whole bridge structure acted as a kind of dam, blocking 85% of the river’s width. The rush of water through narrow gaps between the starlings created a waterfall effect with treacherous eddies and currents. Passing between these by wherry, known as ‘shooting the bridge’ was extremely dangerous and there was a popular saying: “wise men walk over London Bridge and only fools pass under it." 3 [my emphasis]The writer of “Lucrece” was familiar with a place where strong tides flowed through arches and produced powerful eddy currents. Unlike the Avon river under Clopton Bridge, which would have created eddies only when the river was in flood, the poet could have seen this same phenomenon at Old London Bridge on any given day, the result of actual tides.
Finally, if the only readers able to recognize the poet’s eddy description in “Lucrece” were those raised within walking distance of Clopton Bridge in Stratford, it would lose much of its power. But if the poet knew that the phenomenom was familiar to every citizen of London, it would have made it an especially effective metaphor, one tailor-made for a London audience for whom the poem was written.
© Daryl Pinksen, April 2009
Daryl Pinksen, a regular contributor to MSC, is the author of Marlowe's Ghost: The Blacklisting of the Man Who Was Shakespeare. Click here to reach Daryl Pinksen's website.
1Bate, Jonathan, “Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist,” p. 103-125. Nolen, Stephanie with Jonathan Bate, Tarnya Cooper, Marjorie Garber, Andrew Gurr, Alexander Leggatt, Robert Tittler, and Stanley Wells. 2002. Shakespeare’s Face. Canada: Alfred A. Knopf. p.122-23.
2Bate, 2002, p.123.
3Seen at Thamesfestival.org page 6, accessed April 10, 2009.
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