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Vladimir Nabokov and William Shakespeare

by Philip F Howerton, Jr.

This article was first published in the Winter 1990 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian/American writer, was born on April 22, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1914 he published his first work, a small book of poems in a lilac folder. It carried an epigraph from Romeo and Juliet. At the time of his death in 1977, he left behind an enormous oeuvre which included, in the opinion of many, some of the finest novels in Russian and English written in this century. Alfred Appel, a Nabokovian scholar, has said that “although the problem has not yet been submitted to a composer, Shakespeare would seem to be the writer Nabokov invokes most frequently in his novels in English.” Nabokov himself once said that the “verbal poetical texture of Shakespeare is the greatest the world has known.”Vladimir Nabokov, whom Time magazine in 1969 called “The greatest living American Novelist,” was also a professor of literature for twenty years. While at Cornell he published his literal translation of Eugene Onegin in four volumes, together with almost nine hundred pages of seminal notes (over thirty references to Shakespeare) and his “Notes on Prosody.” The latter was a booklength “outline of the differences and similarities” between English and Russian iambic tetrameters and revealed an astonishing knowledge of English as well as Russian poetry.

In 1947 Nabokov published a bitterly satirical novel about totalitarianism called Bend Sinister. In Chapter Seven he look the opportunity (which has puzzled scholars ever since) to make the following, apparently ironical, comments about the Stratfordian attribution:

A fluted glass with a blue-veined violet and a jug of hot punch stand on Ember’s bedtable. The buff wall directly above his bed (he has a bad cold) bears a sequence of three engravings.

Number one represents a sixteenth-century gentleman in the act of handing a book to a humble fellow who holds a spear and a bay-crowned hat in his left hand. Note the sinistral detail (why? Ah, “that is the question,” as Monsieur Homais once remarked, quoting le journal d’hier a question which is answered in a wooden voice by the Portrait on the title page of the First Folio). Note also the legend: “Ink, a Drug.” Somebody’s idle pencil (Ember highly treasures this scholium) has numbered the letters so as to spell Grudinka which means “bacon’ in several Slavic languages.

Number two shows the rustic (now clad in the clothes of the gentleman) removing from the head of the gentleman (now writing at a desk) a kind of shapska. Scribbled underneath in the same hand: “Ham-let, or Home-lette au Lard.”

Finally, number three has a road, traveler on toot (wearing the stolen shapska) and a road sign ‘To High Wycombe.”

His name is protean. He begets doubles at every comer. His penmanship is unconsciously faked by lawyers who happen to write a similar hand. On the wet morning of November 27, 1582, he is Shaxpere and she is a Wately of Temple Grafton. A couple of days later he is Shagsper and she is a Hathaway of Stratford-on-Avon. Who is he? William X, cunningly composed of two left arms and a mask. Who else? The person who said (riot for the first time) that the glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it. However, the fact that the Warwickshire fellow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily proved on the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose.

Several Stratfordian academics have suggested privately, in response to queries, that Nabokov’s assertion in Bend Sinister that “the fact that the Warwickshire follow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily proved on the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose,” may be taken at face value. Citing Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery as a possible source, it is suggested that Nabokov may have felt that only someone familiar with the particular fauna and flora of Warwickshire could have written the plays. Nabokov, the argument presumably goes, subscribed to a theory which says, in effect, that because of his “genius” Shaksper was able to acquire by some sort of mysterious osmosis a thorough familiarity with court affairs and international politics, medicine and anatomy, law, music, birds, falconry, hunting, sailing, warfare, French, Latin, Greek, the environs of Italy, and more, but, by Golly, he had to be from Warwickshire to know that applejohns and primroses existed in England!

Could such a man as Nabokov (who, by the way, was an accomplished naturalist) have really believed (for starters) that applejohns and primroses were not only endemic to Warwickshire but could not have been known by, say, a well-traveled nobleman from Essex (a hundred miles away and on the same latitude)? Or subscribed to the notion that only a rustic (with a manure heap in his front yard?) could have appreciated the charms of rural England? Not likely.

In 1941, shortly after he had come to this country, Nabokov wrote a review for The New Republic of Frayne Williams’ book, Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe, in which he had some very pointed things to say about the Stratfordian habit of biography. He began as follows: “The biographical part of this book will not disappoint the imaginary not-too-bright giant for whom blurbs are fattened and human interest lavishly spread.” He ended with this: “Finally, it is interesting to learn that ‘it takes two to make a conversation and the same number to make love’ — which fact, together with the second-best bed (‘the most intimate monument of her life’) is about all we and the voluble author really know concerning that particular marriage.”

But if Nabokov had real doubts about the authorship, why didn’t he ever come right out and say so? Perhaps that was a fight that he did not need. The Nabokovs were very poor in the Forbes and even up to the time of the success of Lolita in the late 1950’s, their finances were never off shaky ground. He was dependent, quite simply, on his sometimes precarious position in academia. Always suspect by the orthodox because of his staunch opposition to communism, he waded into further difficulty with his sometimes scathing appraisals of certain “established” authors and with his attacks on what he called “solidly unionized professional paraphrasts” and their “arty” mistranslations of works such as Onegin. Given what is known about the treatment of other, declared anti-Stratfordians at the hands of the orthodox, it would not be the least surprising if Nabokov had simply decided to keep his opinions to himself. Except, of course, for the few glimpses he did give us.

Anything else? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. In 1924 Nabokov wrote a little poem in Russian which his son, Dmitri, translated into English in 1988. Reprinted here with his kind permission, it is called:

Shakespeare

Amid grandees of times Elizabethan
you shimmered too, you followed sumptuous custom;
the circle of ruff, the silv’ry satin that
encased your thigh, the wedgelike beard – in all of this
you were like other men… Thus was enfolded
your godlike thunder in a succinct cape.

Haughty, aloof from theatre’s alarums,
you easily, regretlessly relinquished
the laurels twinning into a dry wreath,
concealing for all time your. monstrous genius
beneath a mask; and yet, your phantasm’s echoes
still vibrate for us; your Venetian Moor,
his anguish; Falstaff’s visage, like an udder
with pasted-on mustache; the raging Lear..
You are among us, you’re alive; your name, though,
your image, too – deceiving, thus, the world
you have submerged in your beloved Lethe.
It’s true, of course, a usurer had grown
accustomed, for a sum, to sign your work
(that Shakespeare – Will – who played the Ghost in Hamlet,
who lives in pubs, and died before he could
digest in full his portion of a boar’s head)…

The frigate breathed, your country you were leaving,
To Italy you went. A female voice
called singsong through the iron’s pattern
called to her balcony the tall inglesse,
grown languid from the lemon-tinted moon
and Verona’s streets. My inclination
is to imagine, possibly, the droll
and kind creator of Don Quixote
exchanging with you a few casual words
while waiting for fresh horses – and the evening
was surely blue. The well behind the tavern
contained a pail’s pure tinkling sound… Reply
whom did you love? Reveal yourself – whose memoirs
refer to you in passing? Look what numbers
of lowly, worthless souls have left their trace,
what countless names Brantome has for the asking!
Reveal yourself, god of iambic thunder,
you hundred-mouthed, unthinkably great bard!

No! At the destined hour, when you felt banished
by God from your existence, you recalled
those secret manuscripts, fully aware
that your supremacy would rest unblemished
by public rumor’s unashamed brand,
that ever, midst the shifting dust of ages,
faceless you’d stay, like immortality
itself – then vanished in the distance, smiling.

How did Vladimir Nabokov feel about the authorship? You be the judge.

Copyright 1979 Vladimir Nabokov Estate
English version copyright 1988 Dmitri Nabokov

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