Unable to find a shadow of you,
a shadow of me,
I wandered lost, without a guide.
Beneath a double night with double light,
you pressed down on me,
wayward love seizing me from exile.
Struck by twin thunderbolts, our eyes hurl light,
they tremble and flash like a star-filled night,
they ignite a torch—like the Northern Star
that sailors seek when the storm is through—
so that I might find traces of me,
traces of you. 
This is a youthful and ardent poem. The author does not seem to have thought it worth preserving: it does not appear in his published books, or in his manuscripts; it survives only because it was published in a foreign language in a foreign land by someone who saw and admired his young writings.
But there is a reason to stop and listen to it. What we hear in this passage is a voice we have not heard before. It is the voice of Shakespeare's beautiful young man. We have heard many descriptions of him: Shakespeare speaks to or about him in more than 126 sonnets. But we have not heard from him—or, hearing from him, did not recognize his intimate bond with the playwright. In this poem, as in many others, he tells not just what it is like to be loved by Shakespeare but what it is like to be made love to by him. The claim of being struck by lightning recurs in seven of his poems. While the jagged lines of lightning are in part a salute to the zigzagging javelin of Shakespeare's surname, there can be little doubt that the poet, painfully in love, was struck by this friendship as by a radiant blow: harrowing and miraculous.
Having so often heard Shakespeare's account of their love, we might wish to ignore his voice for a brief time and submerge ourselves instead in the voice of the beloved friend. Though he often speaks in great distress, he also defends himself brilliantly against Shakespeare's complaints. In his most intimate poems, he conceives of himself and his lover as twins, and speaks with the tender confidence we associate with Romeo and Juliet.
I send, Light, this narcissus bloom of earliest spring
so that our songs will be yoked together inside the blossom.
To restore the balance, sing back to me with moistened lips.
In return for my flower, send your flower to me. 
While it may be hard to turn away from this lyric voice, we must open this story by listening for a time to Shakespeare. By doing so we will come to see what, with the help of patience and suspension of disbelief, may eventually stand forth with simple clarity: the beautiful young man is the poet, international diplomat, and brave defender of religious tolerance Henry Constable—or, as he was often called by contemporaries, "sweet Henry Constable."
Sweet Henry Constable? Ben Jonson spoke of Henry Constable's "Ambrosiack Muse"; an anonymous poet called him "England's sweete nightingale"; the sixteenth-century fin de siècle play Return from Parnassus reported, "Sweete Constable doth rake the wond'ring ear / And layes it up in willing prisonment."  In all three instances, what motivates the salute—and sense of belovedness—are Constable's poems, which were circulating by the early 1590s and in print by 1592: Diana was one of the two or three earliest sonnet sequences in England; it was widely read, admired, and emulated, and was reprinted with additional poems in 1594. But the sense that his voice was like nectar to other people cannot be attributed to the poems alone, however laden they are with the golden gifts of ingenuity and friendship.
In his person, too, Henry Constable had unusual allure. We know this because of a remarkable fact: it was reported of three different monarchs—England's Queen Elizabeth, France's Henry IV, and Scotland's James VI—that Henry Constable was "a favorite" of the sovereign. That he should be held in high esteem by one is interesting; by two is startling; by three, astonishing. What, more precisely, is astonishing is not just that he was liked but that, in a world where scores of people must have been vying for royal attention, his being liked was so conspicuous to onlookers that three different letter-writers in three different countries and three different years were incited to include the observation in their correspondence. Shakespeare again and again tells us his friend is singular; but this does not mean anyone else in the world need arrive at the same judgment. For the record, however, it appears that many people did.
It might seem, from the little that has so far been said here, that Henry Constable—the darling of poets, playwrights, kings, and queens—lived in a buoyant world of privilege and wealth. If one had to hold a single picture in mind to represent the full arc of his life, however, a more representative picture might be of an austere religious pilgrim covering thousands of miles on foot and on horseback, living in isolation, dedicated to his faith, which, after 1591, was Catholicism. Or perhaps a picture of him in a prison cell: Tower or Fleet Prison, one may take one's pick since he spent months in the first and years in the second. His "Spiritual Sonnets" to the Trinity and to an array of female saints, written in the 1590s but unpublished in his lifetime, have struck some readers as the most powerful of his poems. In them one hears an intensity of aspiration, suffering, and devotion that is matched only by his poems to a male beloved, the poems that we will attend to here.
