Caroline Spurgeon

Professor Caroline Spurgeon's work, Shakespeare's Imagery, represents years of work looking for patterns in the number and content of Shakespeare's images, assessing what can be learnt and relating them to the thematic contents of the work. When people talk about animal imagery in Lear or disease imagery in Hamlet, whether they know it or not, they are citing connections first made by Spurgeon. 

Her book, with its exhaustive listing and categorisation is still one of the definitive works on Shakespeare's language, though digesting it was the sort of hard work that was very unpopular when I was at university. Now, in the age of semiotics, it's right back in fashion.

"I thought Caroline Spurgeon settled this in 1935 with her master work Shakespeare’s Imagery. There seems to be absolutely no doubt to anybody who reads Shakespeare, and is familiar with the text, that these are the works of a countryman. This is a man who knows about kites and fields and it's certainly not the work of an aristocrat." Stephen Fry SBT 60 minutes

Professor Spurgeon

Spurgeon's work ties Shakespeare to Warwickshire and Stratford upon Avon in a knot no one has come close to loosening. By a weird coincidence, her book is best known for an attempt to take a passage in the canon and plant it in the real world. Ironic that the language expert should be associated with an exercise in literary biography, the favoured pastime of Oxfordians.

She links seven lines in Lucrece to eddies under Clopton Bridge on the River Avon, just outside Stratford. She does a pukka job and her connections are far tighter than most Oxfordian equivalents, especially their attempts to link De Vere to the Avon.

Marlovians, who now also have an authorship PhD amongst their number, have impudently nicked the whole analysis, without crediting it to Spurgeon, and applied it to London Bridge and Marlowe. The odd Oxfordian website, without a trace of irony, will pick up just this one piece of Spurgeon's work and hold it up in ridicule as an example of how Shakespeareans contort evidence. I can't believe they know who they are quoting, especially when you look at what they have built out of much slighter material like Harvey.

Since we can't discuss her book meaningfully in a short article, here is her biographical illustration. It isn't conclusive, of course, but her steady, workmalike construciton and  solid detail highlights how little effort goes into making this kind of connection in the land of Oxfordianism.

Although doing this largely for amusement, Spurgeon's sketch of the bridge is very accurate and rather accomplished.  Her link between the work and the author's unwritten biography is as close as anything in the debate. Her detailed story is carefully stitched together unlike, for example, Oxfordian attempts to connect De Vere to Love's Labours Lost via an putative visit to Navarre.

However, like all attempts to tie creative work to dull reality (and unlike her analysis of imagery), it may be highly suggestive and possibly even useful circumstantial evidence but it still falls a long way short of proof of authorship matters.

Which puts it in exactly the same category as everything offered by the doubters.


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 forced 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.


Now Spurgeon's account

I feel as sure as I can be of anything that these many pictures drawn by Shakespeare of the movement and behaviour of a river in Hood are all boyhood memories of the Avon at Stratford. This, I believe, is peculiarly true when he compares the movement of the waters to the emotions and passions of men. I had an interesting confirmation of this belief on one visit to Stratford recently, when I made the acquaintance of Captain William Jaggard, the owner of the old print and book shop in Sheep Street, and descendant of the Williarn Jaggard, who, in 1599 and 1612, printed and published the Passionate Pilgrim, and from whose press, in 1623, the ‘First Folio’ was issued.

Spurgeon frontispiece

I was telling Captain Jaggard that I was very anxious to see the river in flood, and particularly to stand on old Clopton Bridge and watch the movement of the current, as Shakespeare often referred to it. ‘Oh yesl’ he said, ‘and you should stand on the eighteenth arch' of the bridge (the one nearest the London side), for when the river is in flood, the force of the current under the adjoining arches, combined with the curved shape of the bank on to which it is driven, produces the most curious effect. I have often stood there and watched the current being forced beneath the narrow Tudor arch, on to the right bank at an angle which produces a swirling eddy, so that the water is then forced back through the arch equally swiftly and in an exactly contrary direction to that in which it has just come.’ 'I have’, he added, ‘sometimes hardly been able to believe my eyes when I have seen sticks or straws, which I have just noticed swirled on the flood downward through the arch, being brought back again just as swiftly in the opposite direction and against the flood weight.'

Captain Jaggard, as he said this, was at the further end of his shop, searching among its piled-up masses of books and papers for some prints he wanted to show me, and his voice, coming thus somewhat muted from the distance, gave me the most curious thrill and start, as if it were a voice from the dead.

For here was a present-day Stratfordian describing to me in prose, in minute detail, exactly what a Stratford man had thus set down in verse nearly three hundred and fifty years ago.

