Foreword (?2002-3) to Michael Egan
Mellen Press 2006 [pre-edited text]
Some years ago I proposed that the rediscovery of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Lost Years’ 1582-92 might yield perhaps twenty new and unacknowledged dramas, even at the author’s leisurely composition rate of two per annum. Michael Egan’s outstanding analysis of the anonymous Elizabethan manuscript Woodstock (which he re-titles Richard II, Part One) is a positive step in that direction. With the recent recovery of Edward III, and the likely addition of Edmund Ironside, Dr Egan’s text and discussion bid fair to transform the field of Shakespeare studies. We have an overlooked Shakespeare drama on our hands, complementary both to Edward III andRichard II, and one furthermore of sufficient quality and narrative complexity to keep the scholars and critics busy for years to come.
Dr Egan demonstrates that Shakespeare’s story is presented with energetic subtlety, drawing on (or perhaps developing for the first time) devices and techniques he later brought to magnificent fruition in the second tetralogy and his great tragedies. Among them are typical imageries (compare the poison themes in Richard II, Part One and Hamlet), structural doublings (e.g. the scenes where the Dunstable rustics sign their blank charters and Richard signs away his kingdom), and the play-within-the-play device (there is more than a hint of The Mouse-Trap here). We find in addition early versions of some famous figures, including Falstaff (forecast in Tresilian), Dogberry (anticipated by Simon Ignorance, the Bailiff of Dunstable), Osric (who appears as the Spruce Courtier) and a host of others. That Shakespeare’s was the originating hand is confirmed by an astonishing set of parallel lines and phrases, scrupulously itemised, which permit little doubt of their joint authorship.
Among the recognisably Shakespearean themes Dr Egan identifies are contrasts between court and village life, the subtle admixture of comedy and tragedy, and the rise of the new-fashioned legal forms so excoriated by John of Gaunt on his death-bed, ‘Thy state of law is bond-slave to the law,’ (Richard II, II.i.114). But as Everitt remarks, Shakespeare’s early Histories are anachronistically couched in terms of Tudor property law, a topic with which he was especially concerned. Among Dr Egan’s most persuasive insights is the degree to which Richard II, Part One reflects this interest.
Little justice can be done in so brief a preface to so thorough a discussion. I can say only that I am in awe of Dr Egan’s industry, critical intelligence and capacity to master such an array of readings, information and ideas. It is not often that the abilities of first-rate editor and style critic meet in a single remarkable intellect. We have an example here.