To the Editors of Shakespeare Newsletter
with thoughts on Harold Jenkins's Hamlet edition
May/September 1992; previously unpublished © the estate of eric sams
6 May 1992
I wonder whether, in future, your proposed new series of reflections on work of a decade or so past might include comments from sources other than the actual authority concerned? It may often be difficult to discern the difference between self-appraising and self-praising. Harold Jenkins for example (Winter 1991) continues to take no notice at all of any of the substantive objections raised by his distinguished American critics, such as Steven Urkowitz, save for snide references to 'some quarters'. At least Hardin Craig was mentioned by name in the 1982 Arden Hamlet, if only in a contemptuous footnote.
I'm venturing to enclose a page or so of protest, which I'd hope you may find thought-provoking, and not merely provocative.
In any event I wish you the best of good fortune with the new Newsletter. It would be a kindness if you could tell me when my subscription expires, so that I can renew it as promptly as possible.
Dr. Eric Sams
P.S. If I may say so, I was touch impressed by the cogency of the arguments deployed in your editorial on authorship. But it seem to me that the chronological evidence, which is indeed extensive, as you say, has been ignored or distorted in the Oxford Shakespeare just as in the Oxford Dictionary, which as a result are in almost total disagreement on that vital topic. Perhaps you might be interested in my recent TLS article [see l.46], also enclosed. So far as I know, there has been no response of any kind from any quarter.
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[On Harold Jenkins’s Hamlet edition]
Harold Jenkins’s recent reflections on his 1982 Arden Hamlet leave many dusty corners unlit. He is still sure that he is right and all his rival editors and critics are wrong; this seems to him so self-evident that no serious discussion is needed. He still clings, again without any factual support, to the fifty-year-old theory that Q1 1603 is a “memorial reconstruction” of some unknown but allegedly earlier text. He is still convinced that F is an “abridgement” of some version that he cannot adequately define. And he openly attributes the disagreement of others to their “wishful thinking'” and “special pleading”, not his own.
But Jenkins has at least illuminated his own thought-processes, with disconcerting candour and clarity. Thus he repeatedly tells us, in terms, the criteria on which he relies for his rejection of revision. They are all entirely personal and subjective. One is, in his own words, that he has “difficulty in supposing” that revision is the explanation of one particular reading. He defends his 1982 edition against the (surely very relevant) charge of a priori prejudice by claiming that “theories of revision had not then been propounded”. But this is doubly false and misleading. In the first place, the thoughtful American scholar Hardin Craig had ably argued a generation earlier (e.g. in A New Look at Shakespeare's Quartos, 1961) that the second published versions of both Hamlet andKing Lear, among other plays, were in fact revisions, and not the helpless victims of hypothetical “memorial reconstruction”. The Jenkins method of refutation in 1982 was a dismissive Arden footnote (n.4, p.19) alleging that Craig’s “repute in other fields has conferred prestige upon [his] eccentric textual theories”, which are all dismissed without discussion. But those other fields included philosophy and logic, in which text-editors surely need instruction. Secondly, Jenkins feels free to ignore not only all the modern arguments but all the massive contemporary evidence of revision , whether the textual facts of the First Folio (such as the scene added to Titus Andronicus) or the dozens of title-page assurances about augmentation (including those of Hamlet Q2) or the explicit testimony of Ben Jonson (that Shakespeare habitually had to “strike the second heat/ upon the Muses’ anvil”, in other words revise his own work).
All this is consumed like so much chaff in a raging fire of feeling, which Jenkins himself defines on p. 5 of his 1982 Arden edition, as follows: “My conception of Shakespeare is of a supremely inventive poet who had no call to rework his previous plays when he could always move on to a new one”. This is obviously irrational; rewriting is not necessarily uninventive. Yet everything is sacrificed on the altar of this infallible conception. For its sole sake, decades of serious scholarship are derided as “irresponsible conjecture” (also p. 5). Any theory, however unevidenced or implausible (such as the imagined illegality of Q1, p. 15, or Duthie’s private fantasy of “memorial reconstruction”, p. 19, or Kyd’s supposed authorship of the Ur-Hamlet, pp. 83-4) is hailed as irrefutable if it helps to defend Shakespeare against the grave charge of being a reviser, contrary to Jenkins’s sacrosanct conception. The same attitude even determines dating (thus Gabriel Harvey is not allowed to annotate the book he bought in 1598 until much later, so as not to conflict with the Jenkins Hamlet chronology, p. 4-6). Conversely, it is the well-documented fact of revision that Jenkins chooses to describe as “a conception quite without evidence or plausibility”, and thus very different from his own entirely unevidenced and implausible conception of a non-revising Shakespeare who was in that one respect utterly unlike every other serious artist who has ever lived.
The only possible explanation for these aberrations is what Jenkins himself says of other people: “The human mind clings to beliefs long after the foundations for them have disintegrated”. On this point, at least, Jenkins speaks with unassailable authority.
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1 September 1992
Thank you for my latest SNL. No date was printed on my address label, so I can't tell what the expiration date was, or will be. But I'm enclosing $30 (the nearest I can conveniently get to $28) for a further two-year subscription, and perhaps you'd be good enough to arrange accordingly.
I especially enjoyed Dr. Smith's article on Edward III. He was kind enough to say, in your pages, that I may well be right in attributing Edmund Ironside to Shakespeare in my 1986/7 edition of that play. My late friend Eliot Slater, whose work Smith mentions, said the same in the TLS and in his 1988 Cambridge book. It seems rather evident to me that both plays are by the same dramatist. I don't known whether you'd be interested in a short article on that subject? I've asked Dr. Smith, with whom I've long been in correspondence, whether he has considered undertaking a comparable study of Ironside.
I was heartened to see that the disgraceful Oxford nonsense is be discontinued, at least in the form of a regular page. Then what of the equally baseless and fantastic notions of 'memorial reconstruction', which seems equally ineradicable? Louis Marder once mooted a symposium on the subject, and I seem to recall sending him a contribution; but I heard no more, and nothing came of that project so far as I know.
I'd be most interested to learn of your policy end views on that subject; this would help me in writing the factual book on Shakespeare for which I now have a contract with Yale University Press. If you could manage to reply to my letter of 6 May 1992 I'd also be very obliged.
Dr. Eric Sams