In the initial years of their relationship, the two men were not yet the accomplished and worldly people they would shortly become. They inhabited that blissfully misty country of youth that guarantees a few brief years of privacy, off-limits to contemporaries and to later historians as well. Biographers of Shakespeare refer to the 1580s as his "lost years." Biographers of Constable likewise refer to the 1580s as a decade during which he disappears from view for three or four years at a time.  The years are "lost" simply because both men were in their early to mid twenties and, like most people in their twenties, were not yet, or not often, conducting their lives on a public plane. In 1587, for example, Shakespeare was twenty-three years old. And Constable? No birth or baptism record for him has yet been found. Preliminary evidence suggests that his birth year may be the same as Shakespeare's, 1564, or that he was born two years later, or two years earlier. Constable and Shakespeare (who was his own wife's junior by eight years) were close enough in age that they perceived one another as twins and delighted in their shared youth. While Shakespeare says his friend's skin is delicate and his own weathered, only in one sonnet does he designate himself older, and there he questions the reality of that very designation: "How can I then be elder than thou art?"
This book is written in the belief that what it describes is true. But its author only believes it to be true; she does not know it to be true. That would require more evidence than has so far been assembled. (The reader may therefore wish to insert before more than one sentence the phrase "For the time being, let us imagine that ... "). But one dimension of what follows is certainly true: Shakespeare did not live in a world where he was the only person speaking; the people in his world, above all those he loved, certainly had voices. At the very least, what follows provides the texture of conversation, of call and recall, of words sent out and words returning that would have constituted the fabric of his life.
If the evidence about Henry Constable's place in Shakespeare's heart is incomplete, it is nevertheless—as we will see—elaborate. Shakespeare's devotion to his friend is present in the micro texture of the sonnets, in their overarching architecture, and in their deep fabric. It is with the first that we will begin, because it is here and in Henry Constable's answering poems that the two lovers spell out in full one another's names.
* * *
1. Henry Constable, "Carmen xv," lines 5-10, "Adumbratum de Anglico Henrici Conestabilis," in Jani Dousae Filii, Poemata, ed. Gulielmo Rabo, J.U.D. (Rotterdam: Adrianum van Dijk, 1704), p. 158. Janus Dousa the Younger's book of poems was first published in the Netherlands in 1591. It contained fifteen poems by Constable, five translated into Dutch, ten into Latin. I am grateful to the classicist Richard Thomas for his kind and expert help in translating into English "Carmen xv," as well as several other Latin poems. My translations sometimes diverge from a literal transcription and all errors are my own.
2. Constable, "Carmen xx," in Dousa, Poemata, p. 161. Richard Thomas points out that in the Latin, this four-line poem is in elegiac couplets, a form often used by Ovid, where a line of dactylic hexameter is followed by a line of dactylic pentameter:
Narcissum tepedi mitto, lux, munere Veris,
junctaque narcisso carmina nostra tibi:
Ut mihi pro libro reddas humentia labra,
Proque meo florem des mihi flore tuum.
A literal transcription reads: "I send, Light, this narcissus to you by the gift of warm spring, and I send our poems joined to the narcissus. I do this so that in return for the book (libro) you may give back to me moistened lips (labra), and in return for my flower you may give your flower to me."
I follow other scholars in assuming Constable wrote the poems in English and Dousa translated them into Latin (just as Dousa almost certainly provided the Dutch translations). See J. A. van Dorsten, Poets, Patrons, and Professors: Sir Philip Sidney, Daniel Rogers, and the Leiden Humanists (Leiden: Leiden University Press, 1962), p. 83. It is certainly possible, however, that Constable himself composed the poems in Latin: at St. John's College, Cambridge, he would have written as often in Latin as in English. Nor is there any question that Shakespeare would have been able to read the poems in Latin. In her study of sixteenth-century schoolchildren, Jean Vanes says students in the lower schools learned grammar while reading Aesop and Cato; in upper school their Latin and Greek readings included, among others, "Terence, Virgil, Martial, Plautus, Lucian, Horace, Cicero, Plato, Homer, Aristotle, and Aristophanes" (Education and Apprenticeship in Sixteenth-Century Bristol [Bristol, U.K.: Bristol Historical Association, University of Bristol, 1982], p. 11). The Shakespeare biographer Samuel Schoenbaum enumerates a similar list of Latin authors—adding Ovid, Erasmus, and modern Latin poets—whose writings were used to teach the children both reading and speaking Latin (William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life [New York: Oxford University Press, 1987], pp. 67-70).
