"Shakespeare was for all time because he was for his own age, with an intensity blazing so fiercely that it illuminates the far future. He remains real because he spoke so truthfully of, from and for his own experience, in his own person. That touch of nature suffuses his work throughout its various aspects and genres, whether comedy, history or tragedy, poetry or prose. He writes always of the here and now, never of the there and then."

(The Real Shakespeare II, p. 59)

The Real Shakespeare

The Real Shakespeare. Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594

[Yale, 1995; pp.xvi, 256; ISBN 0300061293]

Review by R. W. Desai

in Hamlet Studies 1995 (Vol. XVII, pp. 153-157)


      The premise underlying Sams’ book is that Shakespeare’s contempo­raries (and near contemporaries) are more reliable as to their com­ments on Shakespeare than are later historians who rely 'upon supposition, assumption, deduction, and speculation in order to reconstruct Shakespeare's literary life. While this may be a sound foun­dation on which to build, it must also be remembered that contem­poraries seldom have access to the subject's diaries and correspondence which come to light much later, often after the subject's death. How­ever, since Shakespeare, as far as we know, left behind no diaries or cor­respondence, Sams' premise is incontrovertible.

    Accordingly, Sams refuses to dismiss as “gossip” the extant records concerning Shakespeare left behind by Greene, Nashe, Lodge, Peele, Harvey, Aubrey, Row, Betterton, and others, and gives the reader an in­valuable check-list of all the extant documents from 1500 to 1594 per­taining to Shakespeare's ancestors, and to Shakespeare's early literary career. Sams lists 205 items, and these include not only the dates of pub­lication of Shakespeare's works that come within this period, but also excerpts—some of them running into several pages—from writings left by Shakespeare's contemporaries. All of this rich detail makes for fas­cinating reading and Sams' biography, based on these records, challen­ges various assumptions about Shakespeare that have gained credence over the centuries. For example, Sams shows that far from being “a late starter” he had written an early Hamlet which Nashe mentioned with heavy sarcasm in 1589 (“… and if you intreat him faire in a frostiemorning, he will afford whole Hamlets, I should say handfulls, of tragi­cal speeches…”). Then in 1594 the Lord Admiral's and the Chamberlain's Men performed Hamlet on the 9th June, Titus Andronicus on the 5th and 12th June, and The Taming of a Shrew on the 11th June. It was most probably to this production of Hamlet that Thomas Lodge referred when, collaborating with Robert Greene in A Looking Glass for London and England, he wrote about a devil “as pale as the vizard of the ghost who cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, Hamlet, revenge!” Further, Sams points out, Gabriel Harvey's complimentary description of Hamlet as being able “to please the wiser sort” surely refers to the 1589 version criticised by Nashe in which Shakespeare had played the Ghost at the Shoreditch Theatre and in the provinces, including Cambridge, as the 1603 Quarto title-page says — the same role that Greene's Collaborator Lodge had scoffed at (p. 82).

       And in September 1592 Greene castigated Shakespeare as “an upstart Crow” in Groats-worth of Wit. The well known passage from Nashe's Preface to Greene's Mena­phon (1589), quoted briefly above, has, Sams points out, two separate allusions, one to Shakespeare's Hamlet the other to Kyd's Spanish Tragedy.

'It is a common practice now a daies amongst a sort of shifting companions, that runne through euery arte and thrive by none, to leave the trade of Noverint [law-clerk] whereto they were borne, and busie themselves with indeuors of Art, that could scarcelie latinize their neck-verse if they should haue neede; yet English Seneca read by candle lightye, eldes manie good sentences, as Bloud is a bexer, and so foorth: and if you intreat him faire in a frostie morning, he will afford whole Hamlets, I should say hand-fulls, of tragical speaches. But o griefetempus edax rerum\, where's that will last alwaies? The sea exhaled by droppes\ will in continuance be drie, and Seneca let bloud line by line and page by page, at length must needes die to' our stage: which makes his famisht followers to imitate the Kidde in Aesop, who enamored with the Foxes newfanglesforsooke all hopes of life to leape into a new occupation; and these menrenowncing all possibilities of credit or estimation, to intermeddle with Italian translation: wherein how poorlie they haue plodded... (p. 213)'


      Sams argues that the two separate references to Hamlet and to Kyd, reinforced by “these men” in the last sentence of the passage quoted above, eliminates the speculation current till now that the author of the Ur Hamlet was Kyd.

