The Halt and the Blind

by Randall Barron

Original location: http://www.pe.net/~webrebel/Haltblnd.html 

Was Shakespeare lame?

Either lame or a liar.

He plainly talks of his lameness in the Shakespearean Sonnets, not once but several times.

Sonnet 37 describes him as decrepit.

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by fortune's dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth.

He mentions his lameness again in the same sonnet...

"So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,"

Will Shakespere of Stratford may have been in his early life poor, may have felt despised, but no one I know of has ever said he was lame.

The seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, certainly had times in his life when he felt himself poor and generally out of favor. That in later life he was lame seems to be firmly established in history.

Again we read of Shakespeare's lameness in sonnet 66...

"And strength by limping sway disabled,"

It is clear from these three direct statements that Shakespeare the great writer was indeed lame. Just as clear is the fact he felt it deeply. Felt it was a cruel stroke of fortune that greatly marred his life, felt himself physically damaged and decrepit, even disabled, with what he felt to be an ugly and obvious limping sway.

He was not born lame but made lame. How?

He tells us, briefly, but in a way that, for me at least, lets us know it was through a wound and an experience that was devastating. So devastating it put his life in danger at the time, changed his outlook, and had lingering physical and spiritual consequences that he came to feel would shorten his life.

In sonnet 74 he talks about his projected, intuited death and calls it "the coward conquest of a wretch's knife,..."

To me that means he will consider his death, whenever it comes, as premature, made so by the terrible wound and terrible experience referred to in the sonnets previously quoted.

He gives us a glimpse, perhaps, of his spiritual trauma in sonnet 25...

The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:

It is very difficult to fit young Will Shakespere of Stratford into this picture. A painful warrior? When? Where? And famous for it? His biographers have somehow let that information sift through the interstices if it were somehow, some way, really part of his life story...

Again, if any Stratfordian critic has stated that the Stratford man was ever lame, I must have missed it...

So, if not, why not? How could conventional Shakespearean critics in general have overlooked a direct physical attribute, or disability, so plainly stated in the Shakespearean sonnets, and have made no attempt to try to blend it into the life story of the author? It is true, some critics believe the sonnets have nothing to do with the author's life, and are merely imaginative journeys among the stars of conventional poetic ikons. But these are a small minority.

But then maybe these mentions of lameness are all allegorical, metaphor or simile for something else...?

Not likely. Not when the statements are direct, unequivocal, and obviously carry deep emotion.

If I am right that we have a contemporary, well-developed word portrait of Will Shakespere of Stratford as he was in London near the turn of the century, then I can say this about that portrait. The Stratford man's incipient baldness is hinted at, his strange hair is commented on. So is his propensity for strutting around in satin suits and showing his coat of arms to anyone he can corner. And while his legs are described by a certain lady as of the spindly variety, there is no hint of lameness there.

I speak of descriptions of the Stratford man that exist for all to study in two plays. Poetaster, by Ben Jonson, and Histriomastix by John Marston. The character of Crispinus in the Jonson play is, I believe, supposed to be William Shakespere of Stratford, as is the character Post Haste in Marston's play.

Edward de Vere, on the other hand, seventeenth Earl of Oxford... Was there anything in his background that would fit the profile of lameness described in the sonnets?

Oxfordians know the answer well. Three times jousting champion of the English court, champion in fact each time he entered a tournament. So confident of his knightly skills he is said to have issued an open challenge on his European tour for anyone who wished to take him on.

And so it must have been a shattering experience for him to be bested and almost killed in an encounter with Sir Thomas Knyvet in the year 1581.

The clouds have not yet come off that encounter, so we really do not know exactly what went on. The motivation seems clear. Knyvet seeking some kind of revenge for Oxford's affair with his cousin Anne Vavasour. An affair which had produced an illegitimate child for Anne, and a fall from grace for both her and Oxford with Queen Elizabeth, including time served in the Tower of London.

It may not have been a duel at all, but a street encounter. Maybe something like Mercutio's meeting with Tybalt. The Ogburns have described how similar the names Tybalt and Knyvet are, and draw parallels between the fictional and the real fight.

While Oxford's wound may not have been as wide as a church door, nor so deep as a well, and he did not die from it, still...he must have thought it was enough. He was never the same man afterwards.

"The coward conquest of a wretch's knife...(sonnet 74)."

That is hardly the description of a duel, but of a street fight. Maybe one in which Knyvet went against all rules of combat to win. The coward conquest. Not a fair fight. To me, Oxford almost names him here in the sonnet. "Knife" is very close to Knyvet. Take the "t" from "wretch" and add it to the end of "knife" and you almost have it...

So, no, I do not think Shakespeare is speaking at all allegorically when he talks of his lameness. Nor when someone else speaks of it...

Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,

...as in sonnet 89.

Or it may be used as allegory here, but based on painful personal experience of a real lameness.

One last thing. Some may say "the coward conquest of a wretch's knife" is a reference to death itself, personified. I don't think so. Death is not usually described as wielding a knife. A scythe, yes, but that is quite a different concept...impartial harvesting of humanity, not a direct personal attack.

I would like to issue a formal invitation to any Stratfordian who would like to reply in these pages to what I have reviewed here.

Specifically I would like to know the general Stratfordian position on the lameness question.

Is it

(1) Shakespeare was not lame, all references in the sonnets to lameness are purely fictitious or rhetorical with no correspondence in actual fact. In effect, the author was lying about the lameness he kept introducing into the sonnets, or using his poetic license for dramatic purposes to invent things not strictly true.

Or

(2) Shakespeare was indeed lame as reported in the sonnets. It is unfortunate no data has turned up in our Stratford man's personal life as yet to substantiate this, but may at some future date.

Or

(3) It is simply not important one way or another, as to whether Shakespeare was lame or not. Such questions are beside the point.

Or

(4) The narrator of the sonnets was an invented character, not necessarily corresponding with the author or the author's life at all. Therefore the question is nil.

Or some other response?

As things stand at this point, I have tried to show in very brief form how Shakespeare's lameness was a palpably real, physical fact. Also how it jibes perfectly with Oxford's life story, while there is no visible correspondence with Shakespere of Stratford's known biography.

Stratfordians, please correct me if I am wrong in this.