October 6, 1997

A.L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93

By ROBERT McG. THOMAS Jr.

.L. Rowse, the brilliant authority on Shakespeare and Elizabethan England whose grandiose opinions of his scholarship were not always shared by rival historians he invariably dismissed as third-rate, died on Friday at his home in Cornwall. He was 93 and best known for his confident identification of "the Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.

During a career in which he turned out some 90 books -- among them a monumental four-volume study of the Elizabethan age, two biographies of Shakespeare and an exhaustively annotated edition of Shakespeare's complete works -- Rowse awed reviewers with both the brilliance of his writing and the sheer scope his scholarship.

If he had not, as one suggested, read everything written during or about 16th-century England, he had read enough to speak with uncommon authority and never hesitated to do so, even if his pronouncements seemed to go beyond the evidence at hand.

Even before the publication of his 1964 book "William Shakespeare: A Biography," for instance, Rowse made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic -- and created a run on bookstores -- by announcing that he had solved all but one of the problems of the sonnets, including their dates (1592-95) and the identity of the poet's unnamed rival (Christopher Marlowe). It was left to spoil-sport reviewers to point out that the only thing original about the discoveries was that unlike a number of earlier scholars who had come to pretty much the same conclusions from essentially the same record, Rowse alone was not dissuaded by the lack of definitive evidence from proclaiming his conclusions as incontrovertible facts.

A decade later, just before the 1973 publication of his second biography, "Shakespeare the Man," Rowse won a new round of headlines by announcing that he had solved the last mystery of the sonnets: the identity of Shakespeare's mistress known as the Dark Lady.

Drawing on circumstantial evidence, he identified her as one Emilia Bassano Lanier, the daughter of an Italian court musician.

As for recent scholarly work insisting that most of the sonnets were written to a gay lover, Rowse, who was himself openly gay, had tried to nip that error in the bud, finding irrefutable scholarly evidence that Shakespeare was "a strongly sexed heterosexual" and a man "more than a little interested in women -- for an Englishman."

Rowse, who had divined Lanier as the Dark Lady from a close and inspired reading of the sonnets and the diaries of a well-known Elizabethan figure, Simon Forman, knew when he was on to a good thing. He also knew the value of a catchy title.

Three years later, in 1976, he used the diaries as the basis of a full-blown sociological study he called "Sex and Society in the Elizabethan Age."

If his pronouncements and his outspoken disdain for virtually every other scholar in his field made him an object of some controversy, Rowse reveled in it as a man who seemed to take delight in going against the grain, even his own.


His very life as an Oxford don ensconced in the academic splendor of All Souls, a college of such rarefied scholarship that it has no students, seemed to belie his own upbringing.

For Alfred Leslie Rowse, whose erudition and refined speech came to personify the pinnacle of upper-class England, grew up in a home without books in Cornwall, that narrow Celtic refuge that stretches into the Atlantic in southwest England.

The son of a china clay miner, Rowse, whose parents were barely literate, was a brilliant student who learned to read by age 4, became obsessed with speaking precisely correct English and worked so hard to win the only Cornwall scholarship to Oxford that it almost ruined his already precarious health.

As soon as he got to Christ Church College, Rowse knew that he had found his spiritual home at Oxford, but he remained so fiercely loyal to his native Cornwall that he always maintained a home there and wrote extensively about Cornwall and Cornish culture, including "Tudor Cornwall" (1941) and "The Cousin Jacks" (1969), a study of the Cornish in the United States.

Rowse, who had been writing poetry since he was a child and had intended to study literature, was persuaded to switch to history at Oxford and never regretted it.

After being elected a fellow of All Souls at age 22, he threw himself into the scholarly life with a couple of detours into politics, making two unsuccessful runs for a Labor seat in Parliament in the 1930s.

It was a reflection of the range of his early interests that in successive years in the 1930s he published "Queen Elizabeth and her Subjects," and "Mr. Keynes and the Labor Movement."

A 1938 book, "Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge," a gripping account of an Elizabethan naval hero's last stand, helped establish his credentials as a solid scholar and a master writer with broad appeal.

But it was a 1942 memoir, "A Cornish Childhood," that put him on the best-seller lists for the first time and made him a bona fide scholar celebrity.

Over the next decades Rowse played the role to the hilt. In addition to turning out dozens of works on Tudor England, several of which became best sellers, he demonstrated his versatility by producing a two-volume history of the Churchill family, continuing to write poetry and traveling widely, especially in the United States.

As if his books did not make him prolific enough, Rowse also found time to write widely for newspapers and magazines, among other things writing scores of essays, book reviews, travel articles and Op-Ed pieces for The New York Times.

In his last years he had slowed down a bit but hardly mellowed. His last book, published two years ago, was "Historians I Have Known," a routinely brilliant work examining 30 prominent historians, most of whom, Rowse made clear, could not hold a Celtic candle to him.


Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company