      This raises the vexing question, long debated, of the status of Ham­let Q1, and it is addressed at length by Sams who has two chapters, “Ur Hamlet” and “Hamlet 1603,” on it. Since readers of this journal will be particularly interested in Sams' treatment of the issue, the remainder of this review will focus on it. Chapter xxiv (“Hamlet 1603”) opens with a categoricstatement of Sams' position on the status of 01:

'The authorship of this much maligned text should be assigned to Shakespeare, not “memorial reconstruction” by pirate-actors' (p. 125).

      From the factual data that Sams cites in support of this declaration, the following are particularly significant: thatNashe had attacked a popular play called Hamlet in 1589; that Shakespeare was writing plays in the 1580s; that he is the only playwright known to have rewritten or revised his own work in Tudor times; that the Danish prince is called Amlethus inSaxo Grammaticus (1514) and Amleth in Belleforest (1570), never Hamlet, which was the name of Shakespeare's Stratford friend, Hamlet Sadler (so named in Shakespeare's will); and that both Hamlet and Kyd's Spanish Tragedy were indebted to Seneca for the idea of a vengeful ghost, and both were attacked by Nashe in the passage quoted above.

      These are cogent arguments in favour of the view that the so-called Ur Hamlet was actually Hamlet Q1, subsequently revised as Q2, as the title-page of Q2 announces. What, then, of the theory that Q1 is a “memorial reconstruction,” a pirated version by the actor who played the part of Marcellus, the grounds for this supposition being that his speeches in the opening scenes of both Q1 and Q2 are very nearly iden­tical, whereas this is not true of the speeches by the other characters? Refuting this theory by referring to the notable proof that Shakespeare did revise his own plays as seen in the two texts of King Lear, Sams ob­serves that the theory "obliterates Shakespeare himself and his known practice of revision… in which some parts are changed less than others" (pp. 160-1). Further, the theory does not explain why a certain group of actors should have been so desperately anxious to put Hamlet on the stage even though their recollection of the play was so disjointed. The Hamlet of Shakespeare's time did not have the international reputation it has today; why, then, should this group of actors have made such strenuous efforts to produce a play that the memorial reconstructionists themselves label as garbled, corrupt, a farrago of non­sense, etc.?

      The Real Shakespeare is an invaluable record of the years 1564-94 by a scholar who is steeped in the intricacies of a period in which Shakespeare was writing not only his early comedies, histories and tragedies, but also the early versions of some of his later plays, er­roneously regarded as being "bad" quartos by a section of Shakespearean scholars. Sams reminds us forcefully throughout the book that far from being a late developer, as is generally believed, Shakespeare was both husband and father at eighteen, and an actor and writer of popular plays soon after. Sams argues persuasively against the established view that Shakespeare wrote nothing until his middle twen­ties nor revised his own work. Defending Hamlet Q1. against the attacks it has endured since its discovery in 1823 in a closet at Barton, Sams maintains that Q1's treasures will be rediscovered like those of King Lear Q1. Then at last students will see how Shakespeare rewrote his scripts, with consequent new in­sights into his compositors' occasional confusions, especially in printings which he had not personally authorised, and also into his stylistic development. Hamlet Q1 will prove of permanent interest and value in both respects (p. 131).

       As readers of this journal know, the process has started. The Three-Text Hamlet, ed. Bernice Kliman and Paul Bertram (New York: AMS Press) came out in 1991 and Hamlet, 1603, ed. G. Holderness and B. Loughrey came out a year later. (The 1992/3 RSC production of the play took four and a half hours.) The former prints all the three texts of Hamlet, Q1 (1603), Q2 (1604), and F (1623). The researches of scholars like Bowers, Craig, Sams, UrkowitzWerstine, and Bains have not been in vain.

       The great strength of Sams' reasoning lies in his refusal to speculate and to rely upon facts, which he cites. Variations between the three ver­sions of Hamlet that are extant, and the reasons for these, provide a fer­tile field for speculation: memorial reconstruction, scribal transcription, censorship cuts, playhouse additions, printing errors, and authorial revision. All of these, except the last, have no real authenticating data. They are possible, even probable in some cases, but identifying the deviations/ additions/ subtractions is obviously impossible and, hence, editors have relied upon their intuition/ judgement/predilection. Sams eschews all of these. The data he cites is factual. For the unbiased reader authorial revision is the best explanation for the variations between Hamlet Q1 and Q2. The title-page of Q2 corroborates this. The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594 begins a new chapter in Shakespeare studies.