3. Joan Grundy, ed., "Introduction," The Poems of Henry Constable (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1960), pp. 34, 64, 65. See also William Carew Hazlitt, "Biographical Notice," in Diana: The Sonnets and Other Poems of Henry Constable, now first collected and edited, with some account of the author, by William Carew Hazlitt, to which are added a few notes and illustrations by the late Thomas Park (London: Basil Montagu Pickering, 1859), pp. xv, xvi, xvii.
4. Grundy, "Introduction," The Poems of Henry Constable, pp. 26,36,40. In his earlier biographical study, George Wickes also records the correspondence observing the respect and affection three monarchs gave to Constable (Henry Constable: Poet and Courtier, 1562-1613, in Biographical Studies 1534-1829, vol. 2, no. 4 [Bognor Regis, U.K.: Arundel Press, 1954], pp. 276, 279, 283, 285, 286).
5. Samuel Schoenbaum writes, "From 1585 ... until 1592, ... the documentary record presents a virtual blank. This is the interval that scholarship has designated the Lost Years" (Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, p. 95). Katherine Duncan-Jones dedicates a section of her biography—Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life—to what she, too, labels "The Lost Years": "we should not be at all surprised that the earliest part of Shakespeare's adult life is 'lost' from the documentary record" (London: Methuen Drama, 2001). Some writers widen the time span: Joseph Pearce in The Quest for Shakespeare says that with the exception of the record of Shakespeare's marriage in 1582 and the birth of his three children in 1583 and 1585, the "impenetrable fog of the so-called lost years" extends from 1579 to 1592 ([San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008], pp. 63, 64, 88). Shakespeare's marriage and fatherhood are, on the other hand, large-scale pieces of information.
6. George Wickes writes that "for almost three years [1585 through 1588] we have no news of Henry Constable," and when he next appears it is only for us to learn that he attended a funeral (Henry Constable: Poet and Courtier, p. 274). Joan Grundy writes, "his movements after  are a tantalizing succession of 'failings from us, vanishings'" ("Introduction," The Poems of Henry Constable, p. 23). While the record of the 1580s is sparse, we have many more glimpses of Constable during this decade than of Shakespeare because he was a subject of interest to various aristocrats, churchmen, and statesmen whose correspondence has been preserved: for example, he was apprenticed to an ambassadorial mission to Scotland in 1583; he traveled to Paris in 1584 and to Heidelberg in the early spring of 1585; he may have been in Poland in 1586; he is said to be a favorite of the queen in 1587. All three of his twentieth-century biographers—Louise Imogen Guiney writing in 1939, George Wickes in 1954, and Joan Grundy in 1960—provide thoughtful records of these events. The glimpses are, however, just that: unelaborated glimpses.
7. Constable entered St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1578. If he began college at what Joan Grundy designates the usual age of fourteen, his birth year would be the same as Shakespeare's, 1564. Some students entered college as early as twelve, which would make his birth year 1566. Some nineteenth-century scholars assigned Constable the birth year of 1566, perhaps based on the university entrance date: for example, George Ellis, Specimens of Early English Metrical Romance, vol. 1 (London: Longman, Hurst, 1803), p. xii; and Oliver Louis Jenkins, The Students' Handbook of British and American Literature (Baltimore: John Murphy, 1891), p. 144.
Biographical sketches in the twentieth century follow one another in assigning Constable a birth year of 1562, but most note the absence of documentation. That birth date has no basis other than a herald's visitation in 1575 when the child was designated "thirteen." Did heralds when recording children's ages aspire to precision or approximation? The possible inaccuracy of the report may be surmised by recalling how far off estimates of children's ages are even when made by close family friends or next-door neighbors.
The birth date of 1562 would mean Constable entered Cambridge at the age of sixteen. The biographer Joan Grundy regards this age as surprisingly late, especially for someone intellectually precocious ("Introduction," The Poems of Henry Constable, p. 21). The admissions records for Gonville and Caius Colleges, however, suggest that the age of sixteen would be usual. Those records show students entering in 1578 and 1579 who were as young as twelve (especially if they were aristocratic children educated at home) but many more who are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, or older (Admissions to Gonville and Caius College in the University of Cambridge, March 1558-9 to Jan.1678-9, ed. J. Venn and S. C. Venn [London: C. J. Clay and Sons, 1887], p. 43). No similar age records for St. John's during this era are available.
* * *
About the Author
Elaine Scarry is the Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. Her book The Body in Pain was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Naming Thy Name: Cross Talk in Shakespeare's Sonnets
Farrar, Straus and Giroux