I at once called out to Captain Jaggard asking him to write down what he had just said, which he kindly did, and I then said, ‘ Can you find me a copy of Shakespeare's Poems?’ and he laughingly answered, ‘I think perhaps I can ", and returned to me bringing back a volume along with him. I turned up the above quotation and showed it to him. He had not previously noticed it and was extremely interested.

Later, I went down myself to the river bank and stood looking under the eighteenth arch. The river that day was perfectly calm and smooth, but, even so, on watching closely, I could easily follow the characteristic movement of the current, even though it was slow and gentle. There happened to be a big tuft of grass on it which sailed under the arch at an acute angle straight on to the bank, as in the sketch (frontispiece), then swirled round in an eddy, and proceeded to return under the arch in the direction whence it had just come.

There is a sort of little hook or bend in the bank just below where the current strikes it after coming under the arch, which produces the eddy and helps to send the water back again (see sketch). just because, when I saw it, it was quite gentle, this unusual and unnatural movement of the water was perhaps more curious and marked than it would have been in furious flood.

But there was no question that here was the very spot where Shakespeare must often have stood as a boy, and this was the very phenomenon he had noticed and described with such meticulous accuracy. Years ago, before I knew Shakespeare’s ways as well as I do now, I had-rather carelessly-always thought this image probably referred to the current under one of the arches of old London Bridge, which, we read, was very swift, so that at times it was quite a feat to shoot through it in a boat; but closer knowledge of his habits and methods convinced me that Stratford was the place to seek for the original of it, with the result just described.

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Comments (6)

  • anon

    If you will read the entry on "Clopton Bridge" on wikipedia you will see that the Bridge has been repeatedly rebuilt and repaired since Shakespeare's time, so that there is no way of knowing whether it looked the same, or had the same physical effects, as when Caroline Spurgeon saw it centuries later. Perhaps the Victoria County History volume for this area might provide further information.

    As for being a countryman, in 1600 the estimated population of London was only 200,000, so nearly everyone in England was a countryman.

    Feb 01, 2013
  • anon

    What Spurgeon does is match the background of the Stratford man with Shakespeare by analysing 7,000 images, categorising them and relating their frequency to the subject of the plays. So people who talk about the disease imagery in Hamlet or the animal imagery in Lear are referring back to her work on 'image clusters'. It was pioneering work, as I'm sure you know, but her conclusions about Shakespeare's background were not what she set out to achieve. The detailed analysis where it can be said to point anywhere, points towards Shakespeare, the Midlands and the fertile Vale of Evesham, not away from it, to Oxford, the life of a courtier and the flatlands of Essex. It's not conclusive but there is a hell of a lot of it.

    It's a shame to be talking about Spurgeon's bridge theory, given how much she has contributed to our knowledge of where Shakespeare's imagery came from, but hey! I brought it up.

    As you say, however, any changes to the masonry might change the current but she has still illustrated that effect we see described in Lucrece with an example of the effect in Stratford-upon-Avon that is still visible today.

    Without proving anything, as I say, it's a really nice, unusual coincidence, neatly tied to the canon. A strong contrast to a lot of the ragged collection of shaking-spear-type links in the Oxfordian compendium.

    Feb 01, 2013
  • anon

    Regrettably I have never read her book, although of course I know about it. There are several dangers in her methodology. First, one will see whatever one wants (which is what Looney has obviously done in finding Oxford in the texts- of course the two are not comparable). Has she ruled out other parts of England in claiming that these references are to the West Midlands?

    The references may also be vague and metaphorical, and meant as metaphors or vague descriptions. Shakespeare also describes himself as "lame" in a Sonnet, but was that meant literally? The Clopton Bridge case is also an example of how these allegedly autobiographical references in the text may evaporate on closer inspection.

    Feb 01, 2013
  • anon

    Another similar concern is the use of alleged local slang and dialect in Shakes, pointing to Warwickshire. The problem is that no one knows the extent of local dialect in Shakespeare's time, only in the nineteenth century when (I believe) the first dialect dictionaries were compiled.

    The growth of London, in particular, may have swallowed up the more extensive use of "Midlands" dialect and slang to the south. This may have affected someone who lived in Berkshire, like Neville, or who had a long connection with Oxford like him. Of course this is theoretical, but assuming that regional dialect patterns were the same in 1580 as in 1880 may well be inaccurate. 

    Feb 01, 2013
  • anon

    Well there's a bit more linguistic evidence than that. You can tell from metre and rhyme what words sounded like and get vernacular patterns from thousands of documents whose locality can be placed. Which is what Spurgeon draws on.

    Feb 03